The Mideast War Breaks Out on Campus
"Is anyone going to speak out against violence?" The student, a bystander at an April rally for Palestinian solidarity in front of Columbia University's Low Library in Manhattan, was red-faced with rage, and on the verge of tears. She took her question directly to the event's organizers, who were nonplussed. "This is a call to end the violence," said Annemarie Jacir, a Palestinian student who has family in Ramallah. The woman was unmollified. "A lot of people here are calling you Nazis and liars," she said. "Rather than calling out in a violent manner, I'm coming over to talk. I've been here as a bystander for an hour and haven't heard anyone condemn the suicide bombings." In fact, some speakers had done this, but she hadn't heard them. Jacir sighs, saying later, "People heckle us and say, 'You support Hamas.' That's not what this is about."
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a difficult subject on campus, just as it is everywhere in this country. Many students, horrified by Israel's recent atrocities, are beginning to question their own government's role in the Middle East. Increasingly, students critical of Israel, many of whom have never been politically active before, are emerging as a visible presence, protesting the Israeli occupation and its support by the United States. Within the emerging Palestinian solidarity organizations, students vary widely in their rhetoric and in their positions--on Palestinian resistance, for example, or the right of Israel to exist as a Jewish state--but they manage to work together. In April, reeling from the shock of Jenin and countering students celebrating Israeli Independence Day, pro-Palestine students held rallies and teach-ins across the country. At Berkeley, during a rally of 1,200 people, students occupied Wheeler Hall, an academic building, demanding that the University of California divest from companies doing business in Israel (seventy-nine people were arrested). And busloads of student protesters went to Washington for April 20, which, with a turnout of 50,000-80,000 people, turned out to be the largest pro-Palestinian demonstration in US history.
Many students are attempting to induce administrators to wield their institutions' power to create political change, as the student antisweatshop movement has done. Following the model of 1980s antiapartheid activists, students at Columbia, Princeton, Harvard, MIT and the Universities of California, Illinois, Michigan and Wisconsin are urging their administrations to divest from companies that do business with Israel. There are many such companies, as one might guess: General Electric, Hewlett-Packard, AOL Time Warner, Nokia. All figure prominently in the University of California's portfolio, while Harvard's has more than $600 million in companies with significant investments in Israel. A petition from students, faculty and staff at Harvard and MIT, modeled after a nearly identical petition signed by Princeton faculty, calls for divestment until Israel, in compliance with the relevant UN resolutions and Geneva Conventions, ceases building new settlements, withdraws from the occupied territories and either allows refugees to return to confiscated lands or compensates them for their losses. Some Israeli academics who oppose the occupation, like Tel Aviv University's Tanya Reinhart, have also signed the petitions, and some campus groups are also working closely with Palestinian activists in both Israel and Palestine.
But the issue of divestment is tricky. There is some opposition to the occupation among members of the Israeli business class, for example, and some observers point out that an embargo could alienate these potential allies. Anti-occupation campaigns can sidestep that problem by focusing on schools' connections to US companies that sell arms to Israel. This angle is popular in the South, where universities have particularly close ties to the arms industry. Emphasis on military connections is more specific, and provides an excellent way to highlight the responsibility of the United States for the conditions in Palestine, rather than focusing all the blame on Israel.
Calls for divestment have already caused controversy; at Harvard and MIT, opponents are circulating an antidivestment petition. But pro-Palestine students are hopeful, pointing out that the universities have changed policies in response to antisweatshop (and in the 1980s, antiapartheid) activists. The biggest obstacles, so far, are the ones embodied by the tearful bystander at Low Library: Americans' overwhelming, blinding sympathy for Israel, and the rarity of rational conversation on this issue.
But the pro-Palestine movement also faces some internal challenges. Members of the International Socialist Organization have been very involved in campus organizing against the occupation. It's too soon to say whether this is good or bad for the cause. Some fellow progressives see ISO members as hard-working, articulate activists with an intelligent analysis of the issues, whose work strengthens student organizations. Others find them heavy-handed and controlling, and as with most party-building activists, critics worry that their main allegiance is to the party rather than a specific campaign or issue. The truth varies dramatically, depending on the individuals involved and the existing campus political culture. But their presence often does create political tensions: While many groups reflexively condemn suicide bombings, the ISO takes a more conflicted view. "We don't support suicide bombings, but we believe that there is a difference between the violence born out of desperation and the systematic state violence of Israel," explains Snehal Shingavi, an ISO member and Berkeley leader of Students for Justice in Palestine.
Opponents of the pro-Palestine activists sometimes invoke the ISO connection in a--perhaps redbaiting--effort to discredit the cause and its adherents. But Shingavi bristles at the suggestion that the ISO is leading pro-Palestine organizing on campus, citing ISO-free campuses where students are active on the issue (including Florida State, Northwestern and the University of Illinois). Still, at many schools--including Columbia, Ohio State, Michigan, New York University and the California state universities--there is no doubt that the organization plays a strong role in Palestinian solidarity organizing, and that its networks facilitate coordination among campuses.