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At college graduations around the country this month, many students will be using the ceremonies to make a statement on the Middle East, draping a kaffiyeh, the checkered Palestinian headscarf, over their caps and gowns. From the University of Washington to Columbia and SUNY-Stony Brook, students have been protesting the Israeli occupation in an upsurge that hasn’t been seen since the anti-apartheid activities of the 1980s. Indeed, many of today’s activists invoke that struggle as a model, and have even begun to demand that their schools divest any holdings in companies that do business with Israel.
But there is one difference: the other side. While no one was prepared to fight for racial segregation, there are plenty of students who reject the analogy with South Africa and are willing to fight for Israel. The pro-Palestine movement and the pro-Israel reaction have been building all spring, especially since Israel reinvaded Palestinian towns in March, destroying hundreds of homes, demolishing infrastructure, and killing scores of civilians in its military campaign against terrorism. The result has been an increasingly tense and polarized climate on campuses, where rhetoric has escalated into hate speech on both sides, and even tipped toward violence.
Pro-Palestine students at Brooklyn College report that flyers they put up to promote their events are covered with anti-Arab epithets by their political opponents.
Last month, a sophomore at the University of Pennsylvania, a Palestinian originally from the West Bank, wrote an op-ed for the school paper lamenting the history of Palestinian dispossession and asserting that “a viable and peaceful solution must be agreed upon and abided by on both sides of the green line.” This carefully non-inflammatory essay garnered an e-mail response from a reader called Tom, suggesting that the author, Michel Khoury, “is a bastard Palestinian who should be shot like all the others.” And a certain John posted his assent: “Why don’t they all just blow themselves up?”
At the University of California at Davis last month, a man taunted pro-Palestinian demonstrators, chanting, “If there are no Arabs, there will be no terrorists.”
Meanwhile, at Berkeley, a center of pro-Palestine activism where 79 protesters were arrested for taking over a classroom building on April 9, legitimate anti-Israel criticism crossed way over the line into anti-Semitism in March: The glass door of the Jewish student center was smashed with a cinderblock. “Fuck Jews” was scrawled on the center’s recycling bins.
Just last Tuesday, students at San Francisco State University holding a pro-Israel rally were surrounded by pro-Palestine protesters screaming, “Go back to Russia” and “Hitler did not finish the job.” According to an e-mail account by Laurie Zoloth, the director of Jewish Studies at SFSU, “The police could do nothing more than surround the Jewish students and community members who were now trapped in a corner of the plaza, grouped under the flags of Israel, while an angry, out of control mob, literally chanting for our deaths, surrounded us. . . . This was neither free speech nor discourse, but raw, physical assault.” For weeks the campus had been festooned with posters invoking the medieval blood libel by showing soup cans with pictures of dead babies on them and labels reading, “canned Palestinian children meat, slaughtered according to Jewish rites under American license.”
To be sure, the vast majority of pro-Palestine students would be horrified by such actions, just as most Zionist students would be disgusted by the “Death to the Arabs” slogans on view at some pro-Israel rallies. But a few extremists on either side can oil the old slippery slope. And in an overall atmosphere of polarization, students can slide right down if they have little knowledge of, say, the historical weight of anti-Semitic tropes; the experience of Arab displacement; the corrupt and undemocratic nature of the Palestinian Authority and the theocratic dreams of Hamas; the continued Israeli appropriation of land and control of Palestinian resources, movement, and economics, even after Oslo.
Experienced advocates from both sides have rushed in to support student efforts, but rather than fill in some of the knowledge gaps, they have contributed to the polarization. As in the U.S. in general, major Jewish organizations active on campuses have for the most part struck a thoroughly defensive posture, asserting that Israel is always and entirely right and accusing anyone who questions Israeli policy of anti-Semitism. On the other side, left sectarian groups have latched onto some campus movements, pushing the demands for Palestinian freedom toward calls for the dismantling of Israel.
Pro-Israel students mount their own street theater actions (a Jewish kid dressed up as a suicide bomber at NYU two weeks ago) and invite hard-line speakers (the far-right pundit Daniel Pipes at Hunter College on May 2), but they are coached by national organizations like the Anti-Defamation League that have created special programs to help students rebut Palestinian claims. Hillel, the national program for Jewish students, is sending more than 400 students to Tel Aviv on a mission to “improve their Israel advocacy skills.”
AIPAC, the powerful Israel lobby in Washington, tutors hundreds of student affiliates, among them, NYU’s TorchPAC. Last month, the NYU group organized a demo in which several students held up signs objecting to human rights abuses in different countries: “Free, Free Lebanon, End Syrian Occupation Now,” “End the Slave Trade in Sudan.” Was the point that people shouldn’t pick on Israel because everybody’s committing atrocities? Not at all, says TorchPAC co-president Ronen Khordipour. Rather, he explains, criticism of Israel is anti-Semitic because other countries do things that are far worse and nobody complains. Besides, he adds, when individual Israeli soldiers commit questionable acts, they are tried and punished. As a state, he insists, “Israel doesn’t commit human rights abuses. Any you can name, I can justify. Anything they do in the West Bank is purely for self-defense.”
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 views—some are anti-occupation Zionists, while others question the very idea of a Jewish state—the 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 principles—and 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 studies—and, before that, an education at Jewish day schools—Minkin 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.”