August 21, 2008
Quiet war on campus: Israel remains under attack despite fewer public protests
Is anti-Zionism the new anti-Semitism?
(Page 4 - Previous Page)"We're not hospitals or community centers or synagogues or political action committees. We're not think tanks or action centers, nor do we advance ideological allegiances and agendas. Democracy works best through compelling political advocacy, but universities don't exist to advocate. We're there to teach students to think for themselves, to develop their analytical tools and critical skills. What students do with those tools and skills is theirs to determine, not ours."
Harry Mairson, a computer science professor at Brandeis University, shared that sentiment this spring during a feisty Hillel breakout session about preserving campus civility. (The irony was painfully apparent.) And it was clear Mairson believed what he said. Last year, when he was chair of the faculty senate, Mairson wrote a personal invitation asking Carter to speak at Brandeis about his book.
Mairson was motivated by lingering concern over the university administration's decision in 2006 to remove an Israeli student's class project titled, "Voices of Palestine." The exhibit had featured drawings by teenagers in a Palestinian refugee camp and depicted the poverty and tragedy of their lives, along with descriptions of the teens' hobbies and career hopes.
"I believed that my university had the responsibility and capacity to deal with these painful political issues," Mairson said, "and that the academic integrity of the university, compromised by censorship, needed repair."
No secular American university is more recognizably Jewish than Brandeis, which was founded in 1948 and named after Louis Brandeis, the first Jewish justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. More than half of the university's 3,100 undergraduates identify as Jewish, which translates into even more debate of what that means.
The campus community was divided over Carter's scheduled visit, but when he spoke in January 2007, the 82-year-old former president packed the gym with about 1,700 students, faculty and community members. About 200 students wore buttons that stated, "Pro Israel, Pro Peace," and the Boston Globe reported Carter received loud applause when he rebutted accusations that he was an anti-Semite.
Inviting criticism of Israel onto campus and into classrooms has drawn periodic hand-wringing from the Anti-Defamation League and other Jewish organizations, such as the American Jewish Committee, which sparked quite the brouhaha with its publication in late 2006 of "'Progressive' Jewish Thought and the New Anti-Semitism."
But to some in the community, the energy major Jewish organizations had devoted to college campuses seemed an afterthought. Enter The David Project and StandWithUs, both of which have grown meteorically in less than 10 years.
StandWithUs, based in Los Angeles, has been intimately involved in combating attacks on Israel at UCI, mainly by providing materials to counter misinformation about Israel and by protesting controversial speakers. Its biggest concern, said national director Roz Rothstein, is the occurrence of anti-Israel attacks emanating from the faculty.
"When professors turn their classroom into a hostage-keeping territory where students are not given context and background and another side -- they just push their perspective -- it is really unfair to the students. And this is an issue across the country," Rothstein said. "This is not on every single campus, but it is on far too many campuses."
Student responses vary, but the model of protesting and counterprotesting has gone stale. Some students are intimidated to challenge a professor's criticism of Israel -- Rothstein said she has worked with students who have been harassed to the point they withdraw from a course -- while others seek a measured response within the context of academic discourse.
When "The Israel Lobby's" Walt spoke at Tufts University last November, there were angry students but no protests. Instead, after a quiet visit, Amy Spitalnick, the student president of Tufts Hillel, wrote an op-ed for the campus paper criticizing Walt's thesis.
"I lived in Jerusalem; I sat in class looking over the West Bank; I had friends of friends killed by suicide bombers," she said in an interview. "The situation sucks. But the old model of lobbing cruise missile after cruise missile doesn't work."
About 300 students gathered this May around the flagpoles just off Ring Road at UCI. Many wore kaffiyehs and olive-green shirts featuring a Palestinian throwing a rock at an Israeli tank and the words, "To Exist Is to Resist."
What they heard as classmates strolled by during lunch was an oddly optimistic jeremiad from Amir Abdel Malik Ali.
"The fall of the American empire, brothers and sisters, means the fall of Zionism, the fall of apartheid!" Malik Ali said in typically fiery oratory. "American empire is going down just like other empires have gone down. So you have to make preparations. Joe and Jane Six-Pack are going to realize that, no, America is not No. 1; no, America is not supreme; no, America is not superior and no America is not the good guy."
Malik Ali, the imam of an Oakland mosque, was giving the first of his two sermons to conclude Palestinian awareness week. He's been a favorite speaker of the MSU since early in the Second Intifada. Others have included Muhammad Al-Asi, a Washington imam who calls Israel "the monkey on the American back," and Finkelstein, who the previous week repeated his claim that Jews abuse memories of the Holocaust and exaggerate anti-Semitism for political gain and said the IDF intentionally killed Palestinian children.
Four Muslim students stood behind Malik Ali while he spoke, holding a large banner proclaiming, "Death to Apartheid." Some Jewish students were seated in the crowd on the steps above the flagpoles. The president of the Anteaters for Israel was standing behind the large banner, holding a white board on which he wrote statements like "Stop the lies -- Israel is a democracy." Other Jewish students carried signs stating, "Caution -- Hate Speech Zone Ahead."
"The Islamic revival," Malik Ali continued, "should only be feared by those who support imperialism, colonialism, racism, occupation. Those are the only groups who should fear the Islamic revival. Because when groups like Hamas and Hezbollah -- and no these are not terrorists," he said, bridging into an attack on Israel as an apartheid state and later adding, "The terrorists are the United States; the terrorists are Israel!"
Chants of "Allahu Akbar!" rose from the audience.
Soon after, a group gathered above the steps and, led by Malik Ali and the MSU president, marched down Ring Road chanting:
"Judaism, yes! Zionism, no!"
"Judaism, yes! Zionism, no!"
"The state of Israel has got to go!"
"The state of Israel has got to go!"
After about five minutes, a circle formed and Omar Zarka, MSU president, stepped inside.
"We are not here to feel happy," he said. "The struggle continues, and it goes on from here today."
The scene, save for the language of Zarka's charge, was reminiscent of one from 2007, when a few dozen Muslim students interrupted a lecture by Daniel Pipes, stormed out of the hall and then proceeded through campus, concluding with a pronouncement from one of the participants that "it's just a matter of time before Israel will be wiped off the face of the earth!"
Often called a radical student organization, MSU has found it difficult to attract good media attention -- the Pipes incident was filmed by a Jewish student and aired on Fox News' "Hannity & Colmes" -- which helps explain why UCI Muslim students are tighter-lipped than a grand jury when approached by a journalist. Numerous attempts at speaking generally with Muslim students about their feelings toward Jews were deflected to MSU leadership.
But after Malik Ali's speech and before being interrupted and told not to speak with this reporter, one of the students holding the "Death to Apartheid" banner opened up.
"Jews are a people of a religion, a faith. Zionism was seen as an idea to bring together, to reinvigorate the Hebrew language and Judaism," said the unidentified student, who sported a short beard, white kaffiyeh and black headband with "There is one God -- Allah" in Arabic script. "But as soon as it turned into exiling a people from land, that's when it turned from an angelic thought to a satanic thought."
The official message from the MSU is that they don't hate Jews, just Zionism.
"I can't tell by looking at someone if they are Jewish," Zarka said in an interview limited to one question. "If someone tells me they are Jewish, I don't assume they are a Zionist. But if somebody tells me 'I am an imperialist; I think we should go pillage countries,' obviously I will have a problem with that."
This distinction hasn't always been clear to Jewish students -- or, obviously, any more comforting.
"To the extent that students are being challenged on campus about Israel, those questions that are being raised are increasingly existential questions," said David A. Harris, executive director of the Israel on Campus Coalition. "They are not discreet questions about Israeli policies but are asking whether Israel has a right to exist. Is Zionism racism? Does Israel practice apartheid? Those are not the easiest questions to answer."
Still, Jewish life is thriving on campuses across the country. Thanks to Birthright Israel, more than 20,000 Jews, ages 18 to 26, will take free trips the Jewish state this year and, the organization hopes, bring back to their campus a newfound love for Israel -- and Zionism.
"We are watching a pride in Israel activism, in Israel evangelism, that has been unknown on the campus in 50 years," Firestone of Hillel said in an interview during the March summit.
Firestone admitted that his observation runs contrary to what recent studies of young Jews have found, specifically the "Beyond Distancing" paper published last summer by sociologists from Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. Steven Cohen and Ari Kelman found that only 48 percent of American Jews under 35 would consider Israel's destruction a "personal tragedy."
"It is at odds with what we are seeing happening on campus," Firestone said. "Jewish pride, Jewish interest, Jewish journeys is at an all-time."
At UCI, steps are being taken to change the debate on Israel, or at least provide real-life education on the situation, through the Olive Tree Initiative. This week, a delegation of 16 Muslim and Jewish students will leave Orange County for Tel Aviv, where they will begin a two-week journey through Israel.
"If we want to change the situation on campus, that is not going to come from the leadership. It is going to come from the bottom up," said Isaac Yerushalmi, president of Anteaters for Israel and a participant in the initiative. "We're not out to get anyone; hopefully they are not out to get us. So we're working together, and the Olive Tree Initiative is definitely a step forward."
With any luck, the trip will help change at least the tenor of discourse on campus this school year. The long-term challenge across the country will be keeping Jewish students concerned with the future of Israel and its image on campus.
"There will be ups and downs," said Jacobs of The David Project. "This year we did very good because Jewish students were taking a proactive role because of Israel at 60, so they dominated the conversation in a way they hadn't. But it was only because there was a national push."
Muslim Student Union: http://www.msu-uci.com/ .
Anteaters for Israel: http://www.anteatersforisrael.com/.
Task force recommended Jewish students not attend UCI: http://www.jewishjournal.com/thegodblog/item/why_a_jewish_student_chose_against_uc_irvine_20080616/.
Protest at Berkeley