College rejects formation of Students for Justice in Palestine chapter


Lafayette’s would-be SJP chapter aimed to organize throughout the Lehigh Valley. (Graphic courtesy of Wikipedia)

Earlier this month, the college denied a group of students’ request to form a chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) on campus. The Office of Student Life contends that the chapter’s events could violate college policy by targeting or disrupting other clubs and individuals on campus, a claim the student organizers say is baseless.

SJP is an international organization that “seeks to empower, unify, and support student organizers as they push forward demands for Palestinian liberation & self-determination on their campuses,” according to its website. Some chapters have faced controversy for their events, which have included spreading bogus eviction notices in dorms to protest the Israeli government’s practice of demolishing Palestinian homes and boycotting Hillel events. 

The organizers of the SJP chapter at Lafayette said educating the campus about Palestine is their main goal.

“We want to educate people … and we’re not trying to create that divisiveness that doesn’t allow that,” Ariel Haber-Fawcett ‘24 said. She added that her Jewish identity inspires her to speak up about alleged injustices perpetrated by the Israeli government.

“I think our main goal was kind of just to get awareness out about the issues going on in Palestine right now,” Aidan Choate ‘23, another one of the chapter’s organizers, said. “I feel like it’s kind of in the back of everybody’s mind, but it’s not really something that you see a lot of people talking about day to day.”

Preliminary ideas for events included bringing in speakers and organizing or participating in demonstrations, according to another organizer, Ari Ismail ‘26. 

The group’s application for SJP to become an official campus organization was denied after a meeting in December with Director of Student Life Vanessa Pearson, Director of Religious and Spiritual Life Alex Hendrickson and Dean of Students Brian Samble.

Pearson directed requests for comment to Samble, and Hendrickson was unavailable for comment. 

Samble wrote in an email that students seeking club approval typically submit an application that the Division of Student Life reviews. Student Life, according to Samble, takes into account “if a proposed club’s activities would violate campus policies, level of risk … and other reasonable considerations before permitting an organization to move forward to secure space and hold meetings.” Hendrickson and Samble were invited to the December meeting with the students because of concerns raised about the chapter, Haber-Fawcett said.

At the meeting, Samble took issue with events that SJP chapters have organized at other campuses, questioned the relationship SJP would have with Hillel on campus and brought up a photo sent to him of Post-it Notes that some prospective members of SJP had written ideas on during a brainstorming session for the chapter that was held in November, according to Haber-Fawcett.

Among the ideas on the sticky notes were to address government and law professor Ilan Peleg’s “propaganda class” and “walkouts from Zionist speakers that Hillel invites,” according to an email sent by Haber-Fawcett that was made available to The Lafayette.

Peleg teaches a course on the politics of the Middle East. He did not respond to a request for comment.

Briana Thomas ‘25, one of the chapter organizers, said that Hendrickson read an anonymous bias report about SJP at the meeting. The report referenced a study conducted by the Anti-Defamation League an organization that the chapter organizers say is biased – which claims that the presence of SJP chapters on campus leads to anti-Semitism.

Although noting that the chapter’s plans to uplift Palestinian voices through events like a culture night could be valuable, Samble ultimately rejected the proposal to form a chapter of SJP. 

“Other proposed activities raised alarm and aimed to target/disrupt other clubs or individuals on campus in ways that could be intimidating based on the religion or national origin of some members of our community,” he wrote in a Feb. 10 email to the SJP organizers that was made available to The Lafayette. 

The student organizers said they think the administration unfairly characterized SJP’s presence as a threat to the Jewish community on campus and felt that they were subject to stricter scrutiny than other political groups because of their beliefs. 

“We didn’t write these notes; they were just ideas,” Thomas said of the ideas written during the November brainstorming session. “It’s not like saying we agree with all these ideas, but we have the right to articulate them.”

Haber-Fawcett said that she thinks SJP’s anti-Zionism was conflated with anti-Semitism at the meeting. She said the chapter would not go after individuals but target “structures.”

“Sometimes [Hillel] fundraisers go to Israel or certain causes that we wouldn’t agree with, so if they did something specifically connected to Israel, we might say something. But we’re not like an anti-Hillel organization,” she said, adding that several Jewish students have supported the chapter. 

History professor Rachel Goshgarian, the faculty advisor for the SJP chapter, met with Samble after his meeting with the students to discuss what in her view seemed like miscommunications between the two parties. 

“You understand that some students may be sensitive to criticisms of Israel and you don’t want students’ feelings to be hurt … but I don’t think that the goal of this organization is to hurt people’s feelings,” she said. “The goal is to make people aware of certain great injustices that have befallen the Palestinian people over the course of the past century.”

In lieu of official club events, Samble encouraged the students to utilize other avenues to inform the campus about Palestine, according to his email to The Lafayette. While the chapter organizers will consider this, they are disappointed with not being recognized.

“[What’s happening and has happened to Palestinians] is a big issue in our world,” Goshgarian said. “And one of the things that we should be engaged in as a liberal arts college is offering people the tools that provide them with critical thinking skills so that they can try to solve or participate in solving some of the major issues in the world.”