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Campus anti-Israel activism intensifies

Campus anti-Israel activism intensifies
By RACHEL POMERANCEC Jewish Telegraphic Agency

ANN ARBOR -- "We are all Palestinians," read the eco- green shirt for sale.
"Palestine will be free from the River to the Sea," one T-shirt said on the front, and "Palestinians for life, refugees until return" on the back.

In the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the US 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 advertisement criticizing the anti-Israel movement for allegedly intimidating its opponents. [CU President Elizabeth Hoffman refused to signed the ad.]

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, 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.

One table at the student conference at the University of Michigan sold Palestinian paraphernalia such as flags and keffiyehs.

Material was available from Jews Against the Occupation and the Women in Black peace group.

Several groups protested US policy on Iraq and a few political campaigners were on hand, even one pushing the presidential candidacy of Lyndon LaRouche.

Above the collection was a disclaimer: Not all views represented are those of the Students Allied for Freedom and Equality, the pro-Palestinian student group that sponsored the conference.

Indeed, the conference was a sort of ideological grab bag whose common theme was opposition to Israel.

"If they are mad about the Holocaust," then Berlin would be the "right place" for Jews to take over, said Sami Al-Arian, a University of South Florida professor under federal investigation for alleged ties to terrorist groups.

In his speech at the conference, Al-Arian engaged the audience in an evangelical-style call-and-response where "Israel" was the only answer to a litany of accusations.

For example, he asked: Which country in the Middle East has been protected from more than 30 UN resolutions by a US veto?

A US official later dismissed Arian's assertion as "just rhetoric."

The conference's opening speaker, Washington talk-show host Mahdi Bray, called Israel "an oppressive, racist, apartheid state," and drew parallels between Israel's treatment of Palestinians and America's treatment of blacks.

It's the "same soup, just a different bowl," whether it's Nablus or Soweto, Bray said.

Israel wants the Palestinians to be the "new niggers of the Middle East," Bray said, providing cheap labor while receiving few rights.

Bray's speech received a standing ovation.

Far-left Israeli professor Ilan Pappe, director of the International Relations Division of Haifa University, called Israel's policy the most "callous and brutal occupation" since WW II.

Ethnic cleansing is at the "center of Israeli politics," Pappe said, urging activists at the conference to bypass the "evil American administration and its evil policies in the Middle East."

American Jewish activist Adam Shapiro -- who gained headlines when he took shelter in Palestinian Authority President Yasir Arafat's besieged Ramallah compound last spring -- said he may go to Iraq to make sure Israel doesn't take advantage of a US war to deport Palestinians there.

Conference attendees agreed on one thing: their mission statement, adopted at the University of California at Berkeley last year during the first such Palestine solidarity conference, and reconfirmed at this year's parley.

The statement calls for "the full decolonization of all Palestinian land, including settlements, which are illegal under international law; the end of the Israeli occupation of the Gaza Strip and West Bank, including East Jerusalem and all Arab lands; the recognition and implementation of the right of return and repatriation for all Palestinian refugees to their original homes and properties; and an end to the Israeli system of apartheid and discrimination against the indigenous Palestinian population."

It also "condemns the racism and discrimination inherent in Zionism."

Nowhere does it mention peace with Israel.

In fact, conference backers stressed that the Palestinians were right to reject the 2000 Camp David peace package, in which Israel offered to withdraw from virtually the entire West Bank and Gaza Strip and divide Jerusalem if the Palestinians declared an end to the conflict.

"Had they accepted that, then we would be stuck," said Jesse Bacon, 25, representing the Palestine Solidarity Committee in Seattle. "We wouldn't be able to keep resisting. Everyone would say they have their three or four chunks of state."

Speakers insisted that the anti-Israel movement was gaining steam, largely because of publicity surrounding accusations that the movement is anti- Semitic.

A Palestinian professor of Islamic studies at UC Berkeley, Hatem Bazian, thanked pro-Israel forces, whose opposition had given the anti-Israel movement such publicity.

The movement is "only going to grow and grow and grow because the Palestinian cause is the one for people to join," Bazian said.

Andrea Fischer Newman, a university regent, seemed concerned by that possibility.

"Because of the coverage of the conference, we've given worldwide credibility to this issue," she said.

While organizers "cloak it in rational discussion," the real purpose of the conference is "the end of the State of Israel,'' she said.

Fischer is up for re-election Nov. 5. Her opponent, Ismael Ahmed, is the executive director of the Arab Community Center for Economic and Social Services, which endorsed the conference.

A new group -- Michigan Student Zionists (MSZ) -- 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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