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College Campus Divided As Pro-Palestinian Gathering Draws Hundreds

About 50 pro-Palestinian students gathered at Duke University’s main quad last Sunday, chanting, “Divest from apartheid Israel.”

About 20 pro-Israel students who, channeling John Lennon, chanted “All we are saying, condemn terror now,” met them.

So ended the fourth annual national conference of the Palestine Solidarity Movement, which gathered about 500 pro-Palestinian participants to various workshops calling for “ending the occupation” and advocating a “one-state solution” to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The conference was the most high profile in a string of recent developments reinforcing the view among many Jewish organizations that anti-Israel views are rampant on campuses throughout North America.

The Zionist Organization of America recently filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, alleging that officials at the University of California, Irvine, are refusing to take action against Muslim students on campus who are harassing Jewish students.

The complaint, sent by Susan Tuchman, director of the ZOA’s Center for Law and Justice, stated that “for the past three years, the environment for Jewish students at U.C.-Irvine has been hostile, and at times, threatening.” Among the incidents cited in the letter was a February 2004 episode in which a Jewish student with an Israeli flag pin on his lapel was allegedly cursed at and had his life threatened by Muslim students who followed him into the office of the dean of students.

In Canada, Concordia University’s recent refusal to allow former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak to speak on campus has sparked anger among some Jewish students. They say freedom of expression is a dead letter at the university, which last year barred another former Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, from speaking.

The vice president of the university, Michael Di Grappa, reportedly told the Hillel campus that Barak could not come because no building at the university could be secured for such a visit adequately. “It is unfortunate, but a reality nonetheless, that the safety of its community members and guests must occupy a central position in planning events at an institution dedicated to free speech,” Di Grappa wrote in a message posted on the university’s Web site.

Concordia Hillel Co-president Jason Portnoy said he was outraged.

“It’s not a matter of Barak coming to Concordia or not, it’s freedom of speech is obviously not welcome at Concordia,” he told the Canadian Press.

Despite such developments, as has been the case for months, the pro-Palestinian conference at Duke has been the focus of many national Jewish organizations dedicated to spreading a pro-Israel message on college campuses.

During the same weekend of the Palestinian conference, pro-Israel forces held educational programs at the Freeman Center for Jewish Life. The goal of this alternative slate of programs, organizers said, was to demonstrate the harmful effects of Palestinian terrorism against Israeli civilians and offer a different understanding of the complicated history of the Holy Land.

The two sides talked past each other as dozens of extra uniformed policemen were stationed on campus for the weekend conference, which concluded without incident. In the end, moderates in the pro-Palestinian movement twice failed during their conference to win approval of a statement denouncing terrorism. Thus, the controversial language in the movement’s guiding principles continues to stand: “As a solidarity movement, it is not our place to dictate strategies or tactics adopted by the Palestinian people in their struggle for freedom.”

One Jewish observer who descended on the Duke campus for the weekend, Martin Kaminsky, director of the Anti-Defamation League’s Houston region, said the failure to change Guiding Principle #5 spoke volumes.

“In this time in our world, it is revealing that people will not stand up and say no to terrorism in all its forms and any time,” Kaminsky said. “This continues to be the issue that stops our discussion. If that was resolved I think you would find a dialogue and not two monologues.”

Some Jewish observers criticized vigorous attacks against Israel. For example conference organizer Rann Bar-On, a Duke graduate student, reportedly compared the treatment of Palestinians by Israel to “Algiers under the French or Poland under the Nazis. There is always violence under occupation.”

Mazin Qumsiyeh, a Yale University associate professor and founder of the vehemently anti-Israel group Al-Awda, called Zionism “a disease.”

According to The Jerusalem Post. Diana Buttu, legal adviser in the Palestinian Liberation Organization Negotiations Affairs Department, told an audience that “the greatest abuser of human rights and the greatest threat to international security is Israel.”

The Palestinian conference attempted to build on the momentum handed to them by Presbyterian Church (USA), which is proceeding with selective divestment from Israel. The Rev. Mark Davidson, pastor of the Church of Reconciliation in Chapel Hill, told participants that “the Presbyterian Church has put its money where its mouth is.”

Participants in the conference passed a resolution calling for coordination of their divestment activities with arms of the Anglican Church that are also considering sanctions against Israel.

Meanwhile, at a pro-Israel teach-in, Mitchell Bard, executive director of the American-Israeli Cooperative Enterprise, argued that Israeli leaders tried to achieve a political solution to the conflict, going so far as to offer a comprise to divide the city of Jerusalem. “It’s not about politics. It’s about history; it’s about ideology, it’s about geography,” Bard reportedly said.

Pro-Palestinian students were joined by several Jewish organizations that operate on the margins or completely outside the boundaries of Jewish communal life, including the ultra-Orthodox anti-Israel Neturei Karta and Jews to End the Occupation, a left-wing group that strongly condemns Israeli policies.

The eclectic mix at the Palestinian conference drew praise from Duke’s vice provost, Judith Ruderman. “The thing I love about this conference is we have so many diverse people here,” she told a news service. “The Jews in this country don’t speak with one voice on these issues; therefore, it’s not surprising to see many Jews at this conference in solidarity with part or all of the conference mission.”

It wasn’t clear if the conference captured the attention of the student body on campus. One student told Duke’s news service he was disappointed that more students didn’t show interest. But another said the conference sparked late-night dorm conversations.

While some Israel supporters had criticized Duke strongly for hosting the conference, university officials were clearly pleased with their handling of the event.

“I’m proud of what’s happened here,” university Senior Vice President John Burness told a local newspaper. “The idea that these students at these first-rate institutions aren’t smart enough to listen to different ideas expressed and to reach their own conclusions is just absurd.”

The impact of the conference was still being felt this week after the campus newspaper published an op-ed by student Philip Kurian charging Jews and “Holocaust Industry” with using its “influence to stifle, not enhance, the Israeli-Palestinian debate, simultaneously belittling the real struggles for socioeconomic and political equality faced, most notably, by black Americans.”

The national director of the ADL, Abraham Foxman, called the piece offensive, saying it contained “a number of classic stereotypes about Jews, including charges of excessive wealth, power and a lack of concern for anyone but themselves.”

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