Students for Justice in Palestine withdrew its co-sponsorship of a film screening with the Georgetown Israel Alliance and J Street U, an event that was supposed to herald an unprecedented collaboration between the historically contentious organizations.
The SJP board made the last-minute decision Tuesday to officially disassociate the organization from the event, after determining that it did not align with their national organization’s platform, which opposes normalization — treating Israelis and Palestinians as equals instead of the oppressor and oppressed, respectively — of the Israel-Palestine conflict.
After SJP’s withdrawal, GIA and J Street U, which advocates for a two-state solution, also withdrew their co-sponsorships, instead attending as individuals rather than representatives of their respective organizations. The screening of “The Other Son,” a French film about an Israeli and a Palestinian switched at birth, still attracted more than 100 people.
“I guess from the beginning of the time that the event was conceived I knew myself and a few others always felt a little bit uncomfortable with the event, but we continued,” SJP President Albert Doumar (SFS ’15) said. “As we began to have more reservations about it, we had to decide among ourselves how to frame the event to be suitable to our cause or an event. … There was no way to structure the event to do that.”
Doumar maintains that the Georgetown SJP chapter did not receive explicit pressure from outside groups to withdraw. While SJP leaders were apologetic for the late hour of withdrawal, they reached the conclusion that participating in an event contradictory to their ideals would have been detrimental.
“Discussions were taking place on campus between our members and we were receiving word from different groups,” he said. “It wasn’t so much backlash as [the groups] trying to explain more about normalization and trying to understand from us why we were undertaking the event.”
As publicity for the event spread, the Georgetown chapter of SJP received messages from chapters at Rutgers, Cornell and the University of Maryland College Park, among others.
“There’s a recognition that all of us are allies in the same struggle, so it was important we presented a unified front to make sure the decisions of any one SJP did not jeopardize the goals of the greater organization,” Doumar said.
Though GIA and J Street U understood SJP’s obligation to its national organization, student leaders were disappointed.
“With their withdrawal, it was a very unfavorable action because it undermined the very purpose of the event,” GIA President Nitzan Gabai (SFS ’16) said. “To facilitate discussion not only on campus but beyond, we needed to use organizations that were bigger than campus.”
In October, GIA held an event with both Israeli and Palestinian guests that was designed to inspire campus discussion. Gabai hoped for the screening to be an event that would have extended the possibility of discussion beyond campus and felt that opportunity was lost when the organizations withdrew their sponsorship in favor of individual leadership.
“The minute we changed it to an individual-based event, the agenda was marginalized to an on-campus conversation,” he said. “All in all, we still have to look at the glass half-full and go on with the event.”
J Street U organizers felt that the universal decision to attend as individuals was the best way to promote dialogue, despite the sudden developments.
“In some ways it would have been a stronger collective message to show this organizational partnership to other campuses across the nation, but at the same time, we were stripped of that luxury by the sticky situation the leaders of SJP were put in,” J Street U President Jake Sorrells (SFS ’16) said. “I think that was outside our control, and we responded in a way that would allow us to capitalize on that opportunity. There was really nothing else we can do. It inadvertently strengthened our message.”
However, Sorrells maintained that SJP’s withdrawal represented the reasons why dialogue was necessary.
“I think the situation that unravelled emboldened our resolve to conduct this program,” Sorrells said. “It was sort of a microcosm of the very challenges that have typically hindered [progress].”
Gabai said he had hoped that SJP members would have broken out of the constraints of the larger national organization.
“Georgetown students are trendsetters,” Gabai said. “I was very saddened, because I thought that the board of the SJP would be able to set the trend.”
Director of Jewish Chaplaincy Rabbi Rachel Gartner delivered remarks after the screening, in addition to a videotaped message from Director of Muslim Chaplaincy Imam Yahya Hendi, both university officials.
“What happened at GU does not happen elsewhere. It did happen and let’s build on that,” Hendi wrote in an email. “I am so proud of our kids, all of them, for they made it happen. [It’s] going beyond borders to build bridges.”
Gartner encouraged participating students and said that she was proud of the way the organizers handled the event.
“It would break my heart if this minor snafu derailed the process that began when they were planning this,” she said. “My prayer is that students build on the relationships they’ve made in preparing for this event, and build on what they’ve learned about themselves and one another, both in the planning stages and at the film showing itself and find a way to move forward.”
J Street U Treasurer Elijah Jatovsky (SFS ’16), who conceived the idea of the event, said that despite the last-minute challenges, he is hopeful for future cooperation.
“I really want to stress that we view this event as absolutely not a failure,” Jatovsky said. “We will look back on this as an evening that kickstarted the development of dialogue.”
Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated Imam Yahya Hendi’s title as director of Jewish chaplaincy. He is director of Muslim chaplaincy.