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COMMENTARY: Suspension of SJP, Rutgers' lack of commitment to academic freedom, necessity for divestment

The suspension of Students for Justice in Palestine at Rutgers—New Brunswick (SJP) represents a disregard for student rights and academic freedom. – Photo by Ömer Yıldız / Unsplash

Rutgers, one of the most reputable public universities in the nation, prides itself on academic freedom, which, in the words of University President Jonathan Holloway, is "the right of our faculty in the discharge of their duties to express their ideas and to challenge the ideas of others without fear of retribution."

Despite this pride, the decision to suspend Students for Justice in Palestine at Rutgers—New Brunswick (SJP) was leaked before due process due to the organization's alleged breaking of University policy. SJP found out about its suspension not from the University, but when a reporter reached for comment.

Even if SJP broke University policies, the University itself failed to conduct proper adherence to the first student organization right: "the right to have their complaint heard by unbiased individuals."

Bias has been displayed from the get-go as SJP was suspended without a warning or hearing on its conduct. The University immediately opted for suspension. Even if SJP broke University policies, we must ask ourselves why.

This is because SJP seeks full divestment from the companies and institutions that Rutgers collaborates with that aid and abet the settler-colonial Zionist project. This project began with the 1948 Nakba and resulted in the continuous expulsion of Indigenous Palestinians and the 75-year occupation of Palestine under the implementation of an apartheid state.

Rutgers actively invests itself in multiple companies and defense contractors that sell weapons to Israel. The University also works with institutions that help perpetuate violence and death — the most prominent of these being a $665 million collaboration with Tel Aviv University, a school that aids in the continuation of violence against Palestinians.

While Jewish students attending Rutgers can also readily attend Tel Aviv University, most Palestinian students of the diaspora attending Rutgers are not able to do so due to apartheid policies. One such policy is the passport system, which limits and prevents their movements from one part of Palestine to the next.

Many Palestinian students at Rutgers are prevented from their right of return, despite UN resolutions, through a host of discriminatory Israeli practices like the two-track citizenship structure, which prevents Palestinians from gaining citizenship in their homeland.

Is collaborating with Tel Aviv University — which is built upon the grounds of al-Shaykh Muwannis, a village ethnically cleansed in 1948 — conducive to academic freedom?

Is creating ties to an apartheid state, one that is actively involved in what many in the international humanitarian community are calling a genocide, supporting academic freedom?

Is it academic freedom when the Islamic University of Gaza is bombed into the ground and now resembles a parking lot?

Is it academic freedom when professor in the Department of Comparative Literature Refaat Alareer at the Islamic University of Gaza and professor and university President Sufyan Tayeh are murdered by Israeli airstrikes alongside their families?

Is it academic freedom when the Israeli Defense Forces level UNRWA schools?

Is it academic freedom when hospitals and ambulances are bombed, and babies, who should be destined for a life of loving, learning and joy, are left to rot as the Israeli army's siege makes it impossible to safely evacuate them?

This is not the first time Rutgers has invested itself in an apartheid state. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, Rutgers had investments in stocks with companies that conducted business in South Africa, as noted by scholars such as Tracey Johnson in Volume 3 of "Scarlet and Black."

Not taking a side against oppression, especially in the case of apartheid, is itself a political decision. In the words of Archbishop Desmond Tutu, "If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor."

Ultimately, after a long, eight-year struggle, ending in a month-long occupation of the College Avenue Student Center, renamed the "Nelson Mandela Center" amid a nationwide movement, students, alongside New Jersey legislators, successfully organized to divest from South African apartheid.

Divestment was both a material means to deprive South Africa of capital as well as a moral stance that aided the destruction of apartheid. Today, we find ourselves confronting this same conversation surrounding divestment in the context of Israel.

It cannot be denied that now, more than ever, we live in an era defined by polarization and hate. In December 2023, the Department of Education launched an investigation into an increase in antisemitism across campuses, including Rutgers. Likewise, Islamophobia has reached levels not seen since the post-9/11 "War on Terror."

Divesting from Israeli apartheid is not only for the betterment of Palestinians and the greater Arab community but also for the Jewish community as well. As Nelson Mandela asserted in his autobiography "Long Walk to Freedom" after the African National Congress toppled the apartheid regime of South Africa, through racism and apartheid, "The oppressed and the oppressor alike are robbed of their humanity."

To be for divestment is to be anti-Zionist, anti-settler colonialism and anti-apartheid, not antisemitic.

To be for divestment is to envision a democratic Palestine, restoring a land where Muslims, Jews and Christians lived in harmony before the settler-colonial project of Zionism implemented the Nakba and a system of apartheid.

Note: Since the writing of this article, SJP has since been reinstated, but the organization is on probation until December.

*Columns, cartoons and letters do not necessarily reflect the views of the Targum Publishing Company or its staff.

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