The Mideast War Breaks Out on Campus

The Mideast War Breaks Out on Campus

One of the biggest problems Palestine’s supporters face is anti-Semitism.


“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.

One of the biggest problems Palestine’s supporters face is anti-Semitism–in the form of both fantastical accusations and ugly reality. Many supporters of Israel, along with some Jewish organizations like the Anti-Defamation League, consider any strongly worded criticism of Israel anti-Semitic, and use that libel to discredit their political adversaries. References to Israel as a racist state, or to Israeli atrocities, are frequently construed as threatening slurs rather than political statements. To be sure, some political expression on Israel does cross the line. Graffiti and placards equating Zionism with Nazism have been cited by pro-Israel student groups, the New York Times and the ADL as examples of campus bigotry. They aren’t, necessarily, but the comparison is misleading and historically inaccurate, and it’s unfortunate that it’s so prevalent. (One NYU group, working hard to protect relationships with progressive Jews, bans such slogans from its rallies.)

Yet some accusations have been much more disturbing. At San Francisco State University, according to a widely circulated e-mail written by Laurie Zoloth, director of the school’s Jewish Studies Program, a Hillel-sponsored rally supporting Israel met with counterdemonstrators threatening to kill the Jewish participants and shouting, “Hitler did not finish the job.”

Accounts of this incident vary widely. In interviews, several Palestine activists at SFSU acknowledge that they held a counterdemonstration, and that there was a confrontation between the two sides. But they adamantly deny that any Palestine supporters made threats; they say the racism came from the pro-Israel demonstrators, with elderly community members calling the Arab students “sand niggers” and “terrorists.” “We were called ‘Arab losers’ and told to stick flags up our asses. And those are the things that are mentionable,” says Leila Qutami of the SFSU’s General Union of Palestine Students. “I wouldn’t print the other names they called us.” Zoloth stands by her account, explaining, “The first I heard of these [anti-Arab] statements was when the president told us in a community meeting that he has police video of an older woman saying two nasty and terrible things at the rally, things that I too think are racist and that I, and Hillel, denounce.”

Sarah Levine, an observant Jew and a member of SFSU’s Students for Peace, supports the Palestinian cause and participated in the counterdemonstration. “I did not personally hear ‘Hitler didn’t finish the job,'” she says carefully, “but I did hear a couple of inappropriate, anti-Semitic things.” She declined to be more specific, saying she couldn’t remember exact words, and she hastened to make clear that those attitudes do not represent the campus pro-Palestine organization. Still, at every demonstration for Palestinian rights, she added, there are “always a couple of people” with anti-Semitic attitudes. “It’s because of the confusion of Zionism with Judaism,” she said.

Indeed, SFSU’s pro-Palestine activists have a troubled history on this issue. In April the administration had to ask the Muslim Student Association and GUPS to take down a flier with a picture of a baby, captioned “Palestinian Children Meat–Slaughtered According to Jewish Rites Under American License.” Ed Hernandez, a San Francisco State ISO activist involved in pro-Palestine organizing, acknowledges that there was an anti-Semitic speaker at an April 9 rally on his campus. (“Of course we were critical of that,” he says.)

Still, given the racial slurs coming from pro-Israel demonstrators, it’s unfair that the SFSU administration initially singled out Palestine supporters for reprimand. In a May 13 statement president Robert Corrigan condemned some pro-Palestine activists for “intimidating behavior and statements too hate-filled to repeat,” while praising Hillel for a “thoughtfully organized rally.” He vowed to investigate the incident, possibly turning over demonstrators to the district attorney for criminal prosecution. (One protester is being investigated for stomping on an Israeli flag–not, perhaps, an intelligent or diplomatic form of expression, but not a hate crime either.) Three days later, after campus police reviewed videotapes and more witnesses came forward, the administration clarified that it was investigating violations on both sides.

While it’s crucial to underscore the point that it’s not anti-Jewish to criticize Israel–as nearly every activist interviewed for this article did–it’s also important for Palestine’s supporters to make clear that their movement does not tolerate bigotry. Palestinian supporters at both Columbia and Berkeley have tried to counter the perception of prejudice by providing a visible presence at gatherings opposing anti-Semitism (though they are not always welcome at such events). Fighting anti-Jewish prejudice within their own ranks is probably more urgent. Sometimes when an individual makes anti-Jewish comments at a pro-Palestine event at her school, says Sarah Levine, “someone will take them aside and say, ‘Hey that’s not cool, that’s not what we’re fighting for.’ But generally, they’re too busy fighting to make their [pro-Palestine] point.” As organizers move forward with the divestment campaign, the issue of anti-Semitism could become even more treacherous, as cretins on both sides–anti-Semites and hawkish Zionists–may well equate discussion of the financial relationships with theories about worldwide Jewish banking conspiracies.

Particularly in light of recent ugly incidents–and their equally ugly exploitation–it’s heartening to see so many Jewish students organizing against the occupation. Their presence should be respected, and should serve as a reminder of a fact that both the anti-Semites and the pro-Israel zealots would prefer to ignore: In this country, many of the most articulate and outspoken critics of Israeli policy have been Jewish. Many Jewish students say they feel a special responsibility to fight for Palestinian rights. At Columbia activists have organized a monthly discussion of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict between Jewish and Arab students. Students at New York’s Jewish Theological Seminary have written a letter asking American Jewish organizations to support a Palestinian state and recognize Palestinian suffering; 108 rabbinical students have signed it.

Student supporters of both Israel and Palestine view themselves as embattled minorities, but in the United States, support for Palestine has been so marginalized as to be, until recently, almost invisible. The new campus resistance is growing and has great potential. Its success will depend on its ability to remain responsible, reasonable and compassionate in its message, and to speak in the language of universal human dignity, justice and rights that the ordinary American understands. Back at Columbia, another speaker condemned the suicide bombings. An activist informed the bystander, who had been too busy ranting about CNN’s “left-wing bias” to notice. The news stopped her in mid-sentence. “Thank you,” she said. “That’s all I wanted.”

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