Overcoming Obstacles: SJP Successes
by Ahmad SaadaldinModerator Helena Cobban: So next up, we’re going to have Ahmad Saadaldin, who’s a filmmaker, producer, creative writer, actor and grassroots organizer dedicated to sharing untold stories to raise awareness and create positive change.
As a public relations major at the University of South Florida, Ahmad organized the largest grassroots campaign in the university’s history, collecting more than 10,000 signatures calling on the school to divest endowment funds from corporations complicit in human rights violations. So Ahmad, really looking forward to hearing your tales from college and maybe from since college.
Ahmad Saadaldin: Hello everyone. It’s an honor to be here. My name is Ahmad Saadaldin and I’m a graduate from the University of South Florida. While I was there, I served as the president of Students for Justice in Palestine for two years, and I was one of the main organizers of the divestment campaign that took place there. My presentation today is going to be about campus activism, overcoming obstacles and suppression, and achieving success.
I’m going to start with the obstacles that I think are very difficult for SJPs to overcome. Number one is active suppression of student organizations by student government and universities. And number two, the demonization of Muslim, Arab and SJP students and activists by pro-Israel organizations. So I’m going to try and help you understand some of the obstacles that we face by sharing with you my experience at USF and what we went through over there, and then trying to tie it in with what’s going on around the nation.
In January 2013, we started our divestment campaign. I went to the student government and I met with the senate president who was in charge of creating the agenda for the meetings, and I shared with him a copy of our divestment resolution. It was just a draft at the time and I asked for advice. I was trying to learn more about the process, how does it work, and he told me, “You should attend the student government meeting later that evening,” and he asked to keep a copy of our divestment resolution.
I couldn’t make it that evening, but a couple of our members could. They went to the meeting and they stayed, and they learned and they took notes. And at the end of the meeting, a complete stranger came up to them, got in their face, put his finger in their chests and said, “Dead on arrival.” They’re shocked. Who is this guy? What is he talking about? He goes on to say, “If your resolution touches the floor, I’ll veto it.” It turned out he was the student body president. Obviously, we were very disturbed by that, so I went back—I’ll explain in a while. I will show you his picture in a moment. His name is Brian Goff.
Anyway, I returned to the senate president and I told him what happened. He said, “Don’t worry about that. He won’t veto it because I won’t even let it touch the floor. I’ll never put it on the agenda. I sent your resolution to the university legal counsel, and they told me that divestment is illegal.” So before we even started our campaign, we were told: no political stances; dead on arrival; no international politics; and it won’t even touch my floor.
This was very concerning for us, especially since two months before we started our campaign the student body president sent a letter to Hillel during Operation Pillar of Cloud, when Israel slaughtered hundreds of civilians in Gaza. He told them, “As student body president, I support Israel’s right to self-defense on behalf of the student body.” So clearly, there’s a double standard about who and when we can take political stances.
After the backlash and suppression that we faced already, we gave up, right?
Wrong, we did not give up!
We learned that we could get our resolution in the form of a referendum. All we had to do was collect 1,500 signatures and we could get it on the ballot for student body elections—but there was one problem. We learned on Tuesday night that we had to collect the signatures by Friday, so we only had three days to do it.
So we gave up, right?
We collected 2,500 signatures. It was the largest petition in the University of South Florida history at the time. We collected the signatures. We followed the rules. We got it in on time.
So we got on the ballot, right?
The night before student government elections were to begin, we received an e-mail from the student body president, the senate president, the university lawyer, the assistant dean of students and the election rules commissioner. They told us, your referendum will not be on the ballot because it’s illegal and it violates university policy. Which policy? They did not tell us.
In an e-mail from the assistant dean to the student body president, she asked, “What’s going to happen with the referendum?” He responds, “We will not put it on the ballot.” As if it’s up to him. As if he’s the king. He can decide. There are no rules. As if we violated some rule, we’re doing something illegal. Clearly, that wasn’t the case.
Now, the senate president who was very aggressive with us in the beginning and told us, “It won’t touch my floor”—It turns out he had a little bit of a conscience, and he replied by saying, “It is neither up to me or the student body president. We don’t have the authority to stop this referendum. We are violating the right to the referendum process.”
As soon as he said that, the university legal counsel told him, “If you put this on the ballot, you could be charged with a misdemeanor, and I am the lawyer and I’m advising you and I have to defend you, so I’m just letting you know.”
So he calls me Sunday night from his cellphone and he tells me, “I want to put this on the ballot, but they’re charging me with a misdemeanor, can you help me?” I got a lawyer and that lawyer immediately told him, “If you do not put this referendum on the ballot, we will file a lawsuit.” So that’s exactly what happened.
Now, the election results were bittersweet. We needed 50 percent plus one to pass. We got 49.55 percent, so we failed by 19 votes, but the overwhelming majority of students—over 2,000 people—voted yes in favor of divestment, compared to only 600 saying no.
So this was very exciting, right?
Because right after the results, the student body president ordered an executive memorandum ordering the election rules commissioner to invalidate the results because it was illegal and supposedly confusing. Not only that, but he started a bill, which eventually passed in the student government, giving the supreme court the authority to censor any referendum. And can you guess what students are on the supreme court? All Hillel students.
Not only did he do that, but he sent an e-mail to the entire USF community—46,000 people, students, faculty and staff—telling them, “I apologize for putting the referendum on the ballot. It was illegal. We shouldn’t have done that. It was confusing. It will never happen again.”
To get approval to send such an e-mail, he had to get permission from whom? The office of the university president. So this was much bigger than just some student body president. The administration, the lawyers, the assistant dean of students were getting involved in applying pressure.
Now you might be wondering, why is the student body president such a jerk? Why does he say, “Dead on arrival, it won’t be on the ballot?” He sends an e-mail to everyone telling them that we were confusing and we were violating the law. It turns out not only does he attend AIPAC conferences, he leads seminars committing himself to supporting U.S.-Israeli relations. This is a tweet from Brian Goff at AIPAC: “you had me at shalom, #pickupline.” This AIPAC puppet undermined the voices of thousands of students.
So after all of that, we gave up, right?
Wrong! We did not give up. We decided that we were going to create a petition outside of student government so that they couldn’t just invalidate us. We were going to make it the largest petition in the history of any Florida university. We collected 10,000 signatures and we went straight to the USF Foundation—the group that manages the endowment—and we told them: “Here are the signatures. You ignored us last year. We want divestment and we want it now.”
So that’s exactly what happened, right?
Wrong! The USF Foundation in 19 minutes—they only discussed our petition for 19 minutes. I swear to God, I have it on camera. And they rejected our petition.
Why? It turns out the executive director of the Hillel on our campus posted a blog where he brags about having one-on-one meetings with Jewish trustees in order to thwart the efforts of SJP. He also told them that they lied about how many signatures they’ve collected. They’re anti-Semitic and they were bribing students with pizza—10,000 slices of pizza. That’s got to be like $50,000—way over our budget. Not only does he say that, but he says that his students have been working behind the scenes to undermine SJP in student government. This is a statement from the USF Foundation where they say, “We will not politicize our investments. We rejected the petition.”
What message does a university send to its students when they reject a petition from 10,000 of them calling for something? What message does a university send to its students when the student body president sends an e-mail to 46,000 people saying, the referendum you petitioned for, the referendum you voted for is invalidated, but please don’t forget to vote for your school T-shirt and have your voices heard? What message does a university send to its students when the student newspaper will not cover the largest petition in support of human rights, but will instead cover a petition to bring Chick-fil-A sauce to our student cafeteria?
I’ll tell you what message they’re sending. They want us to shut up, go to class, pay a lot of money for tuition and for textbooks, don’t talk about human rights, don’t talk about anything else. The only thing you can talk about is T-shirts and Chick-fil-A sauce.
Now, I felt special at the time. I thought, “Oh my God, they’re doing all these terrible things to us.” But it turns out, it was happening all around the nation. It happened at Loyola, when they passed divestment last year and the student body president was pressured into vetoing the resolution. It happens every year in DC, when AIPAC recruits students and indoctrinates them with pro-Israeli propaganda by giving them free trips and free boat rides, as seen here in this picture obtained from their website.
It happened at Northwestern, when the Israeli consulate and StandWithUs tried their hardest to thwart their divestment resolution. It happened at Northeastern, when they suspended them. It happened at Loyola, when they gave them sensitivity training. It happened at FAU [Florida Atlantic University], when they gave them sensitivity training—and that is all just suppression by the student government and the university.
What about the demonization of student activists and minorities? This is a quote from an interview that the UCLA director of Hillel gave to a reporter. He said, “Campus politics have been hijacked by a group of students who are intent to conquer the coalition of Arab, Muslim, Latino, Asian and gay students. They’re all oppressed minorities.”
So when AIPAC buys students, when they have one-on-one meetings to undermine the voices of thousands of students, that’s not hijacking—but when minorities get involved, not only are we hijacking, we’re trying to conquer.
This is a screenshot from an event that took place at my university. This woman, Dr. Anat Berko, a so-called terrorism expert, came and told students that jihad is a holy war against the infidel. It’s the personal duty of every Muslim to kill a non-Muslim, and if they don’t, they’re a religious hypocrite. If they want paradise, they need to kill a nonbeliever. She’s talking about me. She’s telling my fellow classmates and students that this is what I believe.
A week later, instead of passing out hummus and falafel on culture day, Hillel decided to pass out flyers saying, “Islam will obliterate Israel. Islam must dominate. Islam will kill Jews.”
Now after all this demonization and suppression and rejecting our petition and referendum, we gave up, right?
We came together and we raised the money—paid up out of our own pockets—and we paid for a billboard right outside of our university, so every student who goes to school has to see it. It’s saying, “10,000 students silenced, end USF investments in Israeli Apartheid, USF for human rights.”
Now, what was the reaction? What were Hillel students telling us on Facebook? They accused us of terrorism. Now, we posted that billboard two weeks after the attacks in Paris, when freedom of speech was a huge topic, huge discussion. Our freedom of speech somehow was terrorizing them.
This is another picture that they posted after SJP and MSA [Muslim Students Association] had a vigil for the three Muslim students who were killed in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Some of you might have heard about it in the news. Posting a picture where a crusader, obviously referring to the Crusades that slaughtered hundreds of thousands of Muslims. Another person says, “All Muslims don’t belong in America. That’s too bad. I’m glad three are dead because all are terrorists.”
This is an organization called Hamas on Campus. Dima Khalidi referred to them. Their mission is to expose SJP. In one of their videos, you can see they have this crazy web where they connect SJP to the Brotherhood, to Hamas, to all of these different organizations, claiming that our mission is to wipe Israel off the map, and that we’re anti-Semitic, and that we’re violent. They include a picture of 9/11, as if somehow SJP is affiliated to that. You might have seen these. This is from UCLA. They’re passing out fliers affiliating SJP with violence and #jewhaters. They passed it out all around campus including on the mascot, SJP #haters.
So these are all the obstacles that we have to deal with in the form of suppression and demonization.
What about the success?
Well, I like to think that for every action, there’s an equal and opposite reaction, and every time they push, we push back harder. So when they suppress us, when they demonize us, we get better at organizing. We become stronger. We become much more active. We expose them and document their corruption. We increase our pressure on student governments to be more fair and transparent, and students are realizing that if our student government isn’t going to be fair and transparent, then I need to take matters into my own hands. I’m going to run for student body elections. I’m going to get involved, and I’m going to hold them to a higher standard.
And at the end of the day, awareness is key. So when they demonize us, right? Any publicity is good publicity, and I say that because that university student body president, who sent an e-mail to 46,000 people about our referendum, didn’t realize that, while he was trying to demonize us and smear us, only 4,000 people voted on the referendum. He just told 46,000 people about our referendum, and we were getting flooded with e-mails asking, “What is this referendum about? What are they talking about? Why are they silencing students?”
I’ll give you some examples of success. They’ve ended up passing divestment at Loyola again. This time, the student body president did not veto it. At ASUC [Associated Students of the University of California], they passed the divestment again. The student body president did not veto it. And at DePaul last year, in one of the biggest victories for divestment, they passed a referendum despite the interference of pro-Israeli organizations pumping money and resources, trying to smear them and lie about them, and they still passed it.
And you remember our good friends on Facebook who were calling us terrorists for posting billboards? Complete strangers rushed to our defense, accusing them of ignorance and hatred. One woman told them, “I’m just still confused as to why you chose the word terrorist. Well, I’m not confused. I know why, because they’re a Palestinian-Muslim organization and in your head that equals terrorist. Please take your Wonder Bread elsewhere with your ignorant comments.”
Lastly, I’d like to make the point that one of the biggest successes we have is obviously the growth of divestment, the growth of this conversation, despite the fact that they’re trying so hard to silence us. So this is a map obtained from a pro-Israel organization. This is their website, where they document SJPs and divestment. So these red dots are places where divestment has successfully passed in the form of a resolution or a referendum. Every time they try and silence us, every time they demonize us, lie about us, every time Israel attacks Gaza, SJP spreads and so does divestment. Every blue dot is a point where an SJP chapter has been formed and where a divestment campaign is taking place. Our message to them is, no matter what you do to silence us, we will never be silent.
Obviously, this entire thing was very emotional for me. I was invested in it. But since then, my friend and I have been producing a documentary, titled “Suppression” in which we are trying to document all of this and tell our story. So if you don’t mind now, I’d like to share with you the trailer for that documentary. Is that something you all would like?
Ahmad Saadaldin: All right. Thank you for your time.