Israel-Advocacy group AMCHA tracking SJPs, JVPs
This February, pro-Israel advocacy group AMCHA released an online inventory of campus chapters of Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) throughout the United States in an effort to connect Palestine solidarity activism to real and perceived anti-Semitism on campus.
The online tracker inventories campus SJP chapters, as well as chapters of Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) and other Palestine solidarity organizations. The tracker lists over 200 campus organizations in an attempt to tie Palestine advocacy work and legitimate criticism of Israel to campus anti-Semitism.
“I imagine the tracker will be used for increased monitoring, smear attacks, and action-alerts by off-campus groups to bring pressure on school administrators demanding they restrict SJP’s speech activity and focus negative right wing media attention to mischaracterize their work,” Liz Jackson, a staff attorney at Palestine Legal, told Palestine in America.
AMCHA seems to be attempting to tie their new SJP tracker to an existing and separate “anti-Semitism tracker,” which includes many real examples of anti-Semitism—though none were perpetrated by Palestine solidarity activists – alongside examples of legitimate criticism of Israel and Israeli government policies.
AMCHA conflates Palestine advocacy and “anti-Israel” work with anti-Semitism by labeling the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, the use of the international legal term “apartheid,” and anti-Zionism as fundamentally anti-Semitic. Many Palestine solidarity activists contest this interpretation of anti-Semitism.
“AMCHA has a demonstrated record of attempting to restrict and punish speech critical of Israel,” Jackson said. “They use the terms ‘preventing anti-Semitism’ and ‘preventing speech critical of Israel’ synonymously.”
Many Jewish Americans also oppose this definition of anti-Semitism, which even results in the inclusion of the Jewish organization Jewish Voice for Peace as “a major source of anti-Semitic rhetoric and behavior at schools” on AMCHA’s tracker.
“Criticism of oppressive policies by the state of Israel is not [anti-Semitism]… AMCHA believes that any attempt, in the words of the State Department definition, to ‘demonize, delegitimize, or apply a double standard’ to Israel constitutes anti-Semitism. JVP, on the other hand, recognizes that Israel is not a Jew; Israel is a state,” Campus Coordinator for Jewish Voice for Peace Ben Lorber, told Palestine in America.
AMCHA, from the Hebrew word for “your people,” is a California-based organization with the stated mission to “investigate, document, educate about, and combat anti-Semitic behavior on college and university campuses in America and the institutional structures that legitimize it and allow it to flourish.”
Though it claims to be a “grassroots organization,” Jackson does not believe AMCHA is active on college campuses.
“From what I can tell, AMCHA is largely a media organization, focused on generating media to echo its theory that BDS activism is anti-Semitic,” Jackson said. “AMCHA does not seem to have a grassroots base of students, or much of a campus constituency, but it has supporters who respond with force to its online action alerts.”
Since it’s founding in 2011 by University of California Santa Cruz lecturer Tammi Rossman-Benjamin and University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) Professor Emeritus Leila Beckwith, AMCHA has attempted to bring attention to anti-Semitism on college campuses, especially in California, and inhibit the work of Palestine advocacy groups, frequently connecting claims of anti-Semitism to BDS campaigns, Palestine solidarity activists, and Middle East Studies departments.
AMCHA’s work focuses on advocacy for the adaption of the State Department definition of anti-Semitism in the UC System. This contested definition of anti-Semitism, which adds to the traditional definition of anti-Semitism a category for “language or behavior [that] demonizes and delegitimizes Israel,” is often used, according to activists, not to prevent and punish anti-Semitism, but to censor and silence Palestine advocacy. The UC Board of Regents has yet to decideon this issue.
According to Lorber this bureaucratic decision could threaten campus activism.
“AMCHA’s current campaign to pressure the UC Regents to adopt the ‘3 Ds’ definition of anti-Semitism, if successful, will make it difficult for both SJP and JVP chapters to do BDS work, and to raise awareness of Israeli occupation and apartheid on campuses,” Lorber said.
In addition to campaigns to track anti-Semitic incidents and monitor BDS efforts, AMCHA also disseminates op-eds, videos, and reports. Many AMCHA campaigns are specific to individual universities, mostly in California.
According to the “Palestine Exception to Free Speech,” a publication of Palestine Legal and the Center for Constitutional Rights, AMCHA has also been involved in the filing of baseless legal complaints to the Department of Education, which have subsequently been dismissed. The report outlines AMCHA’s efforts to target individual students and faculty members, including a “blacklist” of “anti-Israel” professors, the cancellation of a student-led course on “Palestinian Voices” at UC Riverside, and the meritless auditing of professors doing research in Palestine.
While many of these efforts have failed, they still have an effect.
“It drains resources to respond to the relentless attacks on free speech rights,” Jackson said.
But does AMCHA pose a true threat to Palestine solidarity work? Jackson doesn’t believe so.
“The chilling effect is hard to measure – we can’t know how many people stay quiet, stay home, or avoid the topic to avoid becoming a target,” Jackson said. “On the other hand it’s not working: activism is growing, and AMCHA’s anti-intellectual, anti-free speech strategy cannot suppress a rising tide of people who want to engage in a critical discussion about Israeli policy.”