ANN ARBOR, Mich. (Oct. 10)
The headlines may be going to a pro-Palestinian conference set for this weekend, but Israel backers got a head start with a large campus rally in support of the Jewish state.
Some 900 students and community activists turned out at the University of Michigan on Thursday to show their support for Israel ahead of the Second National Student Conference on the Palestine Solidarity Movement, which begins Saturday.
Among the topics at the weekend conference is a call for universities to divest from Israel, or sell their holdings in companies that do business with the Jewish state.
Thursday’s rally was convened to reject that call and present a unified front for Israel.
“Wherever we stand, we stand with Israel,” read the slogan on the pro-Israel activists’ blue T-shirts, which were emblazoned with the Israeli flag.
The slogan also featured prominently in speeches from representatives of Hillel: The Foundation for Student Life, College Democrats, College Republicans, university faculty and administration and the local Jewish federation.
Laurence Deitch, chairman of the university’s board of regents, was among the most forceful speakers.
“Divestment is a hoax and only a tactic to delegitimize” and destroy Israel, he said. “Comparing South Africa to democratic Israel is a slanderous distortion of reality.”
Deitch urged activists to recognize that the University of Michigan is “bigger and stronger” than the pro-Palestinian conference led by a few “wrongheaded hatemongers.”
The group booed at the mention of the Palestinian conference — only to shout, moments later, in support of tolerance.
“Don’t get mad, don’t get angry, don’t get violent,” Rachel Fisher of the College Democrats group said to wild applause.
“Help them understand,” she continued. While military action is sometimes needed in the Middle East, “we don’t need to have hate on campus.”
Indeed, an animated but civil dialogue was taking place on the edges of the rally.
Jewish students eager for debate zeroed in on a few pro-Palestinian activists wearing “Free Palestine” T-shirts.
For the most part, the conversation was conciliatory.
Sophomore Becky Eisen approached the activists, members of Students Allied for Freedom and Equality, or SAFE, a pro-Palestinian campus group that is sponsoring the weekend conference.
Eisen wanted to talk about her month-old campus group, Progressive Israel Alliance. She described it as a “left- wing response to AIPAC” — the pro-Israel political lobby, which is well-represented on campus — striving for “peaceful coexistence” between Israelis and Palestinians.
“Our idea is you can’t just pick one side,” she said. “You need to look at the whole picture,” since both sides have valid points.
Eisen gave her contact information to Zeina Makki, a senior studying political science.
Makki said SAFE decided not to stage a group protest because it wanted to respect the pro-Israel event.
“The purpose of our conference is to create a dialogue,” she said, while the Jewish rally was intended “to silence our voice and our conference this weekend.”
Eisen also objected to the rally, but for different reasons.
“People are wearing shirts, proudly, in support of Israel and not anything else,” she said.
While the T-shirt slogan implicitly acknowledges the multiplicity of viewpoints, Eisen said people are ignoring that in their blanket support of Israel.
Michael Givental, a senior majoring in psychology, deliberated for hours over whether to wear the T-shirt. Ultimately he decided not to, because he felt it was like a uniform.
“When I think of uniform, I think of war,” Givental said. “There already is a war. We don’t need to contribute any more to it.”
People on both sides, “waving their respective flags, are not solving the problem,” Givental said after a cordial debate with Salah Husseini, a junior from Syria.
“My country has the worst dictatorship in the region,” the Arab and Islamic studies major told Givental.
But “Syria did not create 900,000 refugees,” she said, an inflated estimate of the number of Arabs who fled or were expelled from Israel after Arab armies attacked the nascent Jewish state in 1948.
The two shook hands, and Husseini told Givental how much he appreciated their conversation.
His neutral dress had made the conversation possible, Givental said, noting that Husseini earlier had refused to talk to an activist wearing the Hillel T-shirt.
Meanwhile, an activist carrying a selection of signs offered them to Eisen. She chose one that read “Compromise for Peace, End the Cycle of Violence.”
But it was one held by another activist that Eisen thought displayed the right message: “Stand for Democracy, Let it emerge in a free Palestine and remain in a safe Israel.”