Once-Quiet Campuses See Surge in Anti-Israel Activism

Activity Tied to Gaza Operation

By Rebecca Spence

Published March 09, 2009.
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When attendees at a recent symposium on “Human Rights and Gaza,” sponsored by the University of California, Los Angeles, Center for Near Eastern Studies, began chanting such slogans as “Zionism is Nazism,” it was not a typical scene for UCLA.

While a handful of California campuses have notoriously grappled with heavy anti-Israel sentiment, at UCLA, at least, relations between pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian students have generally been more placid — until now, that is.

In his 34 years as director of UCLA, Hillel Chaim Seidler-Feller, known for his dovish views, said that he has never heard of such a vitriolic incident as what happened at the now infamous January 31 symposium, which Judea Pearl, writing in an opinion piece in The Wall Street Journal, went so far as to term a “Hamas recruitment rally.”

According to the Israel on Campus Coalition, a Washington-based Israel education and advocacy umbrella group, the ramping up of tensions at UCLA in the wake of Israel’s three-week incursion into Gaza is not unique. The ICC, which tracks incidents of anti-Israel activity on campuses across the country, is contending that episodes like the one at UCLA have seen a dramatic upsurge over the past two months.

“Over the course of the spring semester, beginning with the conflict in Gaza, we’ve seen a significant rise in anti-Israel activity on American college campuses, both in terms of the numbers and in terms of the quality and intensity of what we’re seeing,” said David Harris, executive director of the ICC. “It’s a dramatic change.”

Since January, more than 100 anti-Israel events have taken place on campuses, according to campus activists. Such events include academic panels that are harshly critical of the Jewish state and acts of political theater chastising Israel for its military actions. By contrast, in the wake of the 2006 Lebanon War, a conflict that also saw high civilian casualties, roughly two dozen comparable incidents were reported.

Indeed, while some uptick in anti-Israel — or, alternatively termed, pro-Palestinian — activism is to be expected in the wake of an Israeli military action, the numbers appear to be significantly higher in this case. So how, then, to explain the recent spike?

Harris said the rise — and a concomitant rise in pro-Israel campus activism — might be due, in part, to a renewed sense of political empowerment that college students feel as a result of playing such a strong role in the election of President Obama. Others suggested that the upsurge of activism on college campuses is simply a reflection of a broader global outcry over the dire humanitarian situation in Gaza.

“We see an increase in activity everywhere in the world,” said Salam Al-Marayati, director of the Muslim Public Affairs Council. “There is more action on Gaza because people have more concerns about the extinction of the Palestinian people and the level of suffering. This is reflected not only on campuses, but also by the U.N. and groups around the world.”

Part of the phenomenon, according to Harris, is that schools never before subjected to visible political action are now seeing such activity on their campuses. At Cornell University, for example, where 30% of the student body is Jewish, pro-Palestinian activism has not been a normal part of campus life. But in recent weeks, students reportedly affiliated with the Islamic Alliance for Justice, a pro-Palestinian student group, erected a large-scale public display of 1,300 black flags on the school’s arts quad to symbolize the lives lost in the Gaza conflict.

That display was subsequently vandalized, and the flags were rearranged into a Star of David.

“My main issue was that the flags also memorialize the lives of the terrorists or Hamas militants that had died,” said Shai Akabas, president of the Cornell Israel Public Affairs Committee. “Many pro-Israel and Jewish students on campus were upset about it.”

Akabas’s group issued a statement condemning the vandalism.

An IAJ representative did not respond to an e-mail seeking comment.

The majority of political actions or academic panels that have been critical of Israel — in the case of UCLA, the symposium included four professors who expressed strong anti-Israel views, but not one that gave the Israeli perspective — are being organized by Muslim student groups, often in broader coalitions that include anti-war groups, according to Harris.

In response, campus pro-Israel groups have also ramped up their activism. At Cornell, CIPAC erected its own informational exhibit on the arts quad, with 37 signs that gave facts about the Gaza conflict from the Israeli perspective. The student group, under the auspices of Hillel, also organized the school’s first pro-Israel rally, which drew some 100 students.

“To my knowledge, there’s never been a pro-Israel rally on campus because that’s not the way that relations have worked in the past,” Akabas said. “But people felt strongly about what had happened.”

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