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Ohio’s Pro-palestinian Conference Passes Without Very Much Fanfare

November 11, 2003
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After months of anticipation and a weekend of Jewish counter-activism, a national pro-Palestinian conference has passed without too much fanfare.

Jewish groups had debated the best strategy to confront the Third Student Conference of the Palestine Solidarity Movement, held Nov. 7-9 at Ohio State University.

Jewish activists from as far away as Milwaukee and New York streamed to Columbus to protest the Palestinian event, while members of the local Jewish community urged them to keep a low profile.

Still, nearly 200 Israel supporters from across the United States, more than half of them from Cleveland, joined in a cacophony of chants, songs and prayers on a sunny but chilly afternoon outside the building where the pro- Palestinian conference was held.

Inside, Palestinian supporters differed on whether it was okay to support suicide bombings and other terrorist attacks against Israelis.

“Suicide bombings are an inhumane defense that are a result of dehumanizing actions by the Israeli political and military establishment,” said Sophia Sahouri, a community college student from the Washington area. “Certain extreme factions within Palestinian society resort to this violent behavior because of their frustration and desperation.”

The conference’s keynote speaker was Adam Shapiro, a Jew who has been an organizer of the International Solidarity Movement, and who has supported violent Palestinian “resistance” against Israel.

In March 2002, Shapiro holed up at Yasser Arafat’s compound in Ramallah to safeguard the Palestinian Authority president during Israel’s Operation Defensive Shield, an anti-terrorist operation.

According to Nahla Saleh, an OSU graduate student in education who served as media spokesperson for the conference, the movement issued “no clear condemnation of suicide bombings, but also did not express support for them, either.”

Throughout the weekend, those attending the conference and those protesting it exchanged taunts and shouts. Physical violence seemed likely only once, on Friday evening, when some 50 conference attendees, Israel supporters and curious onlookers mingled haphazardly in a war of words, slogans and songs.

Under tight security and the watchful eye of the OSU department of student affairs, Palestinians chanted “Allahu akbar,” or God is great, while Jews responded with strains of “Am Yisrael Chai,” the people of Israel live.

Israel supporters came from as far away as Milwaukee and New York to “be a counter voice to the hate speech” of the conference, said Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld, vice president of Amcha-The Coalition for Jewish Concerns.

However, the Columbus Jewish community discouraged people from protesting the Palestinian conference.

In a Nov. 5 e-mail distributed in the Columbus Jewish community, Marsha Hurwitz, president and CEO of the Columbus Jewish Federation, wrote, “we should not demonstrate, rally or protest at the PSM conference. It is believed that our presence on campus in protest will likely result in more attention by students and/or media than the PSM would otherwise receive.”

Rather than formally protesting the conference, local Jewish organizations decided to increase their pro-Israel programming, according to Joseph Kohane, executive director of OSU’s Hillel.

For example, the federation, the Hillel and OSU’s Chabad House sponsored an appearance by attorney Alan Dershowitz and initiated a program to train student advocates for Israel.

Local federations also joined to sponsor a speech Sunday by Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, at the local Jewish community center.

The Columbus Jewish community’s response was upsetting to Amcha’s Herzfeld, who traveled from New York to protest the conference.

“Their response is not strong enough,” he said. “The Columbus Jewish Federation tried to keep us out, but there was hatred being spewed on campus and it needed an answer.”

Hurwitz confirmed that some members of the Columbus Jewish community asked Amcha not to come “because it will only draw attention” to the Palestinian conference.

The conference ended Sunday as noisily as it had begun, but with a twist. Seventy-two conference attendees marched silently, arms linked, in rows of two or three, to their closing rally.

As Israel supporters chanted “baby killers” and “not one inch,” the marchers lined up three deep, stone-faced, with their backs to the Jews.

Suddenly, after five minutes, one conference attendee began yelling, “Tear down the wall.” Marchers joined the chant, their backs still turned away from the Jewish protesters. Then they walked away.

After their departure, Amcha’s founder and president, Rabbi Avi Weiss, told those assembled, “Wherever they go, we will go. We will be the voice of moral conscience.”

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