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Meanwhile, Caravan for Democracy, a new group underwritten by Ronald Lauder and other conservative Jewish American philanthropists, is bringing Israelis to campuses to discuss, as the publicity puts it, "the challenges Israel faces as the only democracy in the Middle East." In New York's Jewish Week last month, the Caravan's founders warned, "We cannot allow the enemies of democracy to win the battle for the minds of young Americans"as if only the dupes of demagogues would object to the occupation.
But it's not just the pro-Israel troops that have outside support and increasingly Manichaean rhetoric. On some campuses, much of the pro-Palestinian activism is spearheaded by members of the International Socialist Organization. At Columbia, for instance, ISO member Omar (who requested that his whole name not be used) is a central figure in that campus's chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP), though he has no other affiliation with the university. While students in Columbia's SJP have a range of viewssome are anti-occupation Zionists, while others question the very idea of a Jewish statethe ISO is decidedly anti-Zionist, rejecting a two-state solution in favor of a single binational state in historic Palestine. According to Omar, the group also does not condemn Palestinian suicide bombings because "we support the right of Palestinians to resist occupation and do not dictate the methods of that struggle." He adds, "There's a difference between violence of the oppressed and violence of the oppressors."
As the school year draws to a close, students with more nuanced views have been organizing to push the debate away from hyperbole and moral relativism. They aren't exactly seeking a milky middle ground they are absolutely opposed to the Israeli occupation and in favor of Palestinian independence. But they insist that demanding justice for several million stateless and desperate people does not require romanticizing the Palestinian leadership nor exaggerating the myriad offenses of the Israeli occupation. They understand, too, that unlike people in the Middle East, they do not face a perpetual, immediate threat of violence and thus have the emotional space to be consistent in their application of human rights principlesand the capacity to encourage more understanding in place of grandstanding.
NYU's chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine, for instance, staged a silent vigil on April 9 focusing on the human consequences of the occupation for both Palestinians and Israelis. The group attracted first-year grad student Shana Minkin, because, she says, "it's the only organization on campus that calls for an end of occupation and for an end to violence on both sides." Coming to NYU's Middle Eastern Studies Department with a B.A. and an M.A. in Jewish studiesand, before that, an education at Jewish day schoolsMinkin insists, "Anyone who supports and believes in Israel needs to fight with all their might against the occupation and what is happening there now."
A diverse group that includes Jewish, Arab, and other students, NYUSJP disallows "inaccurate and unproductive" signs at their events, says organizer and graduate student Sherene Seikaly, a Palestinian. At a recent rally, she says, they asked a woman carrying a "Sharon=Hitler" placard to remove it. "A lot of people are new to this movement," she says. "Educating them about the history and complexity of the issues is part of the labor we have to undertake. That's what we'll be working on over the summer."