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On Israel, Shifted Ground

March 6, 2009

The ground seems to have shifted, activists on all sides say. What they make of it varies.

A shift toward more visible pro-Palestinian or anti-Israel sentiment has been profound on some campuses, prompted, in part, by the winter war in Gaza. Where some describe a corresponding disintegration of civil discourse or a scapegoating of Israel for a complex set of problems, others celebrate a newfound space in which to be critical of Israel -- to mount a challenge to what they see as a dominant discourse, so to speak.

The two perspectives don't have to go hand in hand, but at times, they seem to.

Take Emory University, for example, where about a third of undergraduates are Jewish. “The situation’s very interesting because in the past Emory was not a political school at all,” said Jessica Fraidlin, a sophomore involved with several Israel advocacy organizations, including Emory Students for Israel. “We’ve always had a very strong Jewish community, but we’ve never had an opposing side.”

For the first time this year, Emory hosted several events as part of "Israeli Apartheid Week," an annual, international campaign that ends Sunday. The slate of events included a rally, a talk titled “Understanding Apartheid: From South Africa to Israel,” and a lecture Thursday by Norman G. Finkelstein, a political scientist known for his harsh critiques of Israeli policies and "the Holocaust industry" (and, in higher education circles, for being denied tenure at DePaul University).

Saba Khalid, a junior involved with Israeli Apartheid Week and a member of Emory Advocates for Justice in Palestine, said the group has not been well-received since its founding last spring. “We’ve actually had a lot of opposition, which is understandable, but very negative opposition,” Khalid said. Last semester, for instance, the group’s chalkings to promote “Week against the Apartheid Wall” were crossed out and replaced with anti-Arab scrawls like “Arabs Go Home," she said.

“If there’s an open forum and we go it turns into a shouting match,” said Khalid, adding that it's a small handful of students who get the rest going.

“We don’t mind that there’s not discussion. What we really mind is the fact that they target us and they come after us specifically. We don't come after them. We stick to our events," Khalid said.

Fraidlin, while agreeing that the climate is “not so good,” otherwise disputed that characterization of pro-Israel students at Emory. “We don’t put down the other side ever. We’re just pro our side.”

Of the chalking-related incident, she said, “I’m not going to say it’s not true. There are radicals on both sides. But we have condemned the people who did it, and EAJP continues to highlight those people and say they’re representative of the Jewish community, and they’re not representative of the Jewish community.

“It’s become a propaganda war; it’s kind of who can scream the loudest. EAJP wants their voices heard and it doesn’t matter how they get their point across. They’re going to get it across and to me that’s not academic. You need facts, figures, you need intelligent conversations. ... I'll even hand it to them, Norman Finkelstein coming to campus, at least they're bringing a scholar to campus. To me, that's OK,” said Fraidlin, who on Wednesday was wearing a blue shirt with white lettering that read, “Stand for Israel.”

She added that students on all sides are still in an adjustment period. “We haven’t really sorted out our feelings yet. We know that we don’t agree with their side and we don’t know how to handle it, really. Both sides are really at fault.”

Student Activism

“I think it’s safe to say that we’ve seen a more shrill tone to much of the criticism of Israel. Whether it’s in the campus quad, whether it’s rallies with signs, whether it’s blog postings to articles in the campus press, whether it’s question and answer sessions at academic fora about Gaza or about American policy toward Israel, it’s safe to say in all of these things we’ve noticed a trend – a reduction of civility of this dialogue, and that’s deeply troubling,” said David A. Harris, executive director of the Israel on Campus Coalition (which is affiliated with Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life).

For example, Harris said, “We see dozens and dozens of examples of 'die-ins' and [displays of] tombstones and public displays that are intimidating to some and don’t exactly foster an understanding of what is happening in the Middle East, or any kind of dialogue.”

He continued, however: “There’s plenty of not civil dialogue and dialogue that’s not what you'd want as the hallmark of academic discussion … but the clear majority of those cases are ones in which students on either side, neither of them feel that they are threatened or that they cannot express their views.”

Even relatively innocuous campus displays have caused tensions. At Cornell University last month, students involved with the Islamic Alliance for Justice lined pathways with 1,300 black flags to commemorate the violence in Gaza. The display was later vandalized, and hundreds of flags were rearranged into a Star of David, according to university police.

Cornell announced on Tuesday that two students had been charged with disorderly conduct and criminal mischief in connection with the incident. “There was no indication they were acting under the guise of any group’s motivations,” the deputy police chief, Kathy Zoner, said in a statement. “Groups were blamed for the action. They were the easiest and most convenient target for blame, but apparently that wasn’t the truth of the matter.”

The Palestinian cause has also risen to the top of many student groups' agendas. Students for a Democratic Society at the University of Rochester recently demanded that the institution divest from companies that "profit from war"; provide "necessary academic aid" and organize a day of fund raising for Gaza; and set up scholarships for Palestinian students. (University officials declined on the scholarships and direct aid, but promised to provide the group the same fund raising advice it would any registered student organization and forward the divestment request to the Board of Trustees' investment committee. That's standard protocol for such requests.)

At New York University last month, the "Take Back NYU" protesters presented a litany of 11 demands, including tuition stabilization, collective bargaining for student workers, public release of NYU's budget and endowment -- and scholarships for Palestinians and the donation of excess supplies for the rebuilding of Islamic University of Gaza, which came under attack by Israel during the recent war. The group's building take-over ended with suspensions and without any of the student demands being met.

Take Back NYU's frequently asked questions Web page offers a response to "What does Gaza have to do with NYU and transparency?" A protest organizer wrote: "I demanded that our surpluses be donated to the Islamic University of Gaza (as opposed to any other impoverished school) because our school very likely helped destroy it. Although we obviously can’t say for certain where our money is invested while the endowment holdings remain secret, it’s a fair bet that some of it is invested in companies that support the Israeli military."

This week, NYU has also been a site of Israeli Apartheid Week events. However, Arthur Samuelson, executive director of the Bronfman Center for Jewish Student Life at NYU, said that he hasn't seen an erosion of support for Israel on campus. "It is a marginal voice which has gotten some attention and the other is a much bigger and not changing base of support for Israel," he said.

'Forceful Push'

At Columbia University on Thursday, the Columbia Palestine Forum held a rally to present what's by now a familiar set of demands, including that Columbia provide scholarships for Palestinians and academic aid for a partnering Palestinian university. The group called too for an open forum on investments to initiate a "[u]niversity-wide conversation about divestment."

Meanwhile, the University of Massachusetts' Student Government Association took up (but tabled) the divestment question on Wednesday, according to the student newspaper. The movement to divest from Israel has been gaining rhetorical momentum at least among student and faculty activists (although not among administrators -- despite student claims to the contrary, no college has divested).

An organized campaign for an academic boycott of Israel also emerged in the United States in January. Proponents of the boycott argue that it will put non-violent pressure on Israel to respect international humanitarian law. However, the idea of boycotting Israeli academics raises questions of academic freedom and has many opponents, among college presidents but also among some liberal, even (self-identified) "radical" faculty. On the "Tenured Radical" blog, for instance, Claire B. Potter, a professor of history and American Studies at Wesleyan University, wrote she is "profoundly opposed to boycott and divestment" for a number of reasons. Among them: "It does not address the real problem in the region, which is that states -- primarily the United States, Russia, and former Soviet-bloc countries -- continue to cynically pour weapons into the Middle East, as if it is possible to arm resistance fighters and the Israeli government to the teeth and also negotiate for 'peace,' " she wrote.

“Where we’ve really seen some of the more heated kinds of discussion and debate has been around attempts to pressure universities into really examining their own support for the occupation … so the different divestment and boycott campaigns,” said Bruce Braun, an associate professor of geography at the University of Minnesota and a member of an organization that started this semester, Teachers Against Occupation, which now is assembling and developing pedagogical materials for use in high school and college classrooms. (Although individual members are involved with the boycott campaign, Teachers Against Occupation as a group has not taken a stand.)

“One of the things that’s really interesting on campuses right now is students are beginning to ask, ‘How are we connected to what’s happening in the Middle East? How do we transform our institutions?’ ” Braun said. “Having a debate on those kinds of questions is going to be emotional and it’s going to be one that raises uncomfortable questions. Sometimes we can point to civil dialogue as a way of sort of domesticating any kind of protest. And I think people feel very strongly that there’s an ongoing injustice that needs to be addressed and that continuously having a dialogue about this without taking steps to transform the institutional framework that allows what is perceived to be an unjust situation to be continued is something that people simply aren’t willing to abide with any longer.

“To put something on the agenda,” Braun explained, “actually takes sometimes a sort of forceful push. And I think that’s what we’re seeing at different points on campuses right now.

"I think there's a much stronger sense that sort of an unquestioned support of Israeli policy by the American government is something that we can no longer simply follow blindly or support," Braun continued, adding that the shift he sees isn't limited to college campuses. "I'm seeing that expressed at all kinds of different levels, among students, among faculty."

Questions of the faculty role in all of this have been at the forefront. Members of Teachers Against Occupation, for instance, “take quite seriously the fact that we are teachers. …As teachers, how do we respond by thoughtfully bringing these ideas into the classroom in ways that are constructive, or at least putting together materials for that?” Braun asked.

Meanwhile, Scholars for Peace in the Middle East, a pro-Israel organization, recently asked professors to report anti-Israel or anti-Semitic events or propaganda on their campuses, for a compendium of sorts. “We’re the people on campus. We’ve got our fingers on the pulse, we’re stakeholders, we’re faculty members. We live on campus longer than students, longer than most administrators and longer than most Hillel directors or Jewish education professionals,” said Edward S. Beck, president emeritus of the organization and professor in Walden University's School of Social and Behavioral Sciences.

“It’s our feeling that nothing is going to happen to reverse this trend of anti-Israelism [on campus] until the faculty absolutely say, ‘Look, some of these behaviors are unacceptable and inconsistent with behavioral codes on campus and some of what’s being taught here is incitement as opposed to free speech,' " Beck said.

Scholarship and Balance

One sub-strand of debate has been the faculty role when it comes to convening scholarly panels on Middle Eastern matters. As one high-profile example, a recent panel on "Human Rights and Gaza" organized by the Center for Near Eastern Studies at the University of California at Los Angeles, attracted attention for its perceived one-sidedness. Judea Pearl, a computer science professor at UCLA and father of the killed Wall Street Journal reporter, wrote in the Jewish Journal of the panel of "four long-time demonizers of Israel" who bashed the Jewish state, "portray[ed] Hamas as a guiltless, peace-seeking, unjustly provoked organization," and encouraged the audience in a "Zionism is Nazism" chant.

"Many people have contacted me — and some have even written news articles — to express profound disappointment over what they believe was the panel's unbalanced presentation and a lack of decorum during the question-and-answer period," Chancellor Gene Block said in a statement, which referenced a number of talks at UCLA that involve Israeli representatives and stressed a need for civil discourse. "The UCLA campus, with its diverse population and many points of view, is one of the most invigorating intellectual campuses in the world, and the university strives overall for scholarly balance."

"I guess what I would say is what we try and do is present a varied program on issues related to the central themes of our centers," said Nick Entrikin, acting vice provost of UCLA's International Institute, which is comprised of more than 20 centers, programs and research institutes (including an Israel Studies Program and the Center for Near Eastern Studies). "I think the argument that every program has to represent all sides of an issue, although it's something that we work towards in the aggregate, I just don't think we can really say we can do that for every particular event."

Tammi Rossman-Benjamin, a lecturer in Hebrew at the University of California at Santa Cruz who has written on these topics, said that when it comes to scholarly endeavors, the issue of balance "is a smokescreen."

But that doesn't mean she's not concerned by events like the one at UCLA, which she thinks are "nearing epidemic proportion" on campuses. It's not balance but the possibility of indoctrination -- which she believes represents an abuse of academic freedom -- that concerns her. "Scholarship is not about balance, scholarship is about truth. The antithesis of scholarship is political indoctrination. You don't balance political indoctrination with equal and opposite indoctrination," she said.

"If a course or if a conference has clear political motivations and calls to political action ... the question is, 'Is this scholarship?' Is it scholarship to call on people to divest from Israel? Is that considered a scholarly statement?" Rossman-Benjamin asked.

In the case of the UCLA panel, Sondra Hale, a professor of anthropology and women's studies and one of the organizers of the U.S. Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel, wrote a letter to the student newspaper, The Daily Bruin, defending the quality of scholarship presented (Hale did not respond to an e-mail request for an interview).

"Clearly, these are scholars who are very well-informed on the subject of the symposium and whose scholarship is beyond repute," Hale wrote. "They are scholars who bring pride to the University of California. This was a group of highly informed and qualified Jews, Israelis, Arabs and Arab Americans examining and trying to make sense of the human disaster of Gaza and criticizing the state policies that have lead to this calamity.

"Simply because some in the audience (from all perspectives) were out of line in some groups’ sloganeering, the problems should not reflect on the excellent symposium itself. No one on the panel exempted Hamas or suicide bombers from charges of human rights abuses or violations of international law. All clearly condemned the Hamas rocket attacks. ... No one on the panel chanted 'Zionism is Nazism,' " Hale wrote.

Of course it is the validation of fellow scholars that determines what scholarship is in the academy. More broadly, Rossman-Benjamin argued that academic senates need to do a better job of protecting the professoriate from indoctrination masquerading as scholarship.

"Things can deteriorate rapidly and come to a place where there really is a hostile environment for some students and faculty and staff because people aren't doing their jobs, because there are abuses that are not being routed out and taken care of," she said.

When Questions Can't be Asked or Answered

Student-sponsored events run on different rules. But at San Jose State University in early February, one event, open to the public and featuring an Israeli consul general, Akiva Tor, deteriorated rapidly. While it was an atypical incident, the case is described by some as a warning sign of sorts.

“During Mr. Tor’s speech he was, I guess you could say, heckled. People in the audience were not polite. They didn’t sit and politely listen. They catcalled and booed and one woman kept making remarks, but other audience members actually tried to deal with those people. Members of the pro-Palestinian faction got up and talked to these folks. I think that the pro-Palestinian faction, most of the people there had an interest in hearing what he had to say,” recalled Frances Edwards, director of San Jose State’s master's of public administration program and the moderator for the event.

It was during the question and answer session that things disintegrated. A woman read from a statement for several minutes before finally getting to her question: "Why do you lie?"

Tor began to answer but some audience members stood up and cat-called; one woman yelled, “Why did you kill my family?” Edwards related.

“He said, ‘mistakes were made in war,’ and they erupted. They absolutely erupted," Edwards said. Police escorted Tor out of the room, cutting the question and answer session short. (The student newspaper, The Spartan Daily, also published a video account.)

“I’m kind of neither on one side or the other, if you want to look at in terms of sides,” Edwards said. “My concern is for the university and what the university means to a community. We’re not intending to be an advocate for any particular point of view but rather to serve as a speaker’s corner, a common ground, where people of different opinions can get together and at least hear each other.”

Jon Whitmore, San Jose State's president, sent a letter of apology to Akiva Tor on Feb. 23, and another letter expressing regrets to a faculty adviser involved with the event.

A university spokeswoman, Pat Lopes Harris, said that she’s not aware of anyone being disciplined as a result of the event. “The approach that we have taken is that we understand that the event was less than ideal. To go back and to try to pull apart what happened and to start to try to blame one party or another doesn’t seem like it’s going to help us move forward,” she said.

She added, too: “One of the reasons the story has come to light – well there are many reasons, it was a significant event no doubt about that – but it has been utilized by some parties as an example of perhaps an increase in anti-Semitic activity on college campuses nationwide. And that concerns me a little bit because I haven’t seen a really comprehensive set of data that shows that is in fact the case. There are a lot of anecdotes, certainly anecdotes that pertain to our campus.”

Sue Maltiel, executive director of Hillel of Silicon Valley, said that at San Jose at least, the climate has shifted. “There are a lot of Jewish students who are really afraid now, who are afraid to identify as Jewish,” Maltiel said, who recalled hearing a faculty member threatened at the Akiva Tor event, as well as the chant, "Two, four, six, eight, we don't want your racist state."

“I don’t think I’ve ever seen the level of so many students being afraid. I’ve never heard a faculty member threatened before.”

After winter break and the start of war in Gaza, “We went to school, the atmosphere was really tense,” said Diana Nguyen, a San Jose State junior and vice president of Spartans for Israel. “I would be tabling and there would always be someone who had to ask me loaded questions or try to make me answer for what Israel did, which was fine. … Toward the [Akiva Tor] event I started getting anti-Semitic comments. I’m not sure those people knew I was Jewish,” said Nguyen, who heard, for instance, “Jews are murderers."

She added, "Everyone’s reluctant to call out any anti-Semitic comment when it’s anti-Semitic because it’s like the new race card or something. They’re out there.”

Omar Mutwakil, president of the Muslim Students' Association at San Jose State, agreed that the Akiva Tor talk “just went out of control; it wasn’t too civilized at the end.” But he objected to the notion that it heralded a broader break-down in civil dialogue.

Though he has heard people say that “this is why things like this can’t be held on campus," Mutwakil strongly disagreed. "Come on, that’s bogus. There are debates all over the place and there’s nothing wrong with this. This thing [the Akiva Tor event] was opened to people who aren’t on campus and that‘s part of the problem. It was open to everyone," said Mutwakil.

“In general, yeah, I think discussions can be held. I don’t see why not. We’re all humans. We’re not animals.”

San Jose’s Muslim Students' Association sponsored a couple of talks on the Middle East this semester -- a forum on “The U.S.-Backed Israeli War on Gaza” and a talk by Barbara Lubin, director of the Middle East Children’s Alliance, in Berkeley.

As of this week, the group had no more events planned on these issues, said Mutwakil. "Unless something else happens again in the news. Maybe something else would occur due to that."

They’re a religious organization, he explained; all this is not really what they're about.

 

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