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In Placid Ohio, Jews Bracing for Pro-palestinian Conference

November 4, 2003
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On the flat road from the Columbus airport to Ohio State University, 1950s-style billboards for Wonder Bread and Wendy’s, which got its start here, hang over square parcels of land.

It’s a fitting welcome to this conservative Middle American town, which is an unusual host for the upcoming North American Conference of the Palestine Solidarity movement.

In contrast to schools like Berkeley or the University of Michigan — which hosted the previous two conferences and where anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism have risen during the Palestinian intifada — Ohio State is a peaceful campus with plenty of pro-Israel support.

Several of the university’s key institutions, in fact, are named for members of Columbus’ Jewish community.

Students and faculty say the campus is apathetic about politics, with most locals driven by a different agenda: the college football schedule.

In fact, the pro-Palestinian conference, scheduled for Nov. 7-9, will no doubt be overshadowed by a major home game, when Ohio State’s beloved Buckeyes, currently ranked seventh in the nation, take on Michigan State, ranked 14th.

Conversations with students on campus revealed that most had no idea or only vague knowledge of the pro- Palestinian event.

“It’s so easy to live in a bubble at Ohio State,” said junior Kara Silverman, co-chair of the campus’ Israel Action Committee, a group associated with Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life, that also works closely with the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.

“People get really wrapped up in school and don’t so much pay attention to this conflict,” she said.

The conference, which hopes to get universities to divest their holdings in companies that do business with Israel, was moved from Rutgers University to Ohio State due to internal squabbles.

That split could represent discord in a pro-Palestinian movement that is floundering, according to Wayne Firestone, director of the Israel on Campus Coalition, an umbrella organization for 26 Jewish groups.

Those groups largely are downplaying the Ohio State conference and the pro-Palestinian movement in general.

“The division is one indication that not only is there dissent, but following last year, when you look at what they have to show for their efforts, there frankly is very little,” Firestone said.

Firestone said pro-Palestinian activists are mounting “small, fairly unsophisticated grass-roots” efforts to portray Israel’s security fence as a racially-motivated separation wall and to compare the American occupation in Iraq to Israel’s presence in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

“By moving to the wall and the occupation as being their major arguments, they still have no answer to the resounding American abhorrence of terrorism as a strategy,” Firestone said.

Meanwhile, the divestment campaign is widely considered a failure. Signatures on divestment petitions have been far outnumbered by counterpetitions, and hundreds of university presidents have signed or issued statements rejecting divestment from Israel.

But the Committee for Justice in Palestine’s faculty adviser — a Jewish professor who hails from an Orthodox background — says the divestment movement can be useful in engaging students.

The conference is meant to determine “how to get the movement progressing,” Joseph Levine said.

For their part, Jewish groups seem to shrug off the conference as the antics of a few fringe elements. They even welcome the energizing effect it has had on Jewish students on campus.

Opinion on campuses across the country generally tilts toward Israel despite a few centers of anti-Israel activity, some Jewish leaders say. Still, they hope to influence the silent middle ground.

Except for the New York-based group The Coalition for Jewish Concerns-Amcha, which is trying to coordinate a 500-person protest on Sunday, most Jewish groups are trying to downplay the conference.

They decided on that course after consulting with national organizations like the Jewish Council for Public Affairs and Jewish groups at universities that hosted previous divestment conferences.

“The sense was that if we don’t give the group attention, the likelihood is that they themselves will not get attention here at Ohio State on a Michigan State football weekend,” said Marsha Hurwitz, CEO and president of the Columbus Jewish Federation.

Instead, Jewish groups on campus, along with the local Columbus community, are pursuing a strategy of proactive programming. On Oct. 28, for example, Ohio State saw the launch of an “Ambassadors for Israel” program organized by Chabad-Lubavitch in partnership with Hillel, AIPAC and the Jewish National Fund’s campus program, Caravan for Democracy.

Chabad flew in Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz to talk to 56 Jewish students — chosen as “ambassadors for Israel” — about the merits of the Jewish state.

Dershowitz was the first in a series of speakers, including former presidential hopeful Alan Keyes and Natan Sharansky, Israel’s minister for Diaspora affairs, who urged the students to become advocates for Israel.

Being an Israel advocate is “really an opportunity to kind of inform other students,” said senior Melissa Rosenfeld, a native New Yorker.

As part of the proactive strategy, the local Hillel and Ohio Jewish federations bought full-page ads in the student newspaper backing Israel. This semester, the Israel Action Committee also rolled out a Web site,

A pro-Israel rally coordinated by the Columbus Jewish Federation will be staged this weekend at the city’s Jewish Community Center, far from campus.

Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, will address the rally, which Hurwitz expects to draw several hundred people.

Officials from Amcha, which staged a protest rally outside the University of Michigan’s divestment conference last year, say it is a mistake to downplay the event.

“We can’t allow this message of hate to be stated without any response,” said Joshua Chadajo, Amcha’s executive director. “If the KKK were holding a conference on campus, would people say, ‘Oh, let’s just ignore it,’ or would people say, ‘We should speak out’?” he asked.

Silverman, of the Israel Action Committee, said she regrets Amcha’s plans to hold a rally. “We’re trying to create a culture of proactivity where we set the agenda,” she said.

But some say that keeping a coherent message isn’t easy for the pro-Israel group.

Not everyone agrees on the issues, said David Kaplan, a senior involved with the Jewish Business Students Association and the Israel Action Committee. But, he said, “we don’t want to become too soft or extremist.”

Meanwhile, the Jewish community has received several signs of campus support.

“I assure you that the university has no intention of altering its current investment policies, and divestment has not been proposed and is not under consideration,” Zuheir Sofia, chairman of Ohio State’s board of trustees, wrote to Richard Weiland, board president of Ohio Jewish Communities, a state lobbying group.

Last spring, even Buckeyes football coach Jim Tressel — who last year led the team to the national championship — signed an AIPAC-driven pro-Israel petition.

Faculty and school officials say the university’s Near Eastern studies department has remained untainted by politics. Cooperation between Jewish and Arab professors is said to be excellent.

But the conference has stirred elements of conflict. Organizers of the divestment conference have set up dummy Web sites to divert Internet surfers from the pro-Israel Web site to a pro-Palestinian one. And the Jewish studies department recently had its outdoor sign torn up — an incident the police currently are investigating.

The conflict also has crept off campus.

Tamar Rudavsky, director of Ohio State’s Melton Center for Jewish Studies, was in an art class downtown when the class’ nude model, a member of the Committee for Justice, told the class that recent pro-Israel ads show that Jews own the campus newspaper.

From Rudavsky’s perspective, a key issue in the debate on campus is that the mood is polarized.

“What you don’t have is the middle ground, people who are genuinely looking at both sides,” she said. “That’s the very thing we should have at the university, and that’s what’s missing.”

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