Rap Israel at Divestment Parley
By DANIEL TREIMAN
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
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
"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
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
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."