When Dana Al-Hasan came to USC for her Ph.D., she wanted to restart a chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine, an organization that advocates for the safety and well-being of Palestinians.
"It’s not just an organization. This is fighting for our fundamental human rights,” Al-Hasan said. “And I believe that our work here is so important because I think that the work needs to be done in South Carolina and in the South more than in any other place.“
Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) aims to highlight the heritage of the Palestinian people and to raise awareness about the occupation of Palestinian land. Through teach-ins, culture nights, tabling and intersectional meetings, SJP looks to educate USC students about the struggle of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in order to cultivate understanding rather than hostility.
A primary event of SJP is its Palestinian Culture Night, in which Palestinian food and traditions are shared with the campus. The event is one of Al-Hasan’s favorites as it gives Palestinians an opportunity to be themselves.
”We dance Dabke, which is our traditional Palestinian dance. Dabke means to stomp, and it's really important to Palestinian culture, and resistance as well because Dabke is a form of story telling and it's the way we preserve our heritage," Al-Hasan said. "Within these two hours we are allowed to be Palestinians ... and nobody else telling us that Palestinians don’t exist.”
Over the years, SJP has worked to bring information on the Palestinian struggle for their homeland to students and legislators alike. Most recently, SJP fought against South Carolina’s “anti-Semitism bill,” which made its way through state legislature in 2017.
While its common name framed the bill in a positive light, it contained a proviso that defined anti-Semitism as “blaming Israel for all inter-religious or political tensions" and “multilateral organizations focusing on Israel only for peace or human rights investigations”. These provisions make SJP’s work to raise public awareness of the Israeli government’s human rights violations against the Palestinian people illegal, disabling the group altogether.
“Basically any criticism of the state of Israel is called anti-Semitic,” says local community organizer Kymberly Smith. “So just by me saying that this is Palestine, this is Palestinian land, these are Palestine people, there needs to be no occupation — they would paint me as anti-Semitic. I’m not saying anything negative about Jewish people, I’m just talking about the state of Israel and the ideology of Zionism ... so they've kind of twisted the narrative into saying if you’re anti Zionist then you’re anti Semitic, which is totally untrue.”
The bill was contested and did not pass in 2017. Instead, it was placed in the 2018-2019 budget and is now live on college campuses.
Another major point of contention for SJP is the use of American tax dollars to help fund Israeli occupation in Palestine. Faculty adviser Josh Cooper feels that his activism with SJP is in part motivated by a desire to stop this.
“Israel receives the most of our tax dollars than any other country, and it's mostly in the form of military aid,” said Cooper. “That’s about 1 percent of Israel’s GDP. They're a first world nation, and have nuclear arms and the backing of the United States. That’s unnecessary and deeply unethical to be supplying the bullets that go into the heads of Palestinian children. So I would like to see my tax dollars not go to that.”
In addition to a surplus of military aid, the United States' national government has provided Israel with heavily positive coverage, which Smith asserts does not paint a complete picture of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
”The U.S. media and Israel media are playing a really good propaganda game ... they are doing a really good job of twisting the narrative,” Smith said. “Some people couldn’t even show you Palestine on a map ... that‘s how good of a job the U.S. and Israel has done in trying to erase the indigenous people in this land.”
Even as Students for Justice in Palestine combat state legislature and the national media, they are optimistic that students and Columbia residents would be receptive to their cause if they took a moment to understand it.
“[There's] a lot of people who are interested and if they don’t already know what’s going on the ground at Palestine they want to know more and they want to help in any way they can,” Smith said.
As the Israeli-Palestinian conflict continues and the United States continues to react, Al-Hasan urges USC students to come to SJP events and learn more about these issues.
“What is happening on the ground for Palestinians is not only illegal but immoral. For anyone who wants to learn more or understand more to come talk to us,” said Al-Hasan. “There are so many misperceptions about what’s actually going on ... We have to recognize that the playing fields are not level, that the parties involved include occupier and occupied, colonizer and colonized, and I’m always willing to talk to people on our behalf, but we need to obviously include information on the occupation.”
Students for Justice in Palestine holds meetings every Tuesday. Times and topics are available on Garnet Gate.