Following what some observers describe as a major rift within the campus divestment campaign against Israel, organizers of a controversial conference at Rutgers University are relocating the event to Ohio State University.
The move is an attempt to minimize the influence of New Jersey Solidarity, a radical anti-Israel student group that has stated its support for Palestinian resistance “by any means necessary” and has create a volatile atmosphere on the Rutgers campus with its vitriolic rhetoric during the past two years.
But critics of the divestment campaign say the rift is nothing more than a dispute among extremists who are bent on Israel’s destruction and cannot agree on how to construct a platform that is more palatable to mainstream audiences.
“All of them are about destroying Israel, just in different ways,” said Shai Goldstein, the regional director of the New Jersey office of the Anti-Defamation League. “There have always been splits.”
Seven of New Jersey Solidarity’s 25 members — representing all of the group’s Arab members — resigned in protest recently, as the group pushed an increasingly radical anti-Israel agenda explicitly calling for the destruction of Israel. These seven formed a splinter group that aired its concerns on a pro-Palestinian Internet message board.
“NJS members have recently been involved in actions that have been thoughtless and immoral,” wrote the seven dissidents. “Those who prefer reckless rhetoric have tried amending the mission statement to include ‘Israel has no right to exist’ and have openly welcomed the idea of inviting Hamas to events. We have had debates against steering committee persons who hold tight to the idea that there are no Israeli civilians and when confronted with ‘Even the kids?’ the reply was ‘Yes, everyone’s fair game.’ This has been escalating for a number of months now. It has gone well past the point of return.”
Faced with the New Jersey group’s growing radicalism, the conference’s organizing committee last week voted by the requisite two-thirds majority to move the third North American Student Conference on the Palestine Solidarity Movement — scheduled for October 10 to October 12 — from Rutgers in New Brunswick, N.J., to Ohio State in Columbus, Ohio. The bulk of the 40-plus endorsing organizations, activists and speakers — ranging from South African anti-apartheid leaders to student activists and academics from across the country and abroad — are expected to travel to Ohio, although final dates for the Ohio State event have yet to be confirmed.
“Extremists are always more vocal than moderates, but I think what we’re seeing here is people with more moderate views taking the initiative back from people who are more radical,” said Hussein Ibish of the Arab-American Anti-Discrimination Committee, the country’s largest Arab-American membership organization.
Rutgers may still host some sort of gathering, but likely with far fewer attendees than originally expected, and with far less political significance, according to Ibish, who was an invited speaker at last year’s pro-Palestinian student conference at the University of Michigan, which drew several hundred participants.
Members of the organizing committee declined to comment for this article.
Pro-divestment activists said that the notion of divestment as a legitimate means of civil disobedience is not negated by the fact that groups calling for Israel’s complete destruction have tried to take over conferences.
Still, boycotting a company that sells bulldozing equipment to the Israeli army is different from conducting a divestment campaign against every company doing business in Israel or that owns Israel bonds, said Charles Lenchner, president of the board of directors of Jews for Peace in Palestine and Israel, an advocacy group that works with moderate Palestinian, Arab and Muslim organizations and lobbies for a two-state solution.
“They’re not making a difference between selling weapons and Israel existing as a country,” Lenchner said. “I don’t have a moral problem with divestment. I think it’s an unwise strategy in Israel’s case because in order to achieve peace you have to convince them that it’s in both societies’ interest. Instead of demonizing one side and glorifying the other, you have to point to shared interests.”
Of the roughly 40 campuses across the country where divestment campaigns have been launched, not a single university has agreed to divest from Israel. Yet mainstream human rights and peace activist groups are beginning to join the divestment movement and, buoyed by the success of the earlier divestment movement against South Africa, the movement is growing rapidly both in size and confidence, said Lenchner.
For example, Global Exchange, a group best known for its opposition to the World Trade Organization meetings in Seattle, now provides a free downloadable divestment handbook, and United for Peace and Justice, a coalition of anti-war activists, is also inching closer to linking up with the divestment movement.
“I’m sure there are people who support Palestinians who have an extremist position, but so what?” said Leslie Cagan, national coordinator for United for Peace and Justice. “We feel quite strongly that occupying people through military occupation is not the way to settle disputes… and money talks a lot louder than all else.”
Meanwhile at Rutgers, Jewish student groups are readying themselves for another semester filled with confrontational demonstrations, anti-Israel flyers and hate-filled newspaper editorials.
Rather than counterdemonstrate, Jewish student groups will respond with a yearlong campaign of social and educational programming, according to Rutgers Hillel’s executive director Andrew Getraer.
But despite the rift among divestment activists, Getraer said, the campus discourse around Palestinian issues is still dominated by extremists, and that may hamper the Jewish groups’ efforts to heal the wounds on campus.
“The people on the pro-Palestinian side who are active are the extremists, and if there are moderates in the Palestinian camp they are either impotent or afraid, and therefore there’s no moderate camp to partner with,” Getraer said. “That’s been the tragedy for decades.”