SJP At UCLA: One Club’s Fight for Palestine Long Before 2024

Image Description: Photo shot by the author with three masked individuals facing away from the camera overlooking UCLA’s Palestine solidarity encampment between Powell Library and Royce Hall. One individual holds up the Palestinian flag. A helicopter can be seen hovering over the camp from a distance.

With Israel’s ongoing genocide of the Palestinian people currently amassing well over thirty thousand civilian deaths, student protests throughout the nation reject the monetary complicity of their universities in this UN-deemed humanitarian catastrophe. Between Powell Library and Royce Hall at UCLA, the creation of a student-organized and community-based encampment sent a clear signal to university bureaucracy: Ignoring student demands is no longer an option. However, UCLA’s authorization of an encampment sweep by both UCPD and LAPD on the early morning of May 2 aimed to violently eradicate this peaceful protest. In the following weeks, Pro-Palestine student activism on UCLA campus persists amidst heavily increased police presence. But what is one of the main student groups organizing for Palestine at UCLA? And why have they been mobilizing long before the events on Oct. 7 transpired? 

Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) is a “diverse group of students, faculty, staff and community members at the University of California, Los Angeles, organized on democratic principles to promote justice, human rights, liberation and self-determination for the Palestinian people.” While many UCLA students became cognizant of the violent injustices occurring in Palestine only after Oct. 7, members of SJP have been fighting against the Israeli occupation following this club’s establishment at UCLA in 2005. In doing so, SJP prioritizes educating its members on the 76 years of struggle that Palestinians have endured since the creation of Israel in 1948. 

To fully understand SJP’s mission, I will briefly dive into the extensive history that drives it. 

An integral part of this history includes understanding the term “Zionism.” Initially, this word was used in the late nineteenth century to speak to the biblical attachment of Jewish people to land in the Palestinian region. However, it transformed into a tangible political movement with Theodore Herzl, an Austro-Hungarian journalist. Herzl expressed the belief that, due to increasing anti-Semitism, the attainment of authentic safety for Jewish people necessitated the establishment of their own nation. Zionists considered territory for this prospective nation in locations aside from Palestinian land, including territory in Uganda and Argentina. With the 1917 Balfour Declaration, Britain stated support for the Zionist objective to establish a nation centralizing Judaism on Palestinian land. 

Following this declaration and increasing anti-Semitism in the 1930s, immigration of Jewish individuals into Palestine heightened. During this time, the geographic area of Palestine (including modern day Israel, the Gaza Strip, the West Bank, and Jerusalem) contained people of various ethnicities and cultural backgrounds. However, the passage of a 1947 UN resolution authorized the division of Palestine into two individual states. Despite staunch rejection by Palestinians who feared this immediate disruption to their livelihoods, Zionists proceeded with what can only be identified as an inhumane, brutalizing invasion. 

In what is referred to as the Nakba, or “catastrophe” in Arabic, between 750,000 and one million Palestinians (three quarters of the population) were forcibly expelled from their homelands in 1948. In this process, Zionist forces deliberately and unrelentingly massacred Palestinian communities to further incentivize others to flee their homes and communities. While the UN ultimately ordered restitution of property and the return of Palestinian refugees to their land, the nation of Israel has continually denied them justice.

A second integral element to understanding the Palestinian struggle is grasping the Israeli occupation of Palestinian land. This occupation initially began in 1967 with the Six Day War, the third clash in the Israeli-Arab War. In just six days, Israeli forces defeated Egyptian, Syrian, and Jordanian forces who were working against Israel. This resulted in Israeli control of the Gaza Strip, Sinai Peninsula, the West Bank, and Jerusalem; today, Israel controls the occupied Gaza Strip, West Bank, and East Jerusalem

To put it simply, Israel engages in inhumane acts against the Palestinian people: demolishing property and displacing individuals, creating Israeli settlements in occupied territories (declared illegal under rules of international humanitarian law [Article 49 of the Fourth Geneva Convention]), and harnessing Palestinian geographic resources for the expansion of such settlements. Moreover, Israel restricts Palestinian movement with checkpoints and roads designated specifically for settlers, maintains control over Palestinian access to clean water, has historically held military courts under which Palestinians are unfairly tried, and places individuals arrested in occupied territories within Israeli prisons. 

While this historical overview is condensed, it provides insight into what SJP has fought and continues to fight for: an unoccupied and self-determining (aka “free”) Palestine. SJP offers further information in their Palestine Resource List, which provides a much more comprehensive breakdown. Ultimately, this history drives SJP’s mobilization on UCLA campus. 

I discussed this club’s current activity at UCLA with Mohammad, a philosophy student and member of SJP’s Prop[aganda] Committee. They explained that the club is structured into the following five committees: Prop, Logistics, Internal Affairs, Campaigns, and Education. With General Body meetings that convene biweekly, SJP hosts events including vigils, community prayer, literature-based study groups, and rallies on campus. 

As the world watches an entire population face a genocide, the momentum for this fight has only amplified. “When the masses are agitated, we try to jump on that and funnel that agitation into an organized form of action that leads to change,” Mohammad said. Despite a newfound level of interest in the cause, the majority of SJP’s goals remain the same: to educate students about the history of injustice against Palestinian people, pressure both UCLA and the UC Regents to divest money from companies that further this occupation, and ultimately achieve self-determination for the people of Palestine. 

SJP currently grapples with continuing the fight for these objectives whilst engaging in the ever-vital prioritization of mental health. This is especially true for Palestinian students, many of whom mourn their loved ones and the destruction of their homeland. On top of this, many members of SJP endured brutal attacks against the encampment from both agitators and the institution. Specifically, on the night of April 30, a mob of counter-protestors assaulted students in the encampment with tear gas, bear mace, physical violence, and blatantly racist hate speech. The following night witnessed UCLA’s staunch commitment to “campus safety” by way of LAPD’s rubber bullets, flash bangs, and tear gas against peaceful student protestors. 

Mohammad breaks this down simply: “If you’re already at a baseline state of grief for all of the martyrs who have been killed in the past six months, it becomes hard to deal with the rest of your life.” SJP attempts to work through this anguish by providing resources that allow and facilitate student grief, including mental health groups and the aforementioned prayer and vigil services. Students like Mohammad also work to dismantle production-oriented capitalist mindsets. As they explained, taking time to acknowledge the pain tied up in organizing is imperative for a sustainable, long-lasting movement.  

A main element to SJP’s organizing strategy is peaceful disruption of the status quo on UCLA campus. Through public protest, SJP directs attention towards the oppression that Palestinian people face at the hands of the Israeli government, demanding campus awareness. “The status quo is the means by which that oppression is maintained and continued,” said Mohammad. By disrupting quotidian events at UCLA, SJP publicly interrogates and rejects these means, specifically in the face of bureaucracy and the institution of the UC system. 

Aside from calling attention to this occupation and genocide, SJP also employs these peaceful disruptions to remind students of the UC-wide economic contributions to firms invested in Israel and Israeli objectives. Essentially, by attending UCLA, students receive education from a university complicit in and monetarily supportive of genocidal agendas.

Alongside UC Divest, SJP calls for the withdrawal of “all UC-wide and UCLA Foundation funds from companies and institutions that are complicit in the israeli occupation, apartheid, and genocide of the Palestinian people.” A major perpetrator of such funding includes BlackRock, which the UC maintains close monetary partnership with. As the UC invests in such companies with money from their Endowment Funds and Investment Portfolios, they support these firms’ public and habitual investment in weapons used by Israel against Palestinians. Thus, through public disruption, SJP aims to inform students of where the UC’s money flows, calling for economic disentanglement from blood-steeped investments. 

Ultimately, the struggles most UCLA students face are intertwined with how and where the UC directs its money. For example, the UC holds power to allot these dollars in a way that ameliorates issues like lack of accessible housing, food insecurity, inability to afford university tuition, and lack of access to mental/physical health resources. Instead, it is investing millions of dollars into companies that profit from warfare and illegal occupation of land. 

Mohammad spoke to this, explaining “This act of tying struggles together, saying ‘Oh you’re a student and you’re lacking in resources?’ Or, ‘You’re marginalized by the UC? You are a part of a connection between imperialism abroad and the way that the US and the West as a whole has entered international affairs that lead to furthering colonialism.’” Thus, regardless of the extent that UCLA students know or care about Palestine, how the UC spends its dollars undoubtedly affects their lives.

Amidst all of the turbulence on campus, nation-wide, and abroad, SJP stands strong about who it fights for each day, and why the cause holds life-or-death significance. “These abhorrent acts of genocide lead to not only this current loss of tens of thousands of lives, but then also there are so many lasting effects of starvation, postpartum depression, women trying to grieve and overcome the fact that there are no sanitary or feminine products…” Mohammad said. “We can’t forget what we’re fighting for when we talk about our organization.” 

Mohammad encourages students interested in fighting for Palestine to fill out the Interest Form on a Link Tree that SJP has in its old Instagram account bio (@sjpatucla). The club uses these forms when holding orientations. However, the main Instagram account SJP currently uses to publicize its events and activism on campus is @uclasjp. To people hesitant about getting involved because they fear they do not know enough about the cause, Mohammad relays the following message: “That fear shouldn’t mitigate you from being part of the organization. You can just recognize and have the humility of saying, ‘I don’t know enough about this.’”

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