Reflecting on the 2018 Students for Justice in Palestine Conference
Design by Malaya Johnson
Content Warnings: Mentions sexual assault
The National Students for Justice in Palestine (NSJP) conference was brought to UCLA for the first time in 2018. Despite challenges brought about by counterprotestors, Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) provided a safe space for members of various communities to build regional pro-Palestine momentum and solidarity. The three-day event focused on discussing the development of diverse policies addressing the multiple axes of oppression that influence the global Palestinian movement.
A group of students founded UCLA’s chapter of SJP in 2006, projecting a prominent voice in the national movement. Despite the SJP’s prominent role as a critic of human rights violations, various communities on campus portrayed the group as terrorists and terrorist sympathizers during their protest of the conference. Most acted as promoters of Zionism, the ideology that advocates for the necessity of a state solely for Jewish people. The effort to silence the Palestinian movement on campus symbolizes a much larger effort from the Zionist community at UCLA to victimize themselves, in an effort to divert the time and resources used to support the Palestinian community. Despite significant obstacles from the local government and school administration, SJP carried out the 2018 conference nearly without flaws, handling counter-protestors in a mature manner.
The conference itself consisted of a series of workshops, keynote speakers, and panel events, all facilitating the discussion of the global plight of Palestinians. I had the privilege of attending one of these workshops, titled “Intersectional Oppression Required Intersectional Resistance,” led by the wonderful Kanwalroop Singh, a second-year UCLA Law student. The workshop encouraged discourse on the similarities between the oppression of Palestinians by Israel and of Kashmiris by the Indian state. The following narrative reflects the discussion of ideas in the workshop itself, by the presenter as well as the audience.
For those who lack exposure to the Palestinian struggle for liberation, dating back to the 20th century, it is a complex, ongoing struggle over borders, sovereignty, and freedom of movement. The Israeli state engages in human rights abuses, violence, and the creation of a global Palestinian diaspora in their expulsion of Palestinians and settlement of their land. Likewise, the Kashmiri conflict is a territorial conflict primarily between India and Pakistan, beginning after the partition of India in 1947. The demand for self-determination has incited years of extrajudicial killings, weaponized rape, torture, and enforced disappearances in the Kashmiri population tied to Indian officials’ need to retain sovereignty. Pakistan also plays a complex role; however, it will not be discussed in this article since the workshop did not delve into Pakistan’s contributions.
Understanding the methods of oppression, referenced above, is useful for comprehending marginalized communities. The workshop cited Edward Said, a Columbia professor of Colonialist Studies, contextualizes the Zionist state in two different ways: “(1) genealogically, or their association with other ideas and political institutions and (2) through practical systems for the accumulation of power, land, and ideological legitimacy.” To contextualize, the combination of the politicized nature of a Jewish state coupled with the quest for physical and ideological legitimacy allows Zionism to develop a system that enforces pro-Israel sentiments, often through oppression in practice.
Similarly, the workshop provided Himanee Gupta-Carlson’s definition of Hindutva: “Hindu nationalist movement, [with the purpose of] unit[ing] Hindus under a religiously defined cultural supremacy that extends beyond the restoration of sites, to renaming cities, to promoting public policies that align with a chauvinistic, singular Hindu view.” The translation between ideology and policy stands a shared trait between the two countries, and their strong trade relationship could further legitimize the subjugation of minority groups as a coercive political tactic. Not only do the two countries share economic interests, but the sharing of information regarding terrorism further upholds institutions that target Palestinians and Kashmiri.
Consistent with the SJP’s mission of “implementing & mobilizing beyond divestment,” Singh questioned our ideas of tangible action. India’s strong economic connections to the Euro-American sphere shield the horrors of Kashmir from being shared on the world stage. Some participants pointed out that the lack of scrutiny for the human rights violations in Kashmir sharply contrasts with the world’s fascination with the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. This prevails despite studies revealing that Kashmir has the most concentrated military occupation and surveillance in the world. Writing, talking, and sharing about the conflict alone can be a step in the right direction given the severity. We can use the shared plight of the Palestinian and Kashmiri people as a lens to see oppression, working towards bringing a political decision to the table. These discussions raise the question: How do we bring meaningful political representation to people if they are forced to cede into a nation-state? Learning to combat the systemic initiative to silence the Palestinian and Kashmiri narratives will be crucial to both freedom movements.
Spaces including the one I attended represent the ideal safe spaces SJP brought to UCLA for the 2018 conference. Other workshops and speakers promoted dialogue regarding sexual violence against Palestinian women and offered legal recourse when dealing with discrimination, to name a few. The workshops in the NSJP conference reflects an effort to combat the erasure of Palestinian existence by promoting the discourse of their experiences, providing those who have an increased knowledge on the issue through personal experience or association with a safe space to share their nuanced insights.
Although the primary purpose of the NSJP conference itself was not to provide a safe space, its presence was crucial given the nature of the conversations we had. The conference itself was not open to all for the aforementioned reasons, and the anticipation regarding the presence of counter protestors justified its private status. While the regulation of attendees certainly assists in ensuring a safe space, the excessive police presence at the conference may have compromised this for some communities. The campus’s response to Zionist protests occurring outside was to increase the quantity of heavily armed UCPD officers, in theory, to make participants feel safer. However, such a mentality disregards the trauma some communities with people of color and immigrants have faced with regards to law officers, and could potentially have sparked counterintuitive effects. The negative implications of a highly-policed space put in conversation with its prevalence in the countries we discussed begs the question of how to increase safety without being reliant on police forces, an institution highly flawed from Palestine to Kashmir to the United States.
Nonetheless, saying the 2018 NSJP conference was a success understates it. Everyone I was privileged to talk to echoed similar sentiments: the knowledge, community, and momentum generated by the powerful voices we heard speak up serves as a vehicle for the continuation of solidarity with the Palestinian community through action. I thank the members of SJP UCLA for allowing me to attend this amazing conference!