Loyola University: Students Unfairly Punished for Demonstration of “Birthright Israel”
In September 2014, several students at Loyola University—Chicago (LUC) learned of a tabling event happening on campus the next day publicizing Birthright Israel, a program that takes Jewish youth from around the world on free trips to Israel. According to a statement by LUC SJP, the SJP chapter decided not to endorse any actions, but individual Palestinian and other students later decided to line up at the table to attempt to register for a Birthright trip. The purpose of the protest was to highlight the discriminatory nature of the program because as protestors explained, “Any Jewish student worldwide can register for the program, while indigenous non-Jewish Palestinians are not only ineligible for the program, but often are denied the right to live in or even visit their homeland freely.” About fifteen students lined up quietly at the Birthright table, and the students at the front of the line engaged in a conversation with the tablers about why they were not allowed to register for Birthright, even though their ancestral villages are located in present-day Israel. As Palestine Legal explained to the administration, several individuals hosting the table told the protestors to leave, after which the Palestinian students in line took a picture together and then dispersed.
One article claimed that the protestors blocked the Birthright table, insulted and threatened the tabling students, and violated multiple school policies. The article was based on statements from Hillel affiliated organizers of the tabling event.
The university began an investigation of the students for alleged misconduct, at first suspending SJP’s status as a student group while the investigation was pending and later reinstating the group.
In a letter to Loyola administrators, Palestine Legal, together with the Council on American-Islamic Relations and attorney Rima Kapitan, raised concerns that the university’s investigation threatened peaceful speech activities. The letter highlighted the inflammatory and unfounded nature of the accusations made against SJP and the individual students, which the letter stated fit in with a pattern of such complaints across the country.
After a month-long investigation, Loyola charged SJP with six disciplinary violations, including bias-motivated misconduct, harassment and bullying, disruptive conduct, and violating the demonstration policy by failing to register their event. Loyola’s Hillel chapter, which sponsored the Birthright Israel tabling, was also charged with failing to register its own tabling event. After a four-hour long hearing Loyola found SJP responsible for only one of the six charges – failing to register their “demonstration.” Hillel was also found responsible for a similar charge. The sanctions, however, were strikingly disproportionate. While Hillel was required to meet with LUC administrators to clarify school policies, SJP Loyola was suspended for the remainder of the academic year – depriving it from any additional funding for its activities and putting the group at risk of more severe sanctions for any other infractions. The group was also required to undergo intergroup dialogue training. SJP Loyola’s appeal was denied.