In a rare show of unity, Jewish students supportive of Israel at Northwestern University came together from different viewpoints Monday night to protest a convicted terrorist’s appearance on campus.
The protesters—about 100 students—included members of J Street U, the student arm of the dovish Israel lobby; Wildcats for Israel, a group more closely aligned with the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, and Hillel, the campus Jewish center.
Northwestern University’s president, Morton Schapiro, was also among those demonstrating outside the hall where Students for Justice in Palestine held an event whose speakers included Rasmea Odeh, who was convicted by a military court in Israel for a 1969 supermarket bombing that killed two students.
Dressed in black, the demonstrators held candles and carried placards with pictures of Edward Joffe and Leon Kanner, the two students killed in the bombing. Printed signs on other placards said, “May their memories be for a blessing.”
The protesters stood silently in two long rows outside Northwestern’s Tech building in suburban Evanston, where the campus SJP chapter was sponsoring an event to commemorate the Nakba—Arabic for “catastrophe”—a kind of counter-observance to mark the date on which Israel was established in 1948.
For Palestinians, the date marks the period during which approximately 700,000 Arabs were expelled from their homes by Israeli forces or fled, and thousands more were killed during the Israeli War for Independence. In 1998 Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat declared May 15 Nakba Day, a time of commemoration and protest in the Palestinian territories and Palestinian communities throughout the world.
But it was the appearance of Odeh, not the commemoration itself that sparked the protest. The Palestinian was released from Israeli prison after her conviction in a 1979 prisoner exchange. Her supporters maintain that her confession was extracted under torture and sexual assault. Many years later, the Israeli Supreme Court did find that the Shin Bet, Israel’s domestic security agency, had, in fact, frequently tortured Palestinian prisoners. But there has been no confirmation of Odeh’s claim, and Israel continues to deny it.
“I know the narrative of her defenders,” said Michael Simon, the executive director of Northwestern Hillel. “We’re hesitant to say, point blank, ‘We invited a murderer.’ Her defenders dispute that. But there’s no dispute that she was a member of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine.”
The PFLP, one of the constituent groups that makes up the Palestine Liberation Organization, was in the 1970s and 1980s a hardline Marxist-Leninist organization responsible for multiple attacks targeting civilians.
“In my book, she’s a terrorist,” Simon said. “We feel it is very disturbing for a student group to uplift this particular voice.” At the same time, Simon acknowledged careful consideration about the wisdom of publicly protesting the event.
“To bring a speaker of this notoriety is an attempt to gain a lot of attention,” he said. “We recognize that any response by us may provide them with publicity and attention, so we’re trying to be careful to calibrate our response.”
The demonstrators stood lined up outside the lecture hall, forming a sort of gauntlet for anyone who wanted to enter the building. Some students who were passing through just wanted to go to class. The Palestinian students on their way to the lecture, however, walked more slowly, wearing kafiyas as a sign of national pride.
In the United States, Odeh has become known as an activist on behalf of Arab immigrant women. After emigrating here from Jordan in 1994, following her prison release, she obtained a law degree and became associate director of the Chicago Arab American Action Network. But in 2013, Odeh was arrested for failing to disclose her imprisonment on her immigration form. This past March, she agreed to a plea deal that will strip her of her citizenship and force her to leave the country in exchange for not going to jail.
Nevertheless, the judge who sentenced her told the Detroit Free Press that he respected Odeh’s work in America. “I’m convinced she’s been involved in doing a lot of good work in helping Arab immigrant women,” he said. “She’s changed, she’s reformed.”
“Rasmea’s record speaks for itself,” said Marcel Khalil Hanna, one of the leaders of SJP. “The way Zionist organizations function is predictable. They’re very reactionary. This is an event to support someone who is fighting for her rights, and there is pushback.” He felt that the vigil by the Jewish students was disrespectful toward Palestinians, considering it was Nakba Day. “They frame it as supporting the sanctity of life,” he said, “but they show which lives they value.”
At the SJP event, Odeh’s speech was brief. She denounced what she called the “racist” American judicial system and spoke on behalf of the 1,500 Palestinian prisoners in the Israeli-occupied West Bank who have been on a hunger strike for the past month to demand better treatment.
“I am going to have to leave you all sometime in the next few months,” she told the crowd of approximately 50 students and guests from the community, “but I will continue to watch the U.S. Aside from Israel, this is the main front in the battle for Palestinian rights. You must continue to fight American Zionism.”
Aimee Levitt reports regularly on Chicagoland for the Forward. Contact her at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter, @aimeelevitt