A New York judge issued a decision on Tuesday ordering Fordham University to recognize the pro-BDS student group Students for Justice in Palestine, sparking sharp criticism from academics with expertise in contemporary antisemitism.
In the 21-page legal ruling by judge Nancy M. Bannon, which was reviewed by The Jerusalem Post, the jurist largely argued that Fordham’s failure to recognize the SJP was a matter of academic freedom and violated the university’s rules about the formation of a student group.
Bannon wrote that “the consideration and discussion of differing views is actually part of Fordham’s mission, regardless of whether that consideration and discussion might discomfit some and polarize others.”
SJP supports the Boycott, Sanctions and Divestment campaign targeting the Jewish state. In May, Germany’s parliament classified BDS as antisemitic.
Dr. Asaf Romirowsky, Executive Director of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East (SPME), told the Post on Wednesday that, “Fordham University attempted to take a strong stance against BDS by blocking the creation of an SJP chapter – by arguing the their commitment to freedom of research and inquiry goes counter to SJP boycott ideology. SJP has over a hundred chapters around the country and is the No. 1 springboard for BDS activity on campus.”
Romirowsky added that: “The challenge Fordham and other universities in the US faced has to do with free speech and academic freedom – and above all, the ability to prove when groups like the SJP cross the line from free speech to hate speech as a result of their pro-BDS stance.
“Moreover, the issue became more challenging as it related to discrimination of groups on campus,” he said. “SJP [chapters] have documented ties to the Muslim Brotherhood, and there needs to be a serious look at their ties and influence to terror groups, which would move the debate from a speech issue to an incitement matter.”
The Egyptian government has classified the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization.
Bob Howe, a university spokesman, told the Post by email that “Fordham University is committed to serving all of its students and their interests both in and out of the classroom. The University is reviewing the court’s decision before deciding on a way forward.”
IN 2017, Keith Eldridge, dean of students at the Jesuit university’s Lincoln Center location, rejected a request from the student government to recognize SJP. Eldridge told the university’s Ram student newspaper that, “Fordham has no registered student clubs, the sole focus of which is the political agenda of one nation against another nation. For the university’s purposes, the country of origin of the student organizers is irrelevant, as is their particular political stance.
“The narrowness of Students for Justice in Palestine’s political focus makes it more akin to a lobbying group than a student club,” he said. “Regardless of the club’s status, students, faculty and staff are of course free to voice their opinions on Palestine, or any other issue.”
Eldridge added that, “while students are encouraged to promote diverse political points of view, and we encourage conversation and debate on all topics, I cannot support an organization whose sole purpose is advocating political goals of a specific group and against a specific country.”
In response to Fordham’s decision, a group of students filed a lawsuit and were represented by the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR), Palestine Legal and counsel Alan Levine.
Dr. Charles Small, the founding Director and President of the Institute for the Study of Global Antisemitism and Policy (ISGAP), told the Post that “SJP is also dedicated to destroying the notion of academic freedom and freedom of speech in its drive to advocate its BDS agenda at all cost. This will of course weaken the very purpose for which Fordham exists. Once the virus of antisemitism is normalized, it knows no limits. It not only attacks Jews; it will attack the very purpose of academic freedom. The Fordham community – associated with the Church – will understand this all too well in the not too distant future.”
“The administration unfairly hindered my and my fellow classmates’ abilities to advocate for the human rights of Palestinians,” said Ahmad Awad, one of five students who contested the university decision and graduated from Fordham in 2017, according to a statement from CCR.
Sapphira Lurie, a 2017 graduate of Fordham who was part of the lawsuit, said that: “Rather than allow Fordham’s administration to impose its backwards and imperialist politics on us, we were victorious in the fight for students’ rights to organize for justice for Palestine. This victory shows that when we fight back, we can win. Free Palestine!”
The use of the phrase “Free Palestine,” which appears at Iranian regime-sponsored rallies and other pro-Palestinian protests, has been criticized for its genocidal antisemitism. Stephen M. Flatow, the author of A Father’s Story: My Fight for Justice Against Iranian Terror, wrote in Israel Hayom in May, “Let’s be clear: ‘Free Palestine’ means destroy Israel.”
Benjamin Weinthal is a European correspondent at The Jerusalem Post and a fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.