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Activists Gear Up for Showdown at Michigan Divestment Meeting

October 9, 2002
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The anti-Israel divestment movement could enter a critical phase this weekend when Palestinian students from across the country gather at the University of Michigan.

The gathering, the Second National Student Conference on the Palestine Solidarity Movement, is sponsored by a pro-Palestinian campus group, Students Allied for Freedom and Equality.

Among other focuses, the conference is calling on universities to divest their holdings in companies that do business with the Jewish state.

With divestment under scrutiny following criticism from Harvard University’s president, Jewish activists hope the spotlight on the conference — and the counter-activities Jewish groups are planning — spells the beginning of the end of the divestment movement.

“When we defeat it at” the University of Michigan, “it’s going to be pretty clear that it’s not welcome” on any university in the United States, said Benjamin Berger, Hillel’s staff coordinator for pro-Israel groups at the University of Michigan.

Hillel, which has been working closely with mainstream Jewish groups on campus, is promoting its own pro-Israel agenda as a counterweight to the conference. So, too, is a new campus group called the Michigan Student Zionists.

Divestment is among the most controversial steps in the arsenal of anti-Israel activism that has gripped college campuses since the Palestinian intifada began two years ago.

The divestment campaign was launched at the first conference of the Palestine Solidarity Movement last fall at the University of California at Berkeley.

Divestment petitions since have spread to 40 universities. However, counterpetitions opposing divestment have garnered 10 times as many signatures, according to Michael Jankelowitz, the Jewish Agency for Israel’s representative to Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life.

Anti-Israel activists are modeling the movement on the 1980s campaign against South Africa, when student activists convinced some universities to protest the apartheid regime by divesting university holdings.

The analogy between Israel and apartheid South Africa, anathema to supporters of Israel, has become a common feature of the anti-Israel critique.

But a speech last month by Harvard University President Lawrence Summers, accusing the anti-Israel movement of veering into anti-Semitism, has recast debate on the divestment movement.

“Serious and thoughtful people are advocating and taking actions that are anti-Semitic in their effect if not their intent,” Summers said Sept. 17. “And some here at Harvard and some at universities across the country have called for the university to single out Israel among all nations as the lone country where it is inappropriate for any part of the university’s endowment to be invested.”

Given the intense media coverage Summers’ speech spawned, this weekend’s conference will be scrutinized by media and activists on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian divide. The event is especially controversial given the large populations of Arab and Jewish students at Michigan.

Divestment is just one item on the conference agenda. Among its guiding principles — which do not include peace with Israel — are “the full decolonization of all Palestinian land”; the “recognition and implementation of the right of return” for Palestinian refugees and their descendants; and “an end to the Israeli system of apartheid and discrimination against the indigenous Palestinian population.”

Staff from Hillel and local Jewish federations met privately with the

University of Michigan’s president last week to voice security concerns and to ensure that portions of the conference advertised as public indeed are open to all.

Some members of the Jewish community recommended ignoring the conference to minimize the publicity it received, but university administrators have come out strongly against the conference.

Given the nature of the conference, the university had to take a high-profile stand, said Laurence Deitch, chairman of the University of Michigan’s Board of Regents.

“I felt it was very important to speak out so that people understood that this was a student-organized conference and did not reflect the views of the University of Michigan,” he told JTA.

“If the destruction of Israel as a Jewish homeland isn’t anti-Semitic, what is?” he asked in an interview with the Detroit News.

The university’s president, Mary Sue Coleman, also issued a statement Sept. 26 rejecting divestment.

The conference got another bolt of negative publicity from a mass e-mail urging faculty to attend.

“We, as the Students Allied for Freedom and Equality, will not remain silent while the Israeli S.S. Nazis destroy the homes of poor Palestinians who have no choice but to respond through what others call ‘terrorism,’ ” the e-mail stated.

The e-mail was sent from the inbox of the conference coordinator and SAFE president, Fadi Kiblawi. Kiblawi has written virulently anti-Israel material in the past, but he denied sending the e-mail to faculty.

Several segments of the Jewish community are planning to respond to the conference.

Hillel will get the jump on the anti-Israel crowd with a number of programs Thursday: a mid-day “We Stand With Israel” rally, an evening speech by Israeli historian and former Knesset member Michael Bar-Zohar and an anti- divestment petition.

Hillel also sponsored a lecture last week by Judaic studies professors, rejecting the link between Israel and apartheid, that drew more than 500 people.

But Hillel decided that “direct confrontation is not the way to go,” Berger said.

The newly formed Michigan Student Zionists — supported by the Zionist Organization of America and the Orthodox outreach group Aish HaTorah — rejects that approach.

“We have found that the best way to counter this virulent anti-Semitic propaganda has been through attacking it for what it is, and not keeping a low profile or a distance,” said Adi Neuman, president of the MSZ. “As a grass-roots organization, MSZ is able to speak truths that might be risky for large established organizations such as Hillel.”

MSZ has scheduled several events for Sunday, while the conference is in session. It has planned a rally to protest the conference as anti-Semitic and a three-hour counter-conference with pro-Israel lecturers.

Another activist group, Coalition for Jewish Concerns — Amcha, is helping to coordinate the MSZ events and is bringing four busloads of students from the New York area to participate.

“We’re going there to just say this is a perversion of the university system in America,” said Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld, national vice president of Amcha. “This is not something we’re able to sit back and watch.”

Another grass-roots group composed of university alumni is protesting the conference with a petition that began Oct. 4 and currently has 100 signatures.

“We call on the organizers, sponsors, participants and supporters of the conference to explicitly accept peace with Israel as a goal, and denounce efforts to delegitimize and destroy Israel,” the petition reads.

It also calls on the conference to explicitly condemn acts of terrorism and “stop promoting anti-Semitism by equating Zionism — Jewish national liberation — with racism and Nazism, and stop using a few unrepresentative Jewish radicals to justify hate.”

Linda Brenners, a University of Michigan alumna behind the petition, wants the university to take a “stronger position, in their words and in their actions, to denounce the agenda of this conference.”

Both Hillel and MSZ said the extremism associated with the conference had hurt the Palestinian cause. Among the scheduled speakers is Sami Al-Arian, a Palestinian professor who was fired recently from the University of South Florida and is under federal investigation for alleged ties to terrorist groups.

MSZ had hoped the university would cancel the conference. But administrators preferred to take a “wait-and-see attitude” based on “a deep-seated commitment to academic freedom and first amendment rights,” Deitch said.

As far as divestment is concerned, however, the case is open and shut.

“I know that there is absolutely no support” from the university, he said. “It’s not going to happen no matter what they say.”

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