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Protecting Pro-Palestine Activists Can Feel Almost Impossible—but These Students Succeeded

For students of the University of California–Los Angeles, this campus event was unlike most others. For one, security was tight. Both campus police and private security staffers hired by the student organizers patrolled the campus spaces being used for the conference, fending off protesters attempting to take photos of participants through classroom windows. Attendees not only needed a name tag and wristband to enter and exit but also needed to conceal them outside of conference spaces, as a safety precaution. The conference schedule was kept secret until its first event started, and pamphlets with the schedule were closely guarded—so much so, an attendee later said, that conference organizers snatched forgotten ones out of trash cans. And when moving from one campus building to another, fenced in by campus police, participants were harassed, called names, and chased by protesters.

This was the 2018 National Students for Justice in Palestine conference, a convening of organizers from campuses across the country, hosted by UCLA’s campus SJP chapter.

UCLA student organizers took care to preserve the anonymity of speakers, in order to prevent them from being put on no-fly-lists, potentially denied entry to other countries, or contacted by the FBI over their organizing work—all of which have reportedly occurred to other organizers speaking out about Israel’s human rights abuses against Palestinians. When UCLA pushed the organizers to share the list with them in order to cross-check the speaker list with federal officials, the students shared the list under an agreement that UCLA would preserve their anonymity to protect them.

But in February, three years after the event, the student organizers behind the conference went to court over a complaint filed by David Abrams, executive director of the Zionist Advocacy Center, a nonprofit founded in 2015 to “advocate on behalf of Israel in the Courts and before agencies.” Abrams, who has a track record of pursuing litigation against organizations that engage in some way with Palestine, including former president Jimmy Carter’s Carter Center and Doctors Without Borders, has filed a complaint against UCLA, demanding that the school release the names of the anonymous speakers. He says that the information falls under the California Public Records Act and that he intends to use the names in order to “investigate terrorism.”

On March 11, the court denied Abrams’s request, writing, “Disclosure [of the National SJP speakers list] would violate their rights to freedom of association, anonymous speech, and privacy.”

While the student activists say they are glad for the ruling in their favor, they also say that the situation was yet another example of the targeted harassment and intense scrutiny that Palestinian rights activists across the country have been subjected to for years. At the core of this harassment is Canary Mission, an anonymously-run blacklist that documents public supporters of Palestinian rights in what is being used as an anonymous surveillance system. Individuals listed on Canary Mission say that the website was mentioned while they were being questioned by FBI agents while engaging in student activism or attempting to travel.

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