Ohio’s Israel Advocates Prepare for Palestinian Solidarity Gathering

It’s fall, and in Columbus that usually means only one thing: football.

Yet while the Buckeyes continue to dominate conversations and news stories, another story is brewing in town: The national student conference of the Palestine Solidarity Movement, originally planned for October at New Jersey’s Rutgers University, has been moved to November at Ohio State University.

The reasons for the move are not entirely clear.

Some say it’s because New Jersey Solidarity, the original host of the conference, is too militant — even for the Palestine Solidarity Movement.

In a July 9 interview with the New York Post, New Jersey Solidarity leader Charlotte Kates responded to a question about whether Israel has a right to exist by saying, “I personally support Palestinian resistance in all its forms, from armed struggle to mass protest.”

Others, including Nahla Saleh, an O.S.U. graduate student active in the Committee for Justice in Palestine and spokesperson for the Palestine Solidarity Movement conference, say the conference was moved because New Jersey Solidarity violated “democratic procedures” in planning the conference.

“They branched off” from Palestine Solidarity Movement, Saleh said. “They will still have their October meeting but it is not the official P.S.M. conference,” she said.

However, on Sept. 15, Rutgers University officials cancelled that conference, claiming organizers missed a paperwork deadline.

Editorials on the New Jersey Solidarity Web site denounced the decision, stating the meetings would still be held as planned Oct. 10-12, with or without Rutgers’ approval.

Whether the New Jersey Solidarity conference will actually convene that weekend remains to be seen.

But it is certain that the Rutgers University Hillel will host its Israel Inspires Initiative starting with a pro-Israel kickoff rally on Oct. 9.

According to Rabbi Esther Reed, assistant director of the Rutgers Hillel, the news last February that New Jersey Solidarity was going to host the Palestine Solidarity Movement conference, “was the impetus we needed to do something we’ve been wanting to do for years.”

In addition to the rally, the weekend’s events will include pro-Israeli speakers, discussions, live music and free food.

Rutgers University President Richard McCormick has pledged his support for Hillel’s pro-Israel initiative, asking to be personally involved in the program.

After the New Jersey Solidarity group split from the Palestine Solidarity Movement, the Committee for Justice in Palestine sought to host the conference by applying for space with Ohio State officials.

Their request was approved since the Committee for Justice in Palestine is “an organization in good standing that has paid its dues, has a good reputation and has no problems on campus,” said Elizabeth Conlisk, O.S.U. director of media relations.

She also noted that O.S.U. was slated to host the fourth annual conference in 2004, but she says she isn’t sure if that will still happen.

Jewish groups such as Brooklyn-based Amcha-The Coalition for Jewish Concerns applauded the Rutgers ruling while vowing to increase pressure on Ohio political leaders and O.S.U. in the hopes of preventing the Palestine Solidarity Movement from holding its conference at O.S.U., set for Nov. 7-9.

“Amcha will go wherever they go to stop their hatefest,” said Scott Chait, the organization’s event coordinator. “Amcha’s mission is to defend Jewish causes, and the Palestine Solidarity Movement is a big threat,” he said.

For her part, Saleh said her group does not claim to have an answer to the political crisis in Israel, but, she said, “we think Israel is in violation of international law because they are running their country under an apartheid system. The apartheid that is a part of Zionism is inherently racist, and everyone in Committee for Justice in Palestine and Palestine Solidarity Movement is in agreement on that.”

Saleh made it clear that her comments only reflected the ideals of the Committee for Justice in Palestine, not the Palestine Solidarity Movement, although she is the spokesperson for their upcoming conference at O.S.U.

According to Saleh, “Both the conference and the Palestine Solidarity Movement focus their energies on divestment and other collection strategies. We are a nonviolent movement focused on divestment from Israel because that would help both the Palestinians and the Israelis in the long run.”

Amcha’s Chait disagreed. “Comparing Israel to South Africa is ridiculous. Israel is a democratic country where one million Israeli Arabs have the right to vote. Those rights are even unheard of anywhere in the Arab World,” he said.

Moreover, Chait added, “Israel has never been labeled an apartheid state” in any international arenas.

Rabbi Howard Zack, spiritual leader of the Main Street Synagogue in Columbus and president of the Columbus Board of Rabbis, agrees with Chait.

“Using the term apartheid is a lot of propaganda and plays off people’s emotions,” he said. “It is not factually true to say that Israel is an apartheid state and using that language is a way to distort the fact.”

On its Web site, Amcha has been circulating a petition to Ohio Gov. Bob Taft to prevent O.S.U. from hosting the conference. So far, Amcha’s petition has collected more than 5,000 signatures.

The petition claims that at last year’s Palestine Solidarity Movement Conference, held at the University of Michigan, delegates chanted “Kill the Jews.”

Amcha also states in a press release that the Palestine Solidarity Movement’s past conferences have featured Sami Al-Arian, allegedly a central figure in an operation targeting Israel and the United States with terrorist attacks.

Al-Arian, a Palestinian and a tenured college professor at the University of South Florida, has been arrested for activity on behalf of groups like Hamas and Islamic Jihad.

As reported recently in the Columbus Dispatch, Orest Holubec, Taft’s spokesperson, said of the Palestine Solidarity Movement, “The governor has some concerns about some of their positions. For example, they won’t denounce terrorism and they support divestiture.” However, Holubec said the governor recognizes their right to free speech.

According to Zack, Jewish leaders from throughout Ohio have been and will continue to meet to discuss potential responses to the November conference.

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