There is anti-Semitism at Tufts. SJP is not it.
Tufts often has a dangerous tendency to conflate antisemitism with anti-Zionism. Zionism is entirely distinct from Judaism; it is a political ideology that drove the creation of Israel in a land already inhabited by Palestinians. It is responsible for the 1948 Nakba and the violent mass expulsion of Palestinians from their homes, as well as the current illegal military occupation of Palestine. Judaism is a religion, my own, which cannot be conflated with these genocides. Tufts has its share of antisemitism; as many may remember, last fall, a Jewish student found a swastika affixed to their door. This hate must not go unrecognized or unpenalized. However, in the wake of these incidents and within the context of the general rise of antisemitism on college campuses, Tufts seems unable, or unwilling, to make this differentiation to the great detriment of us—their student body.
The most recent repercussion of this, and the impetus of this op-ed, was the email sent out by First-Year Orientation CommUnity Service (FOCUS), a student-led pre-orientation program for incoming first-years, following my mention of Tufts Students for Justice in Palestine’s (SJP) Deadly Exchange coalition on FOCUS’s panel of student activist groups on campus. I spoke on the panel as a member of the Tufts Labor Coalition (TLC) and, with the permission of my fellow TLC presenters, briefly discussed TLC’s role in SJP’s Deadly Exchange coalition.
Speaking for less than a minute, I mentioned that Tufts had sent our former police chief, Kevin Maguire, to Israel on a military training trip in 2017 without informing or consulting our community. Thousands of local US law enforcement officials attend these counter-terrorism trips, during whichthey train with Israeli police and security agents who regularly violate civil rights, suppress peaceful protests, and enforce racist and deadly policies. This is the Deadly Exchange, the mutual advancement of the United States’ and Israel’s discriminatory and repressive policing, which is part of a larger exchange between the two countries of arms, money (the US sends Israel $3.8 billion in military aid every year), and military tactics. At Tufts, SJP has been building a coalition of student groups to end the Deadly Exchange at Tufts via a Tufts Community Union referendum that would bar the University from sending Tufts University Police Department officers on any military training trips abroad. It was a quick speech that I had recited dozens of times before, and I gave it on the panel to introduce the freshmen to SJP’s campaign and coalition, a serious force in the Tufts activism community.
However, the next morning FOCUS sent out an email clarifying SJP’s relevance to the panel as “an organization that has been able to form coalitions at Tufts” and apologizing for causing harm by not making “enough space in our programming for dialogue and the opportunity for students to voice their thoughts.” I was baffled. I was not contacted or consulted by the FOCUS coordinators or their Tisch College advisors before their email about me was sent out. Their response denigrated our work in SJP to mere coalition-building and failed to mention the substance of our campaign. Moreover, it insinuated that my single mention of Palestine had caused harm, and I was upset that my brief, non-offensive comments triggered such serious institutional backlash.
Nothing I said during that presentation was anything I wouldn’t say during the activity fair, our weekly “tea with SJP” sessions in the Campus Center, or a block of time tabling in Dewick. Flatly, there was nothing antisemitic about what I said. And yet, by validating the supposed harm done, FOCUS’s email implicated me, SJP, and our work in antisemitism. This rhetoric is incredibly dangerous; such allegations that the mention of Palestine or SJP is harmful is a Zionist smear tactic that works to silence opposition to the United States’ and Tufts’ direct involvement in the occupation. The conflation of Judaism with Zionism is widespread and intentionally cultivated to allow Zionists to weaponize supposed antisemitism to silence Palestinian voices. I have seen this in my Jewish communities growing up: in my own family, as well as my predominantly Jewish high school, which, similarly to Tufts, espoused a strong commitment to social justice but never allowed institutional recognition of pro-Palestinian work.
The same morning the email was sent out, I reached out to the FOCUS student coordinators myself to try to ascertain what had happened. We quickly scheduled a Zoom call, during which they were very distraught. They felt guilty about sending the email but emphasized the enormous pressure placed on them by the University and their Tisch College FOCUS advisors to send the email immediately. Though they were unable to tell me who was behind these decisions, the University forces above them decided that the email was necessary and had to be sent out immediately. The FOCUS student coordinators were also prohibited from including any explicit support for SJP, and the email they wrote was severely edited to censure any pro-SJP rhetoric.
Crucially, they acknowledged that I had not said anything harmful and that the students who complained were a small number of very conservative Zionists. These students reportedly used anti-Palestinian, racist rhetoric, and one or more filed a report with the Office of Equal Opportunity against the student coordinators, a drastic action that put FOCUS under serious scrutiny. These incoming first-years faced no repercussions for the harm their actions and words caused. Again, my mention of Palestine and our campaign were not harmful, but the anti-Palestinian racism that followed was.
And yet, this is the second occasion just this past summer that SJP has faced harassment and allegations of antisemitism from the University’s own apparatuses. Earlier this summer, the senior administration condemned the Office of Campus Life’s decision to present us with their Collaboration Award for our Deadly Exchange coalition. The award and my mention of SJP during FOCUS are both natural outgrowths of our Deadly Exchange campaign and coalition, but Tufts refuses to give SJP equitable recognition for our work. Their responses to these incidents have not only obscured our efforts and achievements but also actively undermined and discredited our campaign and organization.
Tufts’ actions are seriously detrimental to many individual students. The university’s erasure of SJP’s demilitarization efforts is damaging not only to members of SJP and Palestinian students, but to Black and brown students who face harassment and surveillance by our own campus police. Our Deadly Exchange campaign is explicitly focused on the demilitarization of thTUPD, which has followed in step with the rising militarization of our country’s police. In 2017, TUPD began training officers to use semi-automatic rifles in case of an emergency, and, this year, TUPD’s presence and surveillance have been expanded as a means of ensuring that the University’s COVID-19 guidelines are being followed on campus. As the Black Lives Matter movement brings demilitarization to the forefront of national discussion, Tufts must reckon with its own racist policing and the harm TUPD does to its students of color. Rather than expanding this force on campus during a public health crisis, the University must invest in alternatives.
While our community members of color feel its impact most greatly, all of us at Tufts are a part of the Deadly Exchange. The University sent our chief of police on a counter-terrorism trip, and we all must hold it accountable for this injustice. Kevin Maguire’s attendance directly implicates our university in the repressive, rapid militarization of the US and Israel, two countries with long histories of settler-colonialism, suppressing peaceful dissent, and violating basic human rights. Our campaign to end Tufts’ involvement calls for the University to apologize, pledge to end TUPD training trips abroad, hold a town hall on the matter, and create a community advisory board to give students, staff, and the Medford/Somerville community oversight over TUPD. This fall, we plan to hold a student-wide TCU referendum, as I briefly mentioned earlier, and I urge you all to vote in favor of these necessary measures.
For the time being, we in SJP are now going to help FOCUS rectify the harm they have done through improving anti-racism training for leaders and support staff, creating a clear process for addressing incidents of bias, and ensuring they hold the aforementioned FOCUS members accountable. We have had meetings with various actors: TCU President Sarah Wiener, Associate Dean of Diversity and Inclusion Nandi Bynoe, and Associate Director for Campus Life Christa Ricker, who oversees all the pre-orientation programs. However, everyone we have met with thus far still seems unsure why the email was deemed necessary to begin with; it seems that there needs to be larger institutional recognition of this mistake to ensure it does not occur once again. However, the impetus to do all this work should not have to be SJP, as we have our formal campaign to focus on; this anti-racism work should be the University’s own endeavor.
SJP’s injuries are symptoms of a larger institutional failure to provide platforms and support to Black, brown, Indigenous, and Palestinian students. The University must both acknowledge the harm it has done to our organization and rectify it by giving SJP equitable institutional representation, recognition, treatment, and support, as it must for other groups that advocate for marginalized students on campus.