On campus, pro-Palestinian activists use anti-war forum to spread message
By Rachel Pomerance April 1, 2003
WASHINGTON, April 1 (JTA) – Since military action against Iraq began, American college campuses have erupted in protests against the war – many of them including aspects of pro-Palestinian, anti-Israel rhetoric.
“I personally think that” the Iraq war and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are “really related,” said Shaun Joseph, 22, who heads Students Against War on Iraq at Brown University.
Joseph, a non-Jew who describes himself as a socialist, characterizes the two conflicts as acts of “U.S. imperialism – both in the U.S. support of Israel’s actions against the Palestinians and in this direct war on Iraq.”
Jewish leaders fear that the anti-war activists’ support for the Palestinians may help bring the Palestinian message to a broader audience.
Experts say anti-war forces represent a minority on campus, but they are far more vocal than the war’s supporters.
Analysts note similarities to the opposition to the Vietnam War two generations ago, when anti-war forces comprised only a fraction of the student body but gained so much attention that they profoundly influenced the country.
With students transfixed by the war – MTV, which has sent a correspondent to Kuwait, says young people rank the war as their top issue of interest, alongside drugs – Jewish leaders fear anti-war protesters could introduce the Palestinian agenda to a huge audience.
“You’re going to have all these young people engaged in discussion or concern about the Middle East in the context of the Iraq war who will have been exposed to potentially very hostile” messages about Israel, said Wayne Firestone, director of the Center for Israel Affairs for Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life.
“If the teach-ins they go to and the rhetoric they’re hearing at the rallies are all anti-Israel because that’s whose running the anti-war protests on campus, then there’s a serious concern that they will be affected by that,” he said.
According to Jonathan Kessler, leadership development director for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, “The anti-Israel activists on campus have made a strategic decision to embed themselves into the anti-war movement,” so they can “engage large numbers beyond their traditional coalition of disenfranchised.”
“They’re willing to soft-pedal their anti-Israel animus for the time being, or at least until U.S. policymakers are no longer focused on Iraq,” Kessler said.
President Bush has pledged to present the international “road map” toward Israeli-Palestinian peace after the new Palestinian Authority prime minister is confirmed in coming weeks. And international pressure for a peace agreement is likely to mount once the Iraq war ends.
But not everyone thinks the Palestinian perspective will catch on.
“It could easily work to the pro-Israel point of view,” said Jonathan Snow, 22, a senior who writes a biweeekly column on the Middle East for Johns Hopkins campus newspaper.
Facts on the ground, he said, may work to Israel’s advantage: Palestinian supporters who claimed that Israel would take advantage of the war with Iraq to commit human rights abuses have been discredited. Meanwhile, Palestinian terrorist groups such as Islamic Jihad have launched attacks on Israel ostensibly to show solidarity with Iraq, and Palestinian volunteers reportedly are flowing through Syria to fight U.S. soldiers in Iraq.
In any case, not only do most college students mirror the general U.S. public in sympathizing with Israel, but polls have shown that 18-to 35-year-olds support war on Iraq more than their elders do. And several campuses showed signs of support for U.S. troops once the war began.
Most Jewish students back the war with Iraq, sources say. Among those who oppose it, many are turned off by the anti-Israel – and sometimes anti-Semitic – undertones of the anti-war activity.
“It gets really frustrating when the two issues are directly linked,” said Daniella Risman, 19, Hillel co-chair at Oberlin University.
Jewish opponents of the war feel “their issue is being tainted,” said Risman, who worries that Oberlin students will link “anti-war and anti-Israel sentiment as one.”
But not everyone agrees.
Eric Bukstein, a senior in Judaic studies at the University of Michigan, said pro-Palestinian activists aren’t really becoming a major part of the anti-war movement.
To amass the broadest support possible, anti-war activists are wary of distracting students with too many messages, Bukstein surmised.
Bukstein added that his university – which has large Jewish and Arab student populations and hosted the second national student conference of the Palestinian Solidarity Movement last fall – has become an incubator for activity around the country. Another Palestinian solidarity conference is planned for Rutgers University in October.
For now, most Jewish students say they feel relatively secure on campus. They hail their advances in defending Israel since the start of the intifada, when they were shocked by the intense anti-Israel, and even anti-Semitic, activity on American campuses.
Many say they feel more prepared since Jewish organizations, realizing the strength of pro-Palestinian activism on campus, began devoting more time and energy to training student advocates for Israel.
Still, there may be early indications of trouble.
In the last two weeks, three anti-Semitic incidences have occurred at the University of Florida: Someone shouted “Death to the Jews” outside a Jewish sorority house and swastikas were drawn on a Jewish student’s car and scratched into a Jewish teaching assistant’s desk.
The incidents occurred despite the fact that supporters of Israel are stronger than their opponents at Florida, according to several students at this week’s AIPAC policy conference in Washington.
“I feel like it has to do with the war,” Florida sophomore Nina Alexander-Hurst, 20, surmised.
At Oberlin, stickers claiming that “Zionism equals racism” have littered the campus in recent weeks, prompting the university president to issue a call for dialogue in the campus newspaper.
Complicating issues for Israel backers, pro-Palestinian sentiment runs deep in academia, especially in many humanities departments, experts say.
While many university administrations have responded to anti-Israel activity with diplomatic dialogue, most faculty remain identified with the Palestinians, according to Edward Beck, president of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East, an international network of pro-Israel faculty.
“It’s not politically correct for faculty to stand for Israel on college campuses,” Beck said.
Most faculty members, including Jewish ones, show “little or no interest in affiliating or expressing public support for Israel,” while there is a “vocal core of academics in America who are very hostile to Israel,” Firestone said.
The silence of most professors could be due to a desire to remain neutral in order to maintain their credibility, or their devotion to research and teaching rather than political activism.
Yet given professor’s influence over students, anti-Israel sentiment among faculty members could force Jewish groups that have focused on training student advocates to alter their strategy.
“We’re starting to see that the solutions of student empowerment are not going to suffice if you continue to have either incidents or problems with hostile faculty members,” Firestone said.
Addressing the faculty’s stance is “the next major issue for our community to be looking at more critically,” he said.
“Whatever the solution is, it will require faculty members to be part of ”it, he said. But he added, “I don’t think we’re anywhere near the answers.”