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Ad on Campus ‘intimidation’ Ends Up Fueling Debate on Mideast Activism

Jason Benkendorf is stumped. The political science major can’t understand why American University’s president hasn’t joined more than 300 other university presidents in signing a statement against intimidation of Jewish students on campus.

So Benkendorf, a junior who is president of A.U.’s Students for Israel, joined with the president of the campus’ Jewish Student Association in writing a letter to President Benjamin Ladner.

They sent Ladner the American Jewish Committee-sponsored statement, along with an editorial in its defense by the AJCommittee’s anti-Semitism expert, Kenneth Stern, who authored the ad.

The entire campus community is looking to Ladner “for leadership at this time,” said Benkendorf, who said he may turn to influential community leaders to “help get the president’s ear.”

Ladner’s office did not respond to requests for comment.

The statement first appeared Oct. 7 with 312 signatures as a full-page ad in The New York Times. Last week, it ran in the Forward with an additional eight signatures.

The statement was crafted in response to anti-Semitic incidents on college campuses as Mideast activism has escalated in tandem with the Palestinian intifada.

The statement is escalating the campus Mideast debate, fanning discussion in student newspapers and fueling claims from Palestinian supporters that their opponents are using allegations of anti-Semitism in an attempt to silence them.

It also is pulling college presidents into an issue that until now has been the domain of competing campus groups and the communal organizations that have backed them.

The statement says the signers will “sustain an intimidation-free campus” where “debates are conducted without threats, taunts or intimidation.”

In the fourth of six paragraphs, the ad notes that “students who are Jewish or supporters of Israel’s right to exist — Zionists — have received death threats or threats of violence. Property connected to Jewish organizations has been defaced or destroyed,” and libelous information has been circulated that creates an attitude of intimidation.

“These practices and others, directed against any person, group or cause, will not be tolerated on campuses,” the ad says.

A number of university presidents who refused to sign cited the paragraph on anti-Semitic intimidation, saying the ad is too narrowly focused.

Several Jewish professionals privately agreed in interviews with JTA that the ad places too much emphasis on the plight of Jewish students.

Stern said the ad cites anti-Semitic incidents in order to give context and because of the number of incidents “where the line between heated debate and thuggery and intimidation certainly has been crossed.”

While the ad specifies that it “clearly applies to all students,” why “aren’t death threats against Jews by themselves insufficient to call for an intimidation-free campus?” he asked.

The statement continues to collect signatures and is slated to appear in campus newspapers in the future. It’s the latest in a series of recent events that have raised the profile of Mideast activism on campus.

First, Harvard University President Lawrence Summers warned in a Sept. 17 speech that some of the anti-Israel activity veered into anti-Semitism.

Then a national pro-Palestinian conference, held at the University of Michigan earlier this month, spawned headlines and counter-rallies.The conference also spurred the university’s president, Mary Sue Coleman, to reject calls to divest the university’s holdings in companies that do business with Israel.

The AJCommittee statement also has prompted presidents to speak out on the issue — especially those who have refused to sign.

On Oct. 18, University of Pennsylvania President Judith Rodin issued a letter explaining why she opposes calls for divestment but still has refused to sign the ad.

“Divestiture is an extreme measure to be adopted rarely, and only under the most unusual circumstances,” she wrote. “Certainly, many countries involved in the current Middle East dispute have been aggressors, and calls for divestment against them have been notably absent.”

In addition, Rodin noted, the school should remain “unbiased and non-partisan in the pursuit of knowledge,” while divestment runs counter to the University of Pennsylvania’s long-held position that investment decisions are best guided by the University’s fiduciary responsibilities.”

Yet, she added, “I and many other current presidents refused to add our names to the statement because we felt the ad was unbalanced — particularly after a year in which Arab and Muslim students on Penn’s campus have been subjected to at least as much harassment and intimidation as Jewish students.”

Stern, in contrast, said there have been few attacks against Muslim students.

The AJCommittee does not plan to broaden the statement.

The AJCommittee has not sought out Jewish students or alumni to lobby presidents, but several, like A.U.’s Benkendorf, have taken matters into their own hands.

When Daniel Spector, president of Georgetown University’s Jewish Student Association, read in his campus newspaper that president John DeGioia had refused sign the statement because he thought it was too narrow, Spector decided to try to change his mind.

Spector, a junior, is soliciting information on anti-Semitic incidents from his fellow students, which he said he will bundle together and bring to DeGioia this week, hoping to convince him to sign.

The AJCommittee statement is a response to “a growing trend against Israel in the academic community in the United States, in particular,” Spector said. “The urgency of this letter cannot be understated.”

But not all such requests are successful.

UCLA Chancellor Albert Carnesale issued a general statement on Oct. 11 urging tolerance and “rational discourse” on controversial international issues, but refused a request from the director of UCLA’s Hillel to sign the AJCommittee ad, according to Avishai Shraga, the Hillel’s Israel intern and vice president of Bruins for Israel.

There are no plans to press him further, Shraga said.

According to Max Benavidez, senior counsel for UCLA’s Office of Media Relations, the AJCommittee statement “could give the impression that UCLA is less concerned with the safety and well-being of all members of the UCLA community.”

But Shraga said Carnesale is missing a chance to be proactive in tackling the problem of anti-Semitism.

“Just because UCLA hasn’t seen the same incidents as other colleges doesn’t mean it won’t see it in the future,” he said.

Still, many Jewish activists, at places like UCLA and Georgetown, echoed a key point Stern made: University presidents who didn’t sign on to the statement are not unfriendly to Jewish students nor would they hesitate to respond to attacks against them.

But the statement represents a “philosophical hurdle” for them, Stern said.

They are glued to an “even-handedness” in the conflict, where they cannot decry anti-Semitism without, in the same breath, berating anti-Muslim behavior.

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