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Pro-israel Push Pays off on Campus, but Impact of Iraq War Unpredictable

March 11, 2003
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

Pro-Israel activists are gaining ground on campus, but some wonder how an expected war against Iraq could change the equation.

The anti-war movement, many of whose leaders also head pro-Palestinian groups, is the newest venue for pro- Palestinian activity on campus.

Jewish officials fear that the inclusion of the Palestinian agenda under the anti-war umbrella could help the Palestinians win broader support among young Americans.

They fear, too, that if war with Iraq fails or drags on, it will empower the anti-war movement and, with it, pro- Palestinian activists, since leaders of the anti-war movement claim that American policy is formulated to serve Israel’s interests.

But anti-war fervor so far has failed to make great headway on campus: Most students are ambivalent about war and view the anti-war movement as a hodgepodge of anti-establishment causes.

At the same time, Mideast dialogue groups are on the rise, contributing to a climate that is friendlier toward Israel than at any time since the intifada began more than two years ago.

When it began, the intifada sparked a burst of pro-Palestinian activity that in some cases inspired acts of anti- Semitism on college campuses.

Charges against Israel — couched in progressive language that attracted liberal academics — stunned Jewish students and their campus organizations, which were ill-prepared to respond.

Two years later, a confluence of factors have bolstered the confidence of pro-Israel activists on campus:

fortification of pro-Israel activists. American Jewish organizations have responded to Mideast activism on campus with new models of pro-Israel advocacy for students. The effort has led to effective, pro-active programming for Israel and a cadre of savvy student campus advocates.

the failure of anti-Israel strategies. The divestment movement — a crusade for universities to drop their investments in Israel — is widely regarded as a failure. Divestment petitions were rejected by university presidents from Harvard to the University of Michigan, and even engendered counter-statements of solidarity with Israel.

In addition, anti-war rallies on college campuses across America last week failed to mobilize a large amount of pro- Palestinian activism.

less confrontation. The current academic year has seen a growth of Mideast dialogue groups and administration-sponsored lectures. Alternatively, many Jewish groups have discouraged followers from reacting to fringe pro-Palestinian activity.

Both strategies have resulted in less confrontation on campus.

the impending war with Iraq. The movement has had contradictory effects: While it may have exposed some students to the Palestinian agenda, it also has diverted the attention of many potential Palestinian sympathizers who are too preoccupied with the conflict with Iraq to worry about any other issues.

In addition, a small “pro-America” movement has arisen in reaction to the anti-war movement — and it carries a pro- Israel bent.

In any case, polls have shown that most American students mirror general American public opinion, which is pro- Israel.

Still, Jewish officials are cautious, and say war against Iraq could open a new front for Jewish students.

The anti-war movement is a “gift from the Lord” for pro-Palestinian activists said Jeffrey Ross, director of campus affairs for the Anti-Defamation League. “It is an opportunity for them to make their case to much larger numbers of people, and to do it on an issue that is of more direct concern to most Americans than the plight of the Palestinians.”

“The fact that the” anti-war “movement is sort of peppered with anti-Israel leaders and spokespeople, we never know where it’s going to emerge,” said Wayne Firestone, director of the Israel on Campus Coalition, a coordinating body for Jewish groups on campus.

To be sure, anti-Israel activity still pops up on campus independently of the anti-war movement.

At Rutgers University, banners at two student centers call for the liberation of Palestine “from the river to the sea” — code for a Palestinian state to replace Israel, not live alongside it — and a Palestinian film festival recently aired at Columbia University.

For the moment, however, the distraction of war and the influx of pro-Israel resources has allowed Israel advocates to make headway.

Even at Berkeley — site of some of the most violent anti-Israel activism during the intifada — “things are really quite positive,” in a “worst-case scenario kind of way,” said Berkeley Hillel’s executive director, Adam Weisberg.

There is still “very, very negative background noise on Israel,” Weisberg said. An average student walking across campus on an average day might hear something negative about Israel — “that kind of stuff sinks in.”

But his operation is in “triage mode,” he said, with new resources and staff offering higher-profile programs, cultural and educational events and advocacy training.

The Berkeley administration also helped fund speeches on campus this year by former Mideast envoy Dennis Ross and former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak.

Another development is the birth of dialogue groups on campuses across the country.

At the University of Illinois, dialogue between Muslim and Jewish groups brought the two together to respond to attacks on each side.

When an anti-Semitic editorial ran in the campus paper, the campus Hillel’s head, Alison Siegel, came home to find phone messages and e-mails of sympathy from her Muslim friends, who wanted to know what they could do to help.

Likewise, when a Jewish activist ran an anti-Arab ad campaign in the campus paper, Siegel tried to reassure the Arab community.

Warmer relations haven’t curtailed political demonstrations on both sides, but have lessened the verbal intimidation used to be associated with them, Siegel said.

At Georgetown University, five grass-roots discussion groups have sprung up for Jews, Christians and Muslims, according to Rabbi Harold White, the university’s senior Jewish chaplain.

“It’s been very, very successful, and there has been very little contentiousness on this campus as a result,” White said.

Georgetown’s Students for Middle East Peace, a dialogue group created during the rocky spring semester last year, hosted a conference on campus two weeks ago that drew up to 60 students from East Coast colleges, The Hoya newspaper reported.

The university also has hosted several “Abraham Salons,” an interfaith dialogue based on the recent book “Abraham,” which presents the figure of the Hebrew patriarch as a potential facilitator for interfaith activity.

But the ADL’s Ross said the impact of dialogue groups depends on progress in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Dialogue groups flourished during the Oslo period, Ross said, yet “when violence broke out in the Middle East, you went from dialogue to confrontation” very quickly.

Shira Levine, a University of Michigan sophomore who founded a pro-Israel outreach and education group on campus, agrees that students react to events on the ground.

But “what it means to build peace on campus, in the world, is to start building your bridge, even if you don’t know if it will take you to the other side,” she said.

Levine’s group, the Progressive Israel Alliance, invited members of Students Allied for Freedom and Equality, sponsors of last fall’s national conference at the University of Michigan for divestment from Israel, to Hillel to discuss the origins of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

When Levine stopped by a recent campus rally, a pro-Palestinian activist invited her over for a potluck dinner.

“I feel like that matters. I feel like there’s someone to listen to on the other side,” she said.

For both Levine and Siegel, the goal is an improved, educated atmosphere on campus.

“I can’t dictate Middle East policy,” Siegel said. “I don’t even know what I would say if I could, but I can work to make this a better community and this a better learning environment.”

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