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Students Rap Israel at Divestment Parley

18 October 2002


ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Pro-Palestinian students from some 70 campuses converged on the University of Michigan campus last weekend for a conference to advance their campaign to force colleges and universities to divest themselves of holdings in companies that do business with Israel. But the conference ended in bitter disagreements between key factions of the divestment movement.

Jewish protesters charged the organizers of the Second National Student Conference on the Palestine Solidarity Movement with promoting terrorism and antisemitism, while speakers at the two-day parley variously accused Israel of "ethnic cleansing" and racism.

"Israel is the prime example of human rights violators in the world," said Eric Reichenberger, spokesman for Students Allied for Freedom and Equality, or SAFE, the pro-Palestinian University of Michigan organization that hosted the conference.

Organizers said the conference drew some 400 participants on its first day and had to turn away over 100 people for lack of space. Most of the conference attendees appeared to be Middle Eastern or Muslim, although there were sizable numbers of others, including large numbers of left-wing activists. According to one Jewish organizer, approximately 15 Jewish students participated.

The national divestment campaign is modeled after campus campaigns against apartheid South Africa during the 1980s. According to Fadi Kiblawi, co-founder of SAFE, divestment campaigns have been launched against Israel on some 40 campuses across the country. Thus far, however, no university has agreed to divest from Israel, and student- organized anti-divestment Web petitions have often succeeded in garnering more signatures than their campuses' respective pro- divestment petitions.

In September, Harvard University President Lawrence Summers suggested that calls for divestment from Israel are "anti-Semitic in their effect if not in their intent." Late last month, University of Michigan President Mary Sue Coleman stated her opposition to calls for divestment.

Nevertheless, conference organizers insist they remain committed to the goal of achieving divestment, noting that it took the campus anti- apartheid movement years to achieve its goals.

On Sunday, the conference's second day, deep divisions became apparent within the student divestment movement between pragmatists concerned with the movement's public image and more radical ideologues.

The fissures — one participant called them "basically a debate between Michigan and Berkeley," two key centers of pro-Palestinian campus activism — came to the fore in the conference sessions devoted to revising the divestment movement's guiding principles, which had been adopted in February at the movement's first conference at the University of California at Berkeley.

Citing public-relations concerns, the largely Arab-American leadership of SAFE fought vigorously to excise from the movement's guiding principles language condemning "the racism and discrimination inherent in Zionism." Members of SAFE also fought to drop from the guiding principles the statement: "As a solidarity movement, it is not our place to dictate the strategies or tactics adopted by the Palestinian people in their struggle for liberation." The latter statement has been labeled by critics as a pointed refusal to condemn Palestinian suicide bombings.

But more radical conference-goers — some of the most vocal of whom were non-Arab activists from Berkeley — successfully resisted the efforts to excise the language.

A visibly frustrated Kiblawi told those assembled, "These guiding principles are not representative of our campus's views," adding that the language that was finally adopted was "not something that I feel comfortable with."

There was, however, one resolution on which near-unanimity prevailed. As the conference was drawing to a close, an older, Jewish conference participant offered a resolution that would have explicitly stated that the divestment movement's vision of a "true peace" included "coexistence" with a "transformed and democratized" Israel and a renunciation of Palestinian claims on Israeli cities such as Haifa and Jaffa. It failed to find a single supporter.

David Post, a University of Michigan senior and spokesman for the American Movement for Israel campus group who attended many of the conference sessions as an observer, said he didn't hear any speakers make overtly anti-Jewish remarks, but nevertheless called the conference "destructive."

"The common message in every speaker that you hear is 'Israel is an apartheid state. Israel is wrong.' There's no blame put on anything the Palestinians do," he said. "There's not even an acknowledgement of the fact that this is a two-sided conflict and it needs to be worked out through negotiations for the two sides, who are both doing things wrong. I think it really undermines the peace process, it undermines ideas of peace."

While the pro-Palestinian student movement has declared its support for a "right of return" for Palestinian refugees, it has no official position on whether it accepts Israel's right to exist or supports a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Organizers say there is a diversity of views within the movement on this issue.

At the conference a few attendees wore T-shirts featuring both the Israeli and Palestinian flags with the words "Free Palestine" and "Secure Israel," while some others were clad in T-shirts emblazoned with the slogan "Palestine Will Be Free From the River to the Sea." The latter of these two slogans was taken up as a chant by a large number of attendees at one point. When a speaker called for "one single Palestinian state over the whole of historical Palestine," he received a tremendous ovation.

Conference critics assailed the organizers' choice of speakers, particularly Sami Al-Arian, a controversial University of South Florida computer science professor who the school is trying to fire in the face of allegations that he is tied to the terrorist group Islamic Jihad. Al-Arian has denied these allegations, and he has never been charged.

In his speech, Al-Arian called Israel's treatment of the Palestinians "much worse than what the black South Africans had to endure under apartheid."

Jewish groups responded to the conference with a pair of pro-Israel rallies, both of which drew several hundred participants. The larger one of the two was sponsored by the University of Michigan's Hillel and took place two days before the conference began. The second rally, which took place Sunday, was organized by a campus group, the Michigan Student Zionists, and many of its participants were bused in from New York by AMCHA-The Coalition for Jewish Concerns.

Two members of Michigan Student Zionists filed a lawsuit against the University of Michigan alleging that some of the invited conference speakers might incite violence on campus. A judge denied the plaintiffs a hearing.

Rabbi Avi Weiss, AMCHA's national president, who picketed with a small group outside the conference entrance Saturday, clad in a prayer shawl for the Sabbath, said some of the attendees had said in Arabic, "murder the Jews."

Conference organizers have rejected charges of antisemitism and said they oppose terrorism. "We absolutely condemn suicide bombings," Reichenberger said in response to a question at SAFE's press conference. "As far as attacks on civilian populations, we condemn all forms of attack on civilian populations both by the Palestinians, by the Israelis, or whoever may be involved."

A conference attendee from Boston University, Mike Figa, said he doubted the movement would be able to convince many colleges to divest from Israel. He noted that unlike the anti-apartheid movement, in the debate over divesting with Israel, "there's two voices almost equally represented."

"The reason why I support the movement is it's going to raise awareness and essentially foster dialogue and that's about it," Figa said. "I think you're living in an illusion if you think that there's going to be massive divestment."