WASHINGTON, Feb. 20 (JTA) — Speakers at the Palestine Solidarity Movement conference, held at Georgetown University, exhorted anti-Israel activists to enlist Jews in the effort to divest from Israel. At least two speakers at the fifth annual divestment conference, held Feb. 17-19, suggested the tactic as a way to gain legitimacy for the movement, which intensified its call for universities and institutions to sever economic ties to Israel and companies that do business with the Jewish state. “There are many obstacles that confront us,” said Philip Farah, a senior economist and featured speaker at the event in Washington. “One of the most important of course is the claim that divestment is anti-Jewish. For that, my advice is very, very important: Work with progressive Jews and Israelis.” Farah endorsed the tactic as a way to “inoculate yourself from the charges of being an anti-Semite.” Another speaker, Noura Erakat, legal advocate for the U.S. Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation, echoed Farah’s suggestion. “It works better and to our favor to make allies with sympathizers, with Israelis themselves,” she said. The appeal came after a succession of conferences on U.S. campuses that created what some Jewish students claimed was a hostile environment. “I’m not surprised that they would attempt to create a false veneer of legitimacy by promoting their cause through the mouths of Jews and Israelis,” said David Friedman, the regional director of the Anti-Defamation League, one of several organizations that had helped organized counter-events. “It doesn’t matter who is speaking; what matters is the content of the message, and that message of an analogy between South African apartheid and Zionism is false and extreme.” Over the three-day period, 376 student and community activists from 90 universities and organizations attended the conference, according to Nadeem Muaddi, the spokesman for the Palestine Solidarity Movement. Farah said that churches, which he labels the “so-called silent majorities,” are also key to success in the divestment movement. “It’s one thing for marginal radicals to oppose Israel’s occupation; it’s quite another thing when activism reaches the churches,” Farah said, noting the critical role churches played in the Vietnam War, the civil rights movement and the South African struggle. “You really have to seek out churches in your neighborhoods, find out who is potentially friendly to us,” he said. Although no public American universities have divested from Israel, the movement has made inroads with some Protestant churches. Both the Presbyterian Church USA and the Church of England voted to review holdings in companies that do business with the Jewish state. Some speakers said the Palestine Solidarity Movement had not done a good job of popularizing itself. Erakat said there is a decline in divestment activism on American campuses, and attributed the setbacks to poor activist turnover. In addition, she said that the Palestinian struggle has been overshadowed by the “so-called war on terror.” Panelists condemned the international community’s response to the election of a Hamas-led government in Palestinian elections last month. Ali Abunimah, co-founder of the Electronic Intifada news service, said the international community at this moment “is at its most complacent, most hypocritical.” He censured the European Union, Japan, Canada, Norway and “all of these do-gooding countries who claim that they are there to support peace when in fact what they’re doing is subsidizing and propping up the occupation.” Abunimah called the U.S. policy of pressing other countries to discontinue aid to the Palestinian entity “immoral,” and listed a litany of alleged Israeli crimes, including accusing Israel of committing the 1982 massacres at Sabra and Shatila refugee camps. Abunimah teamed up with Mohammed Abed, a philosophy lecturer from the University of Wisconsin, to reject a two-state solution. Abunimah and Abed proposed a binational state encompassing and replacing Israel, where Palestinians would make up the majority. “Palestinians throughout the world are attached to the entirety of their homelands, stretching from the Red Sea to the [Jordan] River,” Abed said. Speaker Sue Blackwell, who led the boycott by British academics of Israeli institutions last year, stated as a goal “ending the special status that Israel currently enjoys with the United States and the European Union, and letting the world know Israel is a pariah, apartheid state who should be treated exactly the same way as apartheid South Africa.” The conference speakers said they were opposed to violence of any kind. Absent were calls to urge Hamas to recognize Israel’s right to exist, disarm Hamas or to support a two-state solution. “What was so depressing was that all the speakers I heard, many of whom seem highly intelligent, reduce all the problems in the region to Zionism,” said David Sinkman, a law student at Georgetown Law Center. Sinkman was one of a small number of pro-Israel Georgetown students to attend the conference. Jonathan Aires, chair of the school’s spring pro-Israel festival, said that many pro-Israel students were not planning to attend. Instead, the university sponsored an open house for pro-Israel students on Saturday. Aires said 40 attended the informal event. Friedman lauded the Georgetown administration’s efforts in making the atmosphere comfortable for Jews and the conference open to the public. “I think they did a very masterful, responsible job at every level in ensuring that Jews felt safe and secure in their membership in the Georgetown community throughout this time,” he said.
Georgetown hosts Israel divestment forum