Middle East tensions nearly boiled over in Ann Arbor this weekend as pro-Palestinian and pro-Israeli voices rose in heated debates across campus. But the alleged source of the tensions, the Second National Student Conference on the Palestinian Solidarity Movement, proceeded with relative calm.
More than 400 students, faculty and Palestinian supporters from across the country attended the three-day conference, hosted by Students Allied for Freedom and Equality, to learn more about a growing movement that urges universities to divest from companies doing business with Israel.
Boston University students Stephen De Rosa and Michael Figa, members of the Boston Coalition for Palestinian Rights, were sponsored by the group to gain reconnaissance and exchange ideas with other activists.
“Basically, we stand behind the Palestinian movement. We came to see and report back what went on, what was accomplished,” De Rosa said.
“The average American doesn’t have time to look into (the conflict),” Figa added. “They don’t really know the history of what actually happened. I looked at it and it was easy to see through. I’m critical of it (because) I think it’s pretty obvious,” he said.
Engineering sophomore Ron Hagiz said he attended the conference out of curiosity.
“I came to hear what they had to say, but I am against the idea behind the conference. It isn’t saying ‘let’s support Palestine’ or ‘let’s end the conflict,’ but rather ‘let’s divest’ and ‘let’s destroy Israel.’ Viewpoints like that will never end the conflict,” he said.
Each of the conference’s numerous sessions, which ranged in topic from the War on Terrorism to eyewitness accounts of the abuse of Israeli human rights, opened with a statement on the freedom of speech and artistic expression.
“We will protect the right of individuals to speak or perform, and the rights of those members of the University community who wish to hear and communicate with the invited speaker or artist,” the statement read. “Protesters also have a right to express their opposition to a speaker in appropriate ways … however, protesters must not interfere unduly with communication between a speaker or artist and members of the audience.”
Mahdi Bray, executive director of the Freedom Foundation, commenced the conference by declaring Israel an “oppressive, racist apartheid regime.”
Bray, who was actively involved in the domestic anti-Apartheid movement that helped overturn the system in South Africa, said he sees many similarities between the two nations.
“Apartheid seeks to separate the dignity and equality of one’s humanity. It’s the same soup, just a different bowl. This is not about anti-Semitism, this is about peace, justice and doing the right thing,” he said.
But speaker Raef Zreik, an Israeli attorney, said the distinction between the occupied territories and Israel proper make Apartheid a limited analogy.
“Things are more sophisticated than we think. The West Bank is much, much worse than Apartheid. Israel has many factors of Apartheid but is not it. We are on the way toward it but we aren’t there yet,” he said.
Hatem Bazian, a professor at the University of California at Berkeley, opened his talk by thanking opponents of the conference, referring to University of Michigan President Mary Sue Coleman as an “obedient servant” and saying, “there’s no such thing as bad publicity.”
Bazian said two tactics commonly employed by pro-Israeli factions to silence pro-Palestinian groups include the issue of democracy in Israel and the charge of anti-Semitism.
“They draw parallels to the U.S. in order to neutralize the American public from examining what’s going on. Being a democracy is not immunity from oppression and exclusion. South Africa was a democracy for whites, but not for everyone else. Democracy is the code word for suspending intellectual examination,” he said. “With anti-Semitism, they’ve closed the door for entry for someone who will be able to speak about the Palestinian struggle. (Anti-Semitism is thus) used as a means of neutralizing the opposition so the mainstream American public will distance itself from the ‘extremists.'”
Many speakers cited a long list of human rights abuses committed by Israel as the most important reason for universities to divest from companies that do business with the country.
“This is not a meeting about free speech, this is a meeting about crimes against humanity that have been perpetuated in the past and will be perpetuated in the future,” keynote speaker and Israeli historian Ilan Pappae said. “We are trying to deal with a state of denial, a system of ignorance and of denial and of oppression, of reality on the ground in Palestine. Don’t assume people know – they have no idea. Divestment is an alternative to bloodshed, as a peace activity.”
Sami Al-Arian, a former professor at the University of South Florida, led a session titled “Academic Freedom in Political Advocacy.”
“We have an atmosphere of intimidation that reaches the highest powers of the government, (which is) partly ideological and partly political,” he said. “Today, the nation is being challenged. The Constitution and Bill of Rights are being challenged (by the Patriot Act.)”
Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld, who spent Saturday protesting the conference, said Al-Arian – who has recently come under fire by critics who say he holds terrorist affiliations – is affiliated to the group Islamic Jihad.
“We support peace, this conference supports terrorism and suicide bombing. Sami Al-Arian is a member of Islamic Jihad, and Islamic Jihad supports suicide bombing,” he said.
Al-Arian denied the allegations and quoted the federal judge that exonerated him of any terrorist ties, saying “there is no evidence before the court that demonstrates either organization was a front for Islamic Jihad.”
“They want to blame us, to keep the attacks coming, so that we will not be talking about the subject – which is occupation. This conference is about using divestment as a tool to pressure Israel to end the occupation,” Al-Arian said.
Several members of the University’s administration, including Vice President of Student Affairs E. Royster Harper, attended the conference to show support for the student organizers.
“I think the students have done a marvelous job. The organizers have been very respectful and responsive to any requests made of them – quality students, quality conference,” Harper said.
Shamai Leibowitz, one of several hundred Israeli soldier “Refuseniks” who signed a petition refusing to serve in the country’s army, was scheduled to give the closing lecture Monday evening, but cancelled late Sunday. Organizers announced Leibowitz could not make the trip because he had been facing death threats – unrelated to the conference – after his Tel Aviv home and business were vandalized.
– Daily Staff Reporters Kylene Kiang and
Hiba Ghalib contributed to this report.