SJP UChicago Calls for Boycott of Zionist Classes Offered at the University in Winter 2022


On January 26, 2022, we at SJP UChicago posted in-line critiques for the course descriptions of three Zionist classes being offered at the University on our Instagram, @sjpuchicago. Within a few days, the post received hundreds of comments and interactions, both supportive and critical. Our inbox flooded with requests to comment from journalists, many of whom condemned our post. Instead of responding to criticism and requests for comment from Zionist organizations, many of which have the express goal of smearing and silencing pro-Palestinian activists across the U.S., we decided to document the events and our intentions ourselves.

In December, we noticed the classes “Multiculturalism in Israel”, “Narrating Israel and Palestine through Literature and Film”, and “Gender Relations in Israel” were being offered in Winter Quarter at UChicago. Their problematic nature was immediately evident in the course descriptions; they were filled with Zionist rhetoric, the overt dismissal of Palestinian identity, and the legitimization of the settler-colonial state of Israel. 

In order to highlight these courses’ deceitful and propagandistic Zionist framing, we chose to make direct edits and critiques to their descriptions. We also wrote a short paragraph explaining why it is necessary for students to boycott these classes: they contribute to Zionist efforts to control the narrative about Palestinian political history, and thereby allow Israel to murder, incarcerate, and disposess Palestinians free of criticism or reprecussions. We posted our introductory remarks and critiques of the courses to Instagram on January 26th, and distributed printed copies in the classrooms where the courses were offered.

The purpose of these critiques was to clearly and succinctly demonstrate to students how these classes inaccurately portray the reality in Palestine and further obscure Israel’s systematic oppression of Palestinians as a racist settler-colonial state. We hoped to encourage students enrolled in the courses to drop them before the add/drop deadline. 

Why Boycott?

One of UChicago’s justifications for offering these classes is an alleged commitment to freedom of expression in the spirit of academic inquiry. However, these courses are built on the facade of a two-sided conflict, which disregards the reality in both the occupied territories and historic Palestine and therefore should not be given any credence. Furthermore, the “theoretical discussion” within these courses encourages a detached and apolitical view of Israeli apartheid and ethnic cleansing that we, as students and people living in the U.S, are directly implicated in and should be working to oppose. This ‘academic’ approach also contributes to the false perception of a complex conflict that requires expertise to understand, and suggests that it is voices from within the Israeli academy, and not oppressed Palestinians, who have that expert knowledge. But the reality has always been clear: it doesn’t take years of expertise to understand ethnic cleansing and settler-colonialism. 

The University of Chicago attempts to hide behind its so-called principle of political neutrality, (see sections on Free Speech, Global Justice, and Justice for Palestine). But neutrality is complicity, because the status quo in Palestine is apartheid. But even the claim of “neutrality” is a convenient front, as the University continues to be actively pro-Israel in practice. The problem then, lies not just in individual classes, but in the University’s willful complicity and inaction in the face of oppression. We reject the stated UChicago principles because they reduce dispossession and oppression into theoretical fodder for students and faculty alike. People are upset that we are interfering with “free discourse”; we are upset that Zionists silence us as they rewrite our history and kill our people. 

The facts reveal that the classes we have critiqued are neither politically neutral nor committed to some ideal of free academic expression, even by the University’s own problematic standards. A number of them—those taught by professors Meital Pinto and David Barak-Gorodetsky—are funded by the Israel Institute, a politically-motivated organization committed to building a stronger bond between the U.S. and Israel, and with close ties to a network of on-campus Zionist organizations that work to suppress pro-Palestinian voices. The Israel Institute publicly presents itself as politically neutral – after our call to boycott classes we released a detailed report on the Institute that dispels this false appearance. 

All of the course descriptions either completely avoid mention of Palestinians, instead referring to them through terms like “Arab minority,” or present them as just another ethnic group within Israeli society, instead of as the racialized subjects of an apartheid regime. The classes are designed within a framework that presumes and naturalizes the legitimacy of the Israeli state and the Zionist project, purposefully obscuring their colonial nature. These are systematic problems with the course content that cannot be resolved by “challenging” the professor in a classroom environment. This is why we called for a student boycott. 

Our boycott follows the guidelines outlined by the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI), which state that boycott is justified if “an individual is representing the state of Israel or a complicit Israeli institution (such as a dean, rector, or president), or is commissioned/recruited to participate in Israel’s efforts to “rebrand” itself.” Classes taught by Israeli fellows and funded by the Israel Institute are clearly products of a complicit institution; this, and not simply their instructors’ nationality, is why we called on students to boycott them. Likewise, our call to boycott the class in the CRES department is in line with PACBI’s statement that normalization projects “that are based on the false premise of symmetry/parity between the oppressors and the oppressed or that claim that both colonizers and colonized are equally responsible for the “conflict” are intellectually dishonest and morally reprehensible forms of normalization that ought to be boycotted.”

Zionist Response:

Despite being quite clear about our criticisms of the course content and our justification for the boycott, the backlash we received derailed and misrepresented the substantive political claims of our post by portraying it as antisemitic. This follows a pattern of institutional Zionist responses to Palestinian student activism, replicated not only on UChicago’s campus but in universities across the country. Within days, the post had been catalogued and shared by three major Zionist organizations that list instances of legitimate Palestine activism side-by-side with white-supremacist attacks in order to conflate the two, transfiguring Palestine advocacy into a form of racism. Non-university affiliated followers of these groups subsequently attacked the post in the comments, circulating the false claim that the post had coincided with International Holocaust Remembrance Day and was therefore motivated by antisemitism. Right wing outlets such as Fox News continued to manufacture outrage against the post by framing it as suppression of free speech. As is often the case with Zionist dogpiling, negative comments on the post hardly engaged with its content, instead levying a prescribed set of accusations about racist malintent. 

So functions the pattern of anti-Palestinian political suppression: a post is noticed by one of these online Zionist initiatives, removed from its direct context, and resituated within a “rising tide” of antisemitic attacks that includes the work of peaceful BDS proponents and Palestinian activists alongside hateful incitement by Nazis, white-supremacists, and other antisemitic groups. This decontextualization encourages targeting of the post, sometimes by hundreds of followers, whose demonization of SJP appears to be legitimate based on sheer numbers. To address or dispute the claims made in these comments is, frankly, beneath the scope of this article. Rather, we must recognize them for what they are: digital mass mobilization by Israeli state-associated organizations as a tactic of harassment and delegitimization. 

We remain steadfast in our opposition to the Israel Institute’s presence on our campus, and to courses that function as nationalist branding initiatives. As these courses continue to be offered, we urge UChicago students to stand with us in our boycott, and to insist that Palestinian narratives not be excluded from our classrooms.