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Behind the Headlines Anti-israel Parley Shows Intensity of Battle for Students’ Hearts, Minds by Rac

October 16, 2002
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In the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the United States is considered Israel’s last remaining key ally.

Aiming to change that, the anti-Israel movement on college campuses has adopted a message rooted in bedrock American ideals.

The Second National Student Conference on the Palestinian Solidarity Movement, held at the University of Michigan last weekend, framed its anti-Israel arguments in the language of civil liberties and human rights.

The new, slicker message showed the challenge Jewish groups will face after a conference that both sides considered a pivotal moment for anti-Israel activism on American campuses.

It’s still unclear whether the Oct. 12-14 pro-Palestinian conference, sponsored by a Michigan group called Students Allied for Freedom and Equality will give the anti-Israel movement a lasting boost or, instead, show that the tide has turned against it.

The movement has come under increasing scrutiny in the past month after Harvard’s president said the anti-Israel activism bordered on anti-Semitism.

Some 300 university presidents then signed an American Jewish Committee ad criticizing the anti-Israel movement for allegedly intimidating its opponents.

The developments drew publicity to a movement that until then primarily had attracted campus radicals, but they also put the anti-Israel forces on the defensive.

The weekend conference showed that the pro-Palestinian groups are reacting to the spotlight by crafting an increasingly sophisticated message — and that Jewish activists are split on the proper strategy to confront it.

Mainstream groups such as Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life sought to avoid direct confrontation so as not to give the conference more publicity.

Hillel planned pro-Israel programming to highlight Israel’s democratic values, placing ads in campus newspapers, bringing pro-Israel lecturers to campus and sponsoring a pro-Israel rally on Oct. 10 with speakers from mainstream organizations.

A new group — Michigan Student Zionists — worked with Aish HaTorah, the Zionist Organization of America and Coalition for Jewish Concerns-Amcha in crafting a more confrontational approach.

MSZ activists flanked the doors of the conference building, chanting that the pro-Palestinian movement was “justifying suicide bombing” and was anti-Semitic. They also staged a prayer service, counterconference, rally and a “street theater” demonstration where students scattered on the ground simulated the aftermath of a suicide bombing.

MSZ leaders filed a lawsuit trying to force the university to cancel the conference on the grounds that guest speakers — including Sami Al-Arian, a University of South Florida professor under federal investigation for links to terrorist groups — would incite violence.

A judge denied a hearing on the lawsuit, saying the plaintiffs didn’t have legal standing. Many of the 400 people at the pro-Palestinian conference represent extreme elements from 70 universities across the country.

Wayne Firestone, director of the Israel on Campus Coalition, a coordinating body for Israel advocacy sponsored by Hillel and the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, said he wasn’t impressed by the Palestinian supporters’ new message.

“I believe they’re very much on the defensive and they’re essentially failing,” he said. “They had almost no buy-in from the local Michigan population. And most of the participants were fly-ins.”

“To the extent that the advance publicity succeeded in bringing this to the public’s attention, it galvanized the administration’s opposition,” he added.

Indeed, the university’s president, Mary Sue Coleman, denounced one of the conference’s key planks — for universities to divest their holdings in companies that deal with Israel — in a Sept. 26 statement. But the anti-Israel message could find fertile ground among impressionable and often uninformed college students.

Participants at the pro-Palestinian conference argued that university divestment would pressure Israel to end its occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, which they say is the first step toward making peace.

Those who oppose divestment really want to squelch the pro-Arab groups’ free speech, they claim. In response to charges that the anti-Israel movement is anti-Semitic, conference organizers made sure to feature Jewish participants prominently.

“We categorically reject” the accusations of “anti-Semitism being tossed around,” said Ora Wise, an Israeli-born junior at Ohio State University, who is on leave to work for the New York-based Jews Against the Occupation.

“We need to go to the origins of the conflict” — in her view, Israel’s presence in the West Bank and Gaza Strip — to remove the barrier to peace, Wise said. Ending the occupation will also bring “Jewish emancipation,” she said.

At a news conference, SAFE leaders responded to the charge that they endorse terrorism by condemning suicide bombings — along with “state-sponsored terrorism” against civilians. Palestinian supporters use such formulas to equate Palestinian terrorist attacks and Israeli counterterror operations, both of which may result in civilian deaths.

Undermining a key Israeli argument — that Israel is a democracy like America — Palestinian supporters say America’s historic subjugation of blacks and, allegedly, of women shows that democracies can be oppressive too.

The Israel on Campus Coalition released a resource guide last week that offers tools to counter pro-Palestinian arguments, and describes different approaches favored by various organizations. Other groups also have produced materials countering pro-Palestinian arguments, including divestment.

But if attitudes at Michigan are representative, the pro-Israel forces are having a difficult time courting some of the 6,000 Jews on campus on such a highly polarized issue.

Israel and American Jewish groups have “failed to contextualize how remarkable the Zionist enterprise is for this generation of Jews,” said Michael Brooks, executive director of the University of Michigan’s Hillel.

While many Jewish students are instinctively pro-Israel, even some of the most ardent defenders of Israel are at a loss as to how to refute the pro-Palestinian arguments. Others doubt their pro-Israel education, assuming it was biased.

The competing approaches among pro-Israel activists — confrontation or low visibility — complicates things for many Jews on campus who feel misrepresented by both.

“Most Jewish students are very confused,” Brooks said. “They don’t really understand the stuff they hear well enough” to respond to it, and — unlike the Palestinian supporters — they’re “very suspicious of absolutist positions.”

Stacie Ain, for example, was turned off by T-shirts at the Oct. 10 Hillel rally that read, “Wherever We Stand, We Stand with Israel.” Many of the 1,000 people in attendance wore the shirts.

It’s “almost passively aggressively attacking another side,” said Ain, a junior studying psychology.

Ain said a lack of impartial information has made it hard for her to assess the conflict. The information she received in her youth, when she attended a Jewish day school in Rockville, Md, was biased toward Israel, she said.

“If I had to choose, I would support Israel,” she said, but added, “I still have to be somewhat skeptical about what I hear.”

The fear of wholeheartedly embracing either side has given rise to a new Jewish group on campus, the Progressive Israel Alliance.

“You can’t just pick one side,” said sophomore Becky Eisen, an activist with the group. “You need to look at the whole picture” and recognize that “both sides have valid points.”

But most Jewish students remain reflexively pro-Israel, even if they don’t understand the conflict.

Freshman Shelby Kaufman from West Bloomfield, Mich., said she supports Israel because Jews are a minority and “we gotta stick together in the world.”

Jonathan Dick, a 23-year old law student, said he attended the Palestinian conference to hear the other side’s position. Yet he complained to one speaker about how one-sided the conference was.

Discussion was “too much about what the atrocities have been” and “not enough about the context they’ve existed in,” Dick told JTA.

Indeed, conference speakers focused exclusively on the Palestinians’ suffering, without mentioning their aggression. A key tactic to rouse the audience was to discredit their opponents.

In a lecture at the conference, Hussein Ibish, communications director for the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, jeered at pro-Israel efforts — the “beshawled jokers” protesting outside, the “crackpot” lawyer who tried to sue the university, the AJCommittee ad against intimidation on campus and the controversial new Campus Watch Web site that lists professors deemed anti-Israel.

Jewish opponents of the conference are a “desperate, desperate group of people,”Ibish said.

“It’s like being showered in tissue paper,” he said of the opposition from pro-Israel forces. “If you treat it as rubbish, it will blow in the breeze and disintegrate.”

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