Plotzing in New Paltz

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

In the land of academe, what makes administrators more squeamish than a women's sexuality conference where dildos, anal beads, and s/m tools are openly displayed and discussed? One thing only: criticism of Israel.

That, at least, is the conclusion drawn by organizers of an October 19 conference at SUNY-New Paltz—"Women and War, Peace and Revolution"—whose keynote panel features Dr. Ruchama Marton, the president of Israel's Physicians for Human Rights, and Nadia Hijab, a Palestinian writer and consultant who authored Womanpower: The Arab Debate on Women at Work and Citizens Apart: A Portrait of Palestinians in Israel. For the first time in more than 15 years, the college administration has denied funding to the annual women's studies conference, asserting that it would not serve "the best interests of the university." Though SUNY-New Paltz has not experienced the dueling campus activism of pro-Palestine and pro-Israel students that erupted at colleges all over the country last year, conference organizers are finding that to take on the topic at all these days is to enter a fractious, mine-studded territory.

In 1997, New Paltz's women's studies conference—that year bearing the theme "The Challenges of Women's Sexual Freedom"—drew heat from SUNY trustee Candace de Russy and tabloid editorialists for including sessions on s/m and sex toys among its 25 panels. De Russy, an ardent conservative and longtime anti-tax activist, seized on the event to launch a highly publicized assault on the university's "misuse" of the state coffers.

Five years later—during which SUNY has suffered steady cuts in government funding—women's studies finds itself in the crosshairs again. This time, though, critics are taking aim at the event before it even happens—and on the basis of a three-paragraph description of one of its participants.

Retired professor Sheila Schwartz volunteered for this year's conference planning committee, then resigned in protest, objecting to Ruchama Marton's inclusion after reading a short bio of the Israeli psychiatrist. It described Marton as devoting three decades of activism to "exposing, analyzing and challenging the systematic and individual acts and policies of Israeli repression toward Palestinians including the employment of torture, house demolition, denial of access to basic services, and political exclusion." To Schwartz that signaled that the keynote panel would be a fest of "Israel-bashing." In a phone interview, Schwartz asserted that Marton's biography "should be more balanced." It should "put things in context" and condemn Palestinian attacks on Israeli civilians. Schwartz suggested that Marton was implicitly endorsing suicide bombings by referring in her bio to her lifelong work against Israeli human rights abuses without saying a word about Palestinian atrocities.

For organizers of the conference, that leap of logic—even in these increasingly polarized times—was absurd, and they insisted that Marton was a perfectly legitimate choice. The recent recipient of the Jonathan Mann Award for Global Health & Human Rights from the Global Health Council, an international alliance of health organizations and professionals, Marton has held fellowships at the University of Chicago and at Harvard. "We specifically invited speakers who are examples of people working" toward "transnational cooperation," says women's studies professor Amy Kesselman, one of the key organizers, citing Marton's and Hijab's long-standing efforts to work jointly among Arabs and Jews. (A third keynote panelist, the journalist Amy Goodman, will give an overview of the effects of war on women in general.) "We don't think every program has to provide every perspective on a complicated issue," Kesselman adds. "We want to highlight the perspectives of dissenting women working for peace from both sides."

Schwartz's demand to replace or at least balance Marton with a more pro-government Israeli speaker went unheeded. So Schwartz shared Marton's bio with Jewish studies faculty, college administrators, the local Jewish Federation office, and the Anti-Defamation League in New York City. "I don't know anyone who wasn't alarmed by it," she says.

One of those she contacted was ADL regional director Joel Levy, who says he "made our views known" to university officials. He says he told them, "Some people on the campus contacted us because they think the presentation will be biased. We don't know that. We believe in a free and far-ranging discussion. We're assuming that will happen."

Even so, New Paltz's dean of liberal arts and sciences, Jerry Benjamin, would not commit university foundation funds to the conference, whose budget is about $4000. (Organizers were hoping for $1500 to $2000 from the school, according to Kesselman.) Benjamin declined to discuss his reasoning, but says he made "an independent judgment." Critics of the move charge that just knowing that the ADL and others are watching, he fears any public censure—and is willing to do anything, even sacrifice academic freedom, to keep a critical spotlight from fixing SUNY-New Paltz in its harsh beam again.

Ever since '97, says Kesselman, "our public activities have been seen as a potential liability all the time." Nevertheless, the conference planners were stunned by the denial of funding. They are now scrambling to raise private donations to fund Marton's trip from Tel Aviv. (Hijab lives in the U.S.) Distinguished professor of history and of Jewish studies Gerry Sorin—who has "no objection to Marton, per se; she is a bona fide professional"—regards the keynote panel as inappropriately giving the left a "monopoly of viewpoint." But he agrees that women's studies "is more heavily scrutinized" than other groups on campus "because of their history."


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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