Plotzing in New Paltz

Israel Sparks Fresh Controversy for a SUNY Women’s Studies Conference

Of course that's not the only history that makes "Women and War, Peace and Revolution" dicey. The spiraling violence in Israel and Palestine in the last two years and the increasing sense of desperation among activists in the U.S. have so polarized the discourse here that genuinely open exchanges of ideas on the conflict are more and more difficult to achieve. Dissent has especially been frozen within American Jewish communities. A Hebrew schoolteacher who requested anonymity said she had been told she would lose her job if she did not bring her students to the bellicose annual Salute to Israel parade last May. Last month, activists with Jews Against the Occupation say, a space promised to them by the Workmen's Circle was revoked after folks from the right objected to their plans to report on work they'd done with the International Solidarity Movement in Palestine over the summer.

When the Palestinian leader Hanan Ashrawi—a moderate who denounces suicide bombings and calls for a return to negotiations—was scheduled to speak at the University of Colorado earlier this month, flyers circulated around campus equating her with Osama bin Laden; Jewish community activists said she should not be granted a platform. Last week, The Chronicle of Higher Education reported that in an attempt to combat what it sees as anti-Israel bias in academe, the hawkish think tank Middle East Forum has created a new Web site called Campus Watch, which lists faculty members it is monitoring and invites students to report on their professors.

As the president of the Jewish Federation of Ulster County, Michelle Tuchman, put it as she tried to explain her objection to Ruchama Marton's visit to the area, "This is a time for people to stand up for Israel. Israel is bereft and struggling for its existence right now and it's not fair to have Israel held in a negative light." Granting that her knowledge of Marton is based only on the one-page bio, she added, "We support the right of people to express their opinions, but it is a disservice to have one woman expounding on the evils of Israel without presenting a parallel from other countries in the area where women have no rights."

There is one way to hold a major forum on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict without incurring any protests from pro-Israel forces: don't talk about Israel at all. Talk only about Palestinians.

That's essentially what happened at "How Will This Ever End?" a sold-out September 17 forum held at the 92nd Street Y and co-presented by The New Republic. Except for the Israeli author and translator Hillel Halkin, who urged that Israelis and Palestinians make one more try truly to cohabit rather than separate totally, and for the Iraqi Kanan Makiya, who described his hopes for the opposition in his homeland, the four other men on the panel answered the title's question by explaining what the Palestinians must do. Moderator Martin Peretz and panelists Leon Wieseltier, Dennis Ross, and Richard Holbrooke all described ways in which Arafat and the Palestinian Authority must change—or be overthrown—before there can be any movement toward a settlement of the conflict. Perhaps they are right, but apart from a last-minute mention by Wieseltier of some of Ariel Sharon's recent excesses, none acknowledged the impact of a 35-year occupation on the Palestinian people.

Disavowing the occupation, says Ruchama Marton—a psychiatrist, after all —is precisely what Jews in Israel and the U.S. feel compelled to do to sustain their moral view of Israel and even of themselves, and that is why speakers like her draw such vitriolic attacks. "People know that what I'm saying is right about our use of too much force and violence only for the sake of protecting settlements in the Occupied Territories, but they can't bear to face it," she explains. "So they accept the idea that Israel is fighting for its life when in reality we are fighting for the settlements. We won't find a way out of the horrible bloodshed on both sides without facing that reality."

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