SJPs across Chicago enter academic year with force, SJP UChicago holds Pali 101

On October 13, 2021, the Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) at the University of Chicago held “Palestine 101: A History of the Anticolonial Struggle.” 

SJP’s across the city of Chicago have entered the new academic year with force; UChicago’s Pali 101 event accompanies a flurry of other Palestine teach-in events. SJP Loyola University Chicago held “Breaking Down Apartheid” on October 7th and “A Walk Through Palestine” on October 19th. On October 12th, SJP University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign taught about  “Social Justice and Engineering Evils” and then debunked some “Spooky Zionist Myths” on the 19th. 

The University of Illinois at Chicago’s SJP also held their Palestine 101 on October 14th. SJP Benedictine educated students on Zionist myths, Palestinian writer and activist Mohammad El-Kurd, and Sheikh Jarrah at their general body meetings on September 30th and October 28th.

SJP UChicago’s Palestine 101 garnered an audience of about fifty students, most of whom remained for the nearly two hour lecture. SJP members covered Palestinian history from pre-1948 to the robust Palestinian resistance movement that erupted in the city of Chicago and across the world last Spring with campaigns to #SaveSheikhJarrah and #SaveSilwan. The 2021 spring protest wave, organized largely by the SJP Chicago coalition, drew several thousand people to call for Palestinian liberation, from the river to the sea.

The presenters stressed that listeners should keep an open mind and expect discomfort — they also said the work of unlearning mainstream narratives onPalestine is difficult. 

This year’s Pali 101 event comes in amidst a concerning history targeting of Palestinian activists and events. Two years ago, in October 2019, SJP arrived thirty minutes early to the room they had booked for the annual teach-in — Cox Lounge in Stuart hall — but were confronted with a locked door. 

Maintenance staff were unable to open the room, so the activists and attendees relocated to an open room, where they presented for thirty minutes until they were kicked out by another group who had booked it. A professor finally directed them to an empty room where they carried out the remainder of the presentation. 

Nearly a year later, during the summer rebellion of 2020, a UChicago student anonymously confessed to locking the doors with their friends and hiding inside the room with the lights off on Instagram account UChicagoSpeaksOut, self-described as “calling attention to stories centered around injustice on campus.”

The anonymous student said that they did not realize until later the problematic nature of their actions. “I thought it was just a prank,” they wrote.

Far from a harmless prank, the organized disruption of Pali 101 serves as another example of the violent silencing of Palestinians. SJP UChicago holds Palestine 101 to give Palestinians and activists the space to provide historical education on the question of Palestine, a discourse which is dominated by American and Israeli propaganda in the media. As one Pali 101 presenter emphasized, “controlling the narrative is essential for Israel’s policy of breaking international law.”

SJP aims to empower Palestinians to take control of this narrative, correct misconceptions people have learned about Israeli settler-coloniaism and Palestinian history, and show that Palestine is being oppressed by a powerful colonial entity.  

The power structures that enabled those students to attempt to shut down Palestine 101 two years ago are the same power structures that inform the colonial project of Israel, which attempts to erase the Palestinian existence: “Like every other colonial project…it is erasure of the very idea [of Palestine].”

Western imperialist powers like the United States and Israel portray the conflict in Palestine as occurring between two equally powerful entities, a myth that the presenters debunked. Describing the 1948 Nakba — the historical event where white European Zionist militias killed, dispossessed, and displaced Palestinians of their lands — one presenter highlighted the power differential by comparing the military might, or lack thereof, of Israel and Palestine. 

“We’re talking about on one side people with tanks and on the other people who maybe have pistols.”

SJP also provided the audience with the language to describe the oppression of Palestinians. One key term presenters used to describe Zionist oppression was settler-colonialism — a form of colonization that aims to replace the people living somewhere with a new population of settlers. It isn’t just a colonization of people living there — it is also a colonization of the land itself.

They highlighted that the Israeli settler-colonial regime is not unlike other settler-colonial powers we are familiar with. They mentioned the so-called United States, where white Europeans came to Turtle Island (a name for North America based in Indigenous creation traditions) and killed and displaced the Indigenous population already living here.

Like Europeans coming to Turtle Island, the presenters said, “Their focus was on transferring a Western European society into Palestine.”

The presenters also compared Israeli apartheid to apartheid in South Africa. Apartheid is a practice by which a government empowers a system of domination of one racial group over another. In South Africa, white European settlers dominated Black Indigenous South Africans. Apartheid in Israel seeks to divide and conquer Arab Indigenous Palestinians by imposing the racial domination of European Jewish settlers.

One presenter put it simply: “Being Palestinian is a crime in Palestine.”

UChicago students at this year’s Pali 101 took the first steps in fighting their anti-Palestinian biases. One audience member mentioned at the beginning of the presentation that he was there because he didn’t know enough about Palestine and wanted to learn more about the Palestinian cause.

Several other audience members asked questions using notecards throughout the presentation. Some came up to SJP members afterwards to continue to grapple with their preconceived notions, and had some productive discussions. 

The presenters said that this discussion could not boil down to one that was just about “peace.” “What does peace mean when one side is an occupying force?” they asked. “We can’t have peace without justice.”

Above all, the presenters emphasized the resilience and persistence of the Palestinian people. “The spirit of resistance calls them to fight for their own liberation.”