Updated 8:00 p.m., Nov. 19 with comments by Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) President Ruba Assaf and SJP member Moira Geary in response to Wildcats for Israel President Jonathan Kamel.
Updated 4:40 p.m., Nov. 19 with a comment on the banner from Wildcats for Israel President Jonathan Kamel.
A banner hung by Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) on Tuesday went missing overnight, appearing to have been cut down from trees near the Weber Arch.
“We condemn this act of unauthorized censorship of free speech,” SJP said in an official statement Wednesday. “This is clearly not a random occurrence. It is very unusual for banners of this size to get taken down on campus. This was an authorized space that we signed up for, not a random poster that was up. It was a reservation we had booked for days. We shouldn’t have to worry about our materials in our reserved spaces being vandalized or stolen."
In their official statement, SJP said this was not the first time its promotional or informational material on campus has been taken down. They said that during the first Social Justice Week last year, their flyers were torn down. Last year, SJP said their painting on the Rock was vandalized.
"It's extremely inappropriate that these acts have been normalized and are occurrences that SJP has come to expect," SJP said in a statement. "We should not have to pay for protection of our materials or always be on guard. All student groups, including SJP, should feel safe putting up materials.”
SJP has filed a police report in regard to the missing banner.
The group launched a campaign last night hanging a banner near the arch that read, “More than 5.3 million Palestinians have been forced out of their homes by the state of Israel since its creation.”
“The goal of the campaign is to help people grasp the magnitude of occupation and what it really means,” Medill sophomore and SJP member Zahra Haider said.
Haider and her committee ran the campaign and oversaw its implementation around campus, SJP Co-President and Weinberg sophomore Ruba Assaf said.
Wildcats for Israel Co-President Jonathan Kamel responded to SJP’s statistic on the banner, claiming it is an inaccurate representation.
“First I want to say that Israel sought peace and coexistence with its Arab neighbors and never wanted war, and war has always been brought onto Israel’s doorstep,” he said. “The 5.3 million statistic is factually incorrect because during war of 1948 the number of Palestinians or Arabs who fled their homes or left voluntarily is 750,000. They are including all of the descendants of the 750,000 refugees.”
He continued, “SJP never talks about the number of Jews who were kicked out of Arab countries as a result of Arab countries persecuting Jews as a result of the creation of Israel. I encourage a conversation about the refugee issue but we cannot have a conversation when facts are being used incorrectly.”
In response to the taking down of the banner, Kamel said, “While we do not support the political message behind the banner, we also do not support any violation of free speech on campus.”
Weinberg senior and SJP member Moira Geary refutes Kamel’s statement about the 5.3 million statistic and said she is “troubled by the fact that he would respond in a way that would say that our fact was misleading or a lie without checking the source on our banner.”
“At the bottom of the banner there is a source from the UN, and if he had looked into this he would’ve realized that the claim that he made is not correct,” Geary said. “This statistic does not include descendants of refugees, but the number of actual people from 1948 to present day who have been forced out of their homes.”
Geary said that the 5.3 million statistic includes both people who were forced out of Palestine during 1948, those who are refugees and internally displaced persons.
“Even today there are hundreds of home demolitions every year and people are forced out of their homes within occupied Palestine,” she said. “Internal displacement happens really regularly and that contributes significantly to the 5.3 million, and this is not a measure of the Palestinian diaspora which is much larger.”
In response to Kamel’s statement about Israel seeking peace and and coexistence from the beginning, Geary called this “really irrelevant to the fact that is presented on the banner and to SJPs political position.”
“We are a solidary organization and we are for justice for Palestinians because they are currently being occupied and denied rights and any sort of historical moral or ethical claims are currently irrelevant and are used as a way to whitewash what is currently occurring,” she said.
Geary defends SJP against Kamel’s comment on their lack of attention paid to “the number of Jews who were kicked out of Arab countries.”
“SJP is an organization that stands against oppression and racism of any form and we are not somehow obligated to holistically address every injustice everywhere to be considered legitimate,” Geary said. “That is a common argument that people use against Palestinian solidarity.”
The campaign, in addition to the main banner, features seven different supplementary flyers that can be found all over campus featuring a series of facts and statistics, including, “79 UN security violations by the state of Israel since its creation.”
The hope of spreading awareness by providing facts is what prompted SJP to use banners in the first place.
“It is different from a speaker,” Assaf said. “Banners stand on their own.” The banner and every flyer provides a source for those who wish to learn more.
“What the banner campaign proves to do is, now you are staring at a number or a statistic or something that is internationally recognized and there is not really much you can do to shut it down,” Haider said. “You can debate it if you want, but it is a fact.”
SJP member and Weinberg sophomore Marcel Hanna has family who are part of the 5.3 million.
“We focused on numbers and facts in this campaign, as opposed to political views, to use their magnitude to shed some light on the human aspect of what is going on,” Hanna said.
Hanna was not surprised at the news of the missing banner, only at how quickly it occurred.
“Regardless of whether or not you support what is written on the banner, anybody who promotes freedom of speech should seriously condemn this action," he said. "The University, especially, should take this very seriously for various reasons.”
He referred to the taking down of the banner as “an infringement on the learning environment and the sharing of ideas that the University claims is an integral part of campus.”
“The space we used was officially sanctioned by the University and so it is their responsibility to follow up what happened to the banner and publicly condemn the vandalism of University property,” Hanna said. “The taking down of the banner disrespects the identity of people of Palestinian origin on campus and makes us feel unsafe, which is another violation of the University’s core values.”
Hanna also notes that “SJP is one of the only organizations on campus that have to deal with the expectation of their advertising campaigns being vandalized on a consistent basis.”
Assaf furthers this notion and said that this is “not an isolated incident.”
“The attempts to silence and target Palestinian and pro-Palestinian activists has occurred on this campus before, specifically towards SJP and other demonstrations that we’ve held,” she said. “This is part of a larger pattern, or effort, or attitude, on this campus and that is why we felt it was important to report it to police. We need to start getting a record of these things and move toward a time where our students don’t feel unsafe or targeted when they are involved with SJP or our activities.”