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Pro-israel Students Find Respite but Stay on Alert at Universities

Malki Karkowsky returned to the University of Maryland this fall with new plans for promoting Israel and defending it from criticism by pro-Palestinian student groups.

But less than two weeks into the semester, the devastating terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon rendered the Hillel activist’s plans "obsolete."

With the Sept. 11 attacks came increased support for Israel, Karkowsky said, as students began to sympathize with the terrorism that Israel has experienced.

The attacks have "brought all communities on campus together," even spurring the first interfaith dialogue between Jewish and Muslim students on her campus — mirroring a trend that has taken place at other U.S. universities.

But already there are signs that the respite for Israel supporters may be ending. Just before Yom Kippur, the campus newspaper at the College Park, Md., campus published a letter to the editor claiming that U.S. support for Israel was the cause of the attacks.

One month ago, Jewish student groups around the United States were gearing up to avoid a repeat of last year, when amid a complete breakdown of the peace process and renewed violence in the Middle East, Israel took a beating on campus.

A national campaign urging universities to divest from Israel, which was being compared to apartheid South Africa, was expected this year, along with repeats of last year’s mock Israeli checkpoints, staged war crimes tribunals against Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and speeches denigrating Zionism as racism.

Few Jewish students felt knowledgeable enough or prepared enough to respond.

Now it is unclear what long-term effect the attacks will have on Jewish-Arab relations — and Israel’s image — on American college campuses.

"The balls are in the air and where they land is yet to be seen," said Jeffrey Ross, the Anti-Defamation League’s director of campus/higher education affairs.

With the exception of a handful of campuses, like Wayne State University in Detroit and the University of California at Berkeley, where anti-Israel voices are still being heard, Jewish students and Hillel directors at universities throughout the United States report a quieting of anti-Israel rhetoric in recent weeks.

An October conference at Berkeley that was to launch the Israel divestment campaign has been postponed indefinitely. Jewish activists now think such a campaign is unlikely to hit campuses for at least another semester, if ever.

Many U.S. Muslim groups keeping a low profile except to point out discrimination and hate crimes against them, and many Jewish groups are taking leadership roles in speaking out against scapegoating Arabs and Muslims.

A result is that Jewish-Muslim relations appear to be improving.

At the University of Michigan, where pro-Palestinian students last year held model war crime tribunals for Israel and compared Israel to the Taliban leadership of Afghanistan, Jewish and Muslim students worked together recently to create a vigil. And Jewish student groups there were among the first to write to the campus paper urging students not to discriminate against Muslims.

Eric Bukstein, one of the students who signed the letter, said he received friendly e-mails from Arab students thanking him.

The ADL’s Ross said he has noticed two trends since Sept. 11.

Muslim groups are lowering their profile and focusing more on hate crimes against them in the United States than on the situation in the Middle East.

At the same time, however, some are also spinning the attacks as "largely Israel’s fault, or predictable consequence of U.S. support for Israel," Ross said.

The current situation, Ross said, creates an "opening for pro-Israel activity" on campuses. He is urging campus groups to step up Israel education for Jewish students right now.

"It’s important to proclaim a message that what we’re about is for Israel," he said. "We’re not against anyone, particularly not on the basis of ethnicity or religion."

Few seasoned pro-Israel activists expect a complete turnaround in relations, and many are wary about the future.

At George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., Jewish students are on the alert, said sophomore Robyn Weisman.

The Sept. 11 attacks have taken center stage on campus, with anti-Israel groups quiet and Jewish students focused more on prayer vigils and raising money for victims than on the Middle East. But she and her friends are worried about an upcoming panel discussion marking the one-year anniversary of the Palestinian intifada.

Richard Joel, international president of Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life, which quickly issued a statement against scapegoating, said it is "hard to know" how the Sept. 11 attacks will affect Jewish- Muslim relations.

For now, he said, "Everyone’s catching their breaths."

Hillel, he said, has encouraged Jewish-Muslim dialogues, although last year’s harsh rhetoric — particularly comparisons between Zionism and racism, even Nazism — has made them more cautious.

"You have to recognize that at a certain point people committed to their cause are probably re-examining their tactics but not their purposes," Joel said.

Pro-Arab groups may disassociate themselves from terrorism now, Joel said, but "that doesn’t mean they’re going to stop delegitimizing Israel."

"I hope this results in voices being lowered and interest in new dialogue," he said.

Anti-Israel activism isn’t "going to come back with the same degree of stridency as had been anticipated, but it’s still going to be there," Joel said.

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