Rowan SJP Open Letter to Members of the Rowan University Community

Dear members of the Rowan University community,

On February 5th, 2024, Rowan Students for Justice in Palestine presented in front of the SGA Club Development Committee, with the goal of taking the next step to becoming a chartered organization. After an unprofessional and indisputably biased questioning period, we were denied for being “too controversial”, despite the fact that we had met every requirement and expectation as outlined by the Student Government Associations governing documents. We believe the reasoning provided for the Club Development Committee’s denial of our application is wholly inadequate, and has more to do with the prejudices of the committee members rather than the actual viability of our organization.

Our questioning period with the Committee was unprofessional, unproductive, and perpetuated negative biases toward our mission and members. The questioning period began to veer off a relevant course when we were asked to provide a definition of Zionism, which we had said was anyone who does not believe in the freedom of movement for occupied Palestinian people. After doing so, a committee member pulled out his cellphone to do a quick Google search for his own definition. The poorly-sourced and over-simplified version of the definition stated that Zionism calls for the creation of a Jewish state. In addition to the insult to our tireless research and education on the issue, we were met with a clear intention to smear us as antisemites, despite the fact that our presentation did not contain a single mention of Jewish people or the Jewish faith. That same committee member then attempted to instigate a political debate with us, which the chairperson of the committee made no attempt to stop. Despite their eagerness to use Google, they seemed less keen to do research behind what the slogan, “from the river to the sea,”—which was written on a trifold we had brought with us—actually meant. They alleged that the phrase was antisemitic, a baseless and misinformed claim that has been propagated by Israeli government officials who are openly calling for genocide.

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Currently, Israel controls the lives of Palestinians between the Jordan River and Mediterranean Sea, and denies them their full freedom and rights. This slogan, which was created by Palestinians, imagines freedom across the land, where Palestinians of all faiths—including Muslim, Jewish, and Christian Palestinians—can live peacefully together as they once did before the Nakba. Palestinians, who have not had a single day of freedom since 1948, are the ones who created this chant, and they alone are the experts on what it means. The remarks made by the committee were bad faith smears rooted in racist tropes that focus on condemning protestors calling for their freedom rather than condemning a government that is actively committing war crimes and ethnic cleansing. We were put in the position of having to defend ourselves against assumptions that were problematic in nature, assumptions that had no relation to the statements we had actually made. Rather than clarifying what our club was about, we instead were put in the position of having to prove that our support for Palestine—for people that are currently being ethnically cleansed from their homes—did not come from a place of hatred for any other group. Our session with the Club Development Committee consisted of dangerous conflations and deeply problematic insinuations. Attempting to present criticisms of the Israeli government as parallel to anti-Jewish racism does not equate to protecting Jewish students, and making claims regarding our position toward terrorism due to a shared cultural, ethnic, or religious background is undeniably Islamophobic.

After the questioning period, we were asked to leave the room while the committee made their decision. When we re-entered, we were informed that the committee had chosen not to progress Students For Justice in Palestine to the Senate the next Monday. When we had asked for clarification as to why, we were given a series of non-answers which ranged from our organization being “too controversial” to “making students feel unsafe,” none of which had to do with the actual content of our presentation. The formation of our organization was in response to the safety risks toward the large population of Muslim and Arab students on this campus. In wake of the events of October 7th many of our community members, including the Executive Board ourselves, have been spat at, filmed, and accused of being terrorists. The formation of our organization aims to increase the safety of students, to organize against repeated racist and Islamophobic attacks against students. Not only did the committee’s response show a complete lack of empathy, it was a complete disregard of our assertions of the sheer necessity for a safe place and advocacy group for Muslim and Arab students. The chairperson of the committee perpetuated and allowed the centering of a narrative that was explicitly Islamophobic and racist in nature. In no way does our organization target or intend to target the safety of any group of students, rather our goal is to advocate for the safety of a historically marginalized group of people against the stigmatic responses of our majority White campus population.

At one point during the meeting, a member had stated their desire to “free Palestine from Hamas” as a reason for them voting against a Students for Justice in Palestine chapter at Rowan. This was despite the fact that our presentation included no mention of the group at all and was solely focused on logistical aspects of the club such as fundraising and service events. This was a clear instance of Islamophobia; we had made absolutely no mention of Hamas at all during our presentation. Yet because we were a group of BIPOC students, advocating for the end to an ethnic cleansing of an Arab community, we were automatically assumed to be terrorist sympathizers, and forced into a position of having to defend ourselves against bigoted and racist presuppositions. There is absolutely no getting around the fact that instinctually bringing up a terrorist organization when faced with a group of BIPOC students is proof of racial bias. Hamas is not, has never been, will never be, justification for the ongoing genocide of Palestianians. It is implied that terrorist activity is condemnable, it is not implied that and not correct that condemning and dismantling Hamas will end Israel’s destruction of Gaza and the West Bank.

Many of us on this campus are people of color. We know what it’s like to come from communities that are overpoliced and marginalized, and this conflict is one that is familiar to us. Yet the loudest voices in the committee meeting were white men, who insisted that our mission statement denouncing colonialism and imperialism and advocating for the freedom of movement and self-determination for a historically marginalized group was “too controversial for SGA.” It is incredibly unfair that this group gets to decide which voices are platformed on this campus and which are silenced. One instance where these power dynamics became especially apparent was when the chairperson had remarked, “we understand that this is a disappointing decision,” to which one of e-board members had responded asking “do you?” He, however, had taken offense to this, and told us we were being disrespectful, simply for pointing out the clear racial insensitivity that dominated the meeting. The chairperson then responded by mentioning his hometown, an area with a high Palestinian population, as a way to absolve themselves of any responsibility and turn a blind eye to the problem. The implication that the chairperson attempted to make was clear—that his proximity to Arab people immunized him from perpetuating racism himself, despite the fact that over the last hour, he and his committee had continued to dismiss our experiences as minorities in America, and engaged in discriminatory behavior.

Finally, before leaving the meeting room, one of our Executive Board members had expressed her disappointment about the decision and talked about her personal experiences of seeing her loved ones in danger, of receiving footage of destroyed buildings and bombs. She was in tears. Not two seconds after we had left the room, we heard members of the committee laughing at us. This is the group that had unilaterally decided that we did not need an SJP chapter on our campus—people that can hear us recounting painful instances of experiencing discrimination, of seeing members of our community being bombed and displaced, and think that it’s funny.

Multiple times during this meeting, we had specifically asked if there was anything in the PowerPoint that we could change, and none of the replies given were related to the viability of the organization. We were told to change our mission statement, which called for “the right of citizens to their own self-determination, and to mobilize the student body against state violence, colonialism, and imperialism, in all their forms.” We had also stated that one of our goals was to “combat the suppression of Palestinian voices in the wake of ever-increasing Islamophobia and anti-Arab rhetoric, and to stand in solidarity with their liberation movement as they struggle for life and land against compounded attacks by the Zionist settler project.” We were once again told that this was “too controversial” to be presented at Senate, and that we would be alienating students, despite the fact that all we had done was state that we were against oppressive institutions, and that we stood in solidarity with people that we are seeing being ethnically cleansed in real-time. Currently, the death toll in Gaza stands at 27,000, with thousands more injured or displaced from their homes. On our very own campus, BIPOC students face increased vulnerability to racist attacks and harassment. There have been multiple actions taken on campus that have alienated and invalidated Muslim and Arab students, from a pro-Israel table outside the student center containing headings such as “ethnic cleansing?” to members of Rowan Chabad recording us at on-campus protests and harassing our members with shouts of “Hamas” and “free Palestine from what”. Multiple incidents on campus have continued to marginalize members of our community, and now more than ever, it’s incredibly important that spaces like SJP can exist to advocate for these students and their communities, while allowing them a space to heal from the collective trauma of the past few months. To say that after all of this, an SJP chapter does not belong at Rowan, a predominantly white institution, is to silence students of color that have continued to be targeted and attacked in the aftermath of October’s events, and to platform a perspective that fuels anti-Arab discrimination and hate.

Based on the events that transpired this Monday, it’s clear that the goal was to stop this organization from ever reaching the Senate, and that no matter how many times we returned and presented, our club would still be denied because it did not ideologically align with the personal views of the students in the room. The justifications provided were clearly based on preconceived biases about our organization held by members of the SGA present at the meeting. In fact, we were not even informed that we could appeal the decision made by the committee; a crucial piece of information that we believe had been deliberately withheld from us. This only strengthens our belief that the denial of our club was based on pro-Israel political biases rather than any actual concerns over the viability of our organization. The unsubstantiated claims made by the committee seek to not only silence student activism and free speech, but to egregiously conflate our advocacy as “dangerous”. The racism and Islamophobia our executive board was subjected to at Monday’s meeting joins a long list of ways that Rowan University continues to fail its students of color, and is complicit in enabling rhetoric that endangers the Muslim and Arab community on campus.

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