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At UMKC, pro-Palestinian students struggle for university support as they advocate for peace

Members of Students for Justice in Palestine at a tabling event on UMKC's Main Campus in November.
George Russell
KCUR 89.3
Members of Students for Justice in Palestine table on UMKC's main campus in November.

Students for Justice in Palestine, a newly-recognized student group, has led efforts at UMKC to call for a Gaza ceasefire. Leaders say they're making inroads with their fellow students, but argue the university is not doing enough to protect them from Islamophobia and potential retaliation.

One sunny day last month, a group of student activists took over a central sidewalk on the main campus of the University of Missouri-Kansas City.

Between the library and the recreation center, the group invited passersby to take a piece of colorful chalk and write the names of people killed in Gaza.

Mahmoud Kutmah, a Louisville native who’s a student at the UMKC School of Medicine and a leader of the campus chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine, greeted people walking to and from class.

“This is a good way to just raise awareness of what's happening,” Kutmah said, “and to force every student walking by to see just how many names there are.”

Over the course of about four hours, the chalk list grew to nearly 200 feet long — representing just a fraction of Palestinian lives lost.

At the time, more than 11,000 Gazans had been killed; according to the New York Times, that figure is now 20,000.

With the Israel-Hamas war now in its second month, college campuses like UMKC’s have become flashpoints of activism and concerns over Islamophobia.

(Editor's note: KCUR 89.3 is licensed to the University of Missouri Board of Curators and is an editorially independent community service of the University of Missouri-Kansas City.)

Students for Justice in Palestine has been the main student group at UMKC advocating against violence in Gaza. Kutmah says SJP hears a lot of support from their fellow students. But like many pro-Palestine groups, their relationship with university administration is a lot trickier — leaving them in the ambiguous situation of being tolerated but not exactly protected.

George Russell
UMKC students write the names of people killed in Palestine since October 7th on a central campus walkway.

“The university as a whole is neutral,” said Kutmah. “They haven't put out a statement supporting their Palestinian voices and protecting their freedom of speech and ensuring that, when they speak out, they won't be reprimanded for it.”

In the middle of an already tense moment, it’s been an extra challenge for activists to learn how to navigate campus politics and bureaucracy.

Last month, SJP encountered some unexpected friction while organizing a panel discussion about Gaza featuring Palestinian advocates.

The Student Activity Fee Committee was initially split about whether to fund the event, even though it routinely does so for other topics. It ultimately voted unanimously to provide funding, according to university comptroller Justice Horn, but only after a debate on the merits and potential risks.

And after some initial tension, the Student Government Association agreed to co-sponsor the panel and released a joint statement calling for a cease-fire.

However, when SJP requested the presence of campus police, out of safety concerns, they were told that money would have to come out of their own budget.

“We were sent an invoice by UMKC campus police for two officers for three hours, and that cost us $270, which is 13% of our annual budget,” said Laylah Liwaru, a Kansas City native who serves as an SJP board member at UMKC.

In a written statement, a UMKC spokesperson called this standard procedure for all student group events.

Students for Justice in Palestine face pushback from universities

People can be seen walking outside on a wide sidewalk, surrounded by large buildings. In the foreground is a bronze statue of a kangaroo.
Carlos Moreno
KCUR 89.3
Students from elementary schools visiting UMKC mingle with college students on campus near the Swinney Center on Dec. 12, 2023.

This is the first semester that Students for Justice in Palestine has been recognized as an official UMKC student group, of which there are more than 300.

Over the years, students repeatedly faced difficulty securing a faculty advisor for the group, which they need to receive funding and other resources. UMKC alum Shefaa Allan tried to start a chapter back in 2019, but says no professor even responded to her emails.

She thinks that’s because faculty members were worried about potential repercussions from aligning with their cause.

“There's a lot of misrepresentation that happens when anyone stands up or supports or even associates themselves with caring or supporting Palestinians,” Allan says.

According to Allan, the Student Government Association at the time also demanded assurance that SJP wouldn’t be involved in violence, something Allan says wasn’t required of other organizations.

Since the war began, some American colleges have tried to suspend or ban SJP chapters. Columbia cited “threatening rhetoric and intimidation” during “unauthorized” events — a decision that led to protests from faculty and students. Brandeis claimed that SJP expressed support for Hamas and engaged in antisemitic speech — allegations that SJP denies.

George Washington University in Washington, D.C. suspended SJP from on-campus activities for three months after an anti-Israel protest on campus, claiming it violated university policy. The State University System of Florida also tried to ban the group over purported support for Hamas, but ultimately walked back that decision over legal considerations.

Around the Kansas City area, local universities haven't taken as strong a stance. The University of Missouri System has not made a statement on the issue. The University of Missouri-Columbia campus has its own SJP chapter, along with a Muslim Student Association, that's been protesting city and university leaders for a ceasefire.

At the University of Kansas in Lawrence, the longstanding Muslim Student Association has been active in pro-Palestine activism. Student groups at both schools have dealt withaccusations of antisemitism, which they reject.

"Our commitment to a just world for the Palestinian people does not imply that we support violence against any human being, and no part of our aspiration for the freedom of the Palestinian people wishes harm on any Jewish persons," the Mizzou SJP wrote in an Instagram post. "We stand with our Jewish brothers and sisters against anti-Semitic rhetoric that stands in the way of true justice that comes from mutual empathy and nonviolence."

KU chancellor Douglas A. Girod wrote in a statement that the university protects free speech and academic freedom, and "we strive to ensure that KU is a place where Palestinian, Israeli, Arab, Jewish, and Muslim identified students, staff, and faculty are safe."

However, Girod did publicly challenge the view of the school's Graduate Teaching Assistants Coalition, which released a statement in October condemning the "ongoing settler colonial project known as the nation-state of Israel."

UMKC spokesperson Stacy Downs said in a written statement that the university is committed to the safety of people of all backgrounds, and encourages students to freely express themselves in a safe manner.

“As long as student groups follow campus policies, they remain in good standing,” Down said.

George Russell
Experts spoke about life in Gaza at an on-campus panel event in November.

Kutmah says SJP’s activism at UMKC centers around educating people about the humanitarian situation on the ground in Gaza.

“We’re here in solidarity,” Kutmah said. “We’re here pushing for peace.”

But several members of SJP said that doesn’t stop them from being painted with a broad brush and often unfairly portrayed as “terrorists.”

Kutmah pointed to a resolution introduced by Missouri Sen. Josh Hawley in October condemning pro-Palestine student groups, implying that they broadly support Hamas. The resolution “denounces the rhetoric of anti-Israel, pro-Hamas student groups as antisemitic, repugnant, and morally contemptible.”

Hawley even called on the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate pro-Palestine student organizations for potential terrorist connections.

“There’s so many of my fellow students that feel scared to even post on social media, feel scared to put their names on petitions, feel scared to call their representatives,” Kutmah said. “Just because they’re worried that, somehow, they’re going to get doxxed about it.”

Sabrina Amari, a national leader with SJP, says that chapters across the country are getting the cold shoulder from their administrations.

“The general trend of what's happening in universities is that their administrations are not supporting SJPs,” Amari said. “A lot of them are not releasing any statements supporting Palestinians, Arabs, or Muslims on campus and not talking about the anti-Arab sentiment that is pervading all of these spaces.”

Sonya Meyerson-Knox, director of communications at the progressive organization Jewish Voice for Peace says she often hears the idea from schools that, “in publicly offering support,” such as statements of sympathy or specialized grief counseling services, “for Palestinian students, they are somehow endangering or making Jewish students feel unsafe.”

“I was a Jewish student on campus,” Meyerson-Knox said. “I am in touch with quite a large number of our Jewish students on campuses and that is not what they're asking for.”

About 1,200 Israelis were killed in Hamas' attack on Oct. 7, NPR reports, and since then 134 Israeli soldiers have died in the Gaza ground offensive.

A chilling effect

Interior view inside a large building looking through a large, plate-glass window. On the window is a large blue kangaroo image with a yellow sweatshirt that reads "UKC." People can be seen inside the building standing nearby and others can be seen walking outdoors. Many have backpacks on and appear to be students.
Carlos Moreno
KCUR 89.3
Students from elementary schools visiting UMKC mingle with college students on campus inside the student union at UMKC on Dec. 12, 2023.

Although bans and suspensions remain relatively rare, Meyerson-Knox says there’s a more pervasive chilling effect happening in higher education around the war in Gaza.

“Campuses don't feel safe to students in large part, I think, because the administrations haven't provided them any space of safety,” Meyerson-Knox says. “And when they have dared to speak up for social justice, they've been told that they're unwelcome.”

At UMKC, Kutmah says that the university’s silence leaves him and other activists vulnerable to discrimination or retaliation.

He says some students he knows are wary about referring to their Palestinian roots in applications for academic programs and other positions for fear of unfair treatment.

“When people call movements like this as antisemitic, I could lose my spot out of residency because of this — that’s scary to me,” Kutmah said. “People are just silent about it, including my university, who should be there advocating for Palestinian voices and their students’ voices.”

Liwaru says students are also worried about Islamophobic violence, after a surge of incidents across the U.S., “especially if you're a woman who wears a headscarf, a hijab.” In one case, NPR reports that three college students of Palestinian descent were shot in an unprovoked attack in Vermont.

The Council on American-Islamic Relations announced that, in the month after October 7, reports of bias against Muslims in the U.S. were more than triple the average. Of those 1,283 incidents, more than 15% were alleged hate crimes.

“Many students have come to us saying, ‘I don't feel safe on campus,’” Liwaru said. “We see what's happening in the news. We see what's happening all around the country.”

Exterior photo of people walking on a wide sidewalk. There are trees in the background and other large buildings. There are blue and yellow signs on lamp posts that read "UMKC" and "#ROOS."
Carlos Moreno
KCUR 89.3
Students move along E. 51st Street on the UMKC campus on Dec. 12, 2023.

Over the last few weeks, SJP board members have met with the UMKC chancellor and dean of students to talk about mental health and safety. But Liwaru says nothing concrete has come of those talks.

“The administration is still staying silent,” said Liwaru, “which puts more work and more pressure on us as students to advocate for ourselves and create resources for ourselves.”

Earlier this month, students were also frustrated when UMKC planned a faculty listening session about Gaza that did not include any Muslim or Palestinian voices.

SJP published an open letter saying that “the selected panelists do not reflect the student body, nor do they represent both perspectives on the issue,” and announced it would protest.

UMKC eventually postponed the panel to the spring semester. In an email to KCUR, Downs said the event was moved because of scheduling conflicts during finals week, but did not address the makeup of the panel.

“It’s important to note that the purpose of this event is not to take any side in the conflict, but to have a thoughtful discussion among faculty on how to support all students and maintain an inclusive, respectful and safe campus environment as we navigate challenging times,” Downs wrote in a statement.

For SJP’s part, they’re ending their first semester with a new faculty advisor. Members plan to hold more rallies in the new year, when students get back to campus.

Updated: December 20, 2023 at 3:39 PM CST
This story has been updated with more recent numbers on Israeli and Palestinian deaths.
You can email me at g.russell@kcur.org.
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