In one sense, it’s great to be the “new kid on the block” with regard to a political “movement,” something Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) are discovering now that they have become the go-to organization with regard to anti-Israel activity on US campuses. The press automatically turns to you when they need quotes from “the other hand” during a Middle East campus controversy, and the dozens of anti-Israel organizations outside of campus are ready to support your cause, man your events, and provide you advice and resources.
At the same time, the spotlight comes at a price. If SJP activists on a particular campus cannot expand their group beyond a tiny core, this lack of interest reflects not just on them but on the wider SJP network, exposing them as simply the latest reconfiguration of the same gaggle of Israel-dislikers that have been around forever, rather than the vanguard of a grassroots uprising.
But even if they can get their ranks to a decent number and are lucky enough to be led by people with strong organizational skills, they also run into a bigger challenge of actually having to produce results.
Given that this new iteration of “the movement” continues to embrace BDS, this means trying to get colleges and universities to divest is automatically on their agenda. But given that no school has given into BDS demands despite a decade of asking, everyone knows that bringing this issue back to school administrators for the umpteenth time is a dead end. And because the cornerstone SJP “victory,” the one that put the organization on the map (Hampshire College) is known beyond BDS circles to have been a hoax, these same administrators are well aware of the risk they run by simply giving BDS activists the time of day, limiting SJP options still further.
After the 2010 divestment controversy at UC Berkeley, student government seemed an easier target since it simply involved getting a small subset of the student body to strike a pose (vs. getting actual administrators to take an action). But the BDSers only succeed (temporarily) at Berkeley by getting their divestment resolution passed in the dead of night before anyone else on campus knew what was going on. And once word got out, that divestment vote was reversed within weeks.
In politics (as in physics) every action creates an opposite reaction. And in the case of student government, Berkeley created a spirit of vigilance among pro-Israel organizations to ensure that BDS activity within student government takes place in the light of day, efforts which led to the defeat of such divestment votes on other campuses since the Berkeley brouhaha.
If getting others (administrators, student government) to do what you want becomes too daunting, SJP can (and has) fallen back on activities that do not require anyone but themselves to do anything, such as writing letters to the editor and building their mock walls and holding their Israel Apartheid Week events. But as these annual rituals become increasingly shopworn, they are also being met by pro-Israel letters, speakers and programming to counter them.
This led to a new phenomenon over the last 1-2 years of anti-Israel activists disrupting pro-Israel events, most notably in California where organized interruption led to a shutdown of a talk by Israel ambassador Michael Oren (leading to similar shoutdowns on other campuses).
But here the boycotters pushed too far, causing administrations usually somnambulant to Jewish student claims of harassment to take action, which meant that (heaven forbid) students participating in disruptive anti-Israel activity might face personal consequences for their behavior.
The tactic of loud disruption was recently modified into a so-called “Silent Walkout” where SJP students and supporters arrived early at a pro-Israel speaking event, took all the seats and once the speaker began they put tape over the mouths and walked out the door, leaving the hall empty. While creative as a tactical variation, it faced the same problem all new tactics face in our wired age of being well known by the time it was to be used again. Which meant that pro-Israel students were also showing up early and administrators were able to set down ground rules for respectful behavior, leaving SJPers with little to do than tape their mouths shut in the back of the room and slink out with few people paying attention to them.
As these attack and defense routines play themselves out on campuses this year (which I still predict will end in stalemate), SJP must struggle with whether it exists to have actual political impact, or is content to be known as an organization most dedicated to create YouTube and Facebook entries demonstrating their ability to act naughty in front of grownups.