U.S. campus group refuses to condemn Palestinian terror
At the convention Israel was compared to South Africa under apartheid, called a "disease," and there were calls to stop American aid to Israel.
DURHAM, North Carolina - Ran Bar-On's shirt displays a large Palestinian flag above an Israeli tank and Palestinians in silhouette. Below is emblazoned "Divest from Israel." This is the official T-shirt at the annual convention of the Palestine Solidarity Movement (PSM), of which Bar-On is a key organizer.
The convention, held at Duke University, drew some 500 activists (including Israelis) and closed yesterday, and was peaceful for the most part.
Bar-On, 24, considers himself an Israeli, even though much of his life was spent abroad. He volunteers to explain fervently, in native Hebrew, not only why it is necessary to strive for Israel's economic isolation as a means of ending the occupation, but also why he, as an Israeli, is organizing it all.
Jewish organizations had called for the convention's cancellation, since previous gatherings became a platform for harsh anti-Israel sentiment. The university took a lot of flak; besides letters and petitions, several donors threatened to pull out, but the university felt academic freedom was at stake.
One of the main complaints against PSM - which Jewish organizations view as the most radical of the pro-Palestinian organizations active on U.S. campuses - is that the movement refuses to condemn terrorism. "We are a solidarity organization. We don't take a stand on the matter," Bar-On tries to explain.
In his view, the cause of terror is the Israeli occupation, so when that ends, terrorism will also automatically end. "It's like Algiers under the French or Poland under the Nazis. There is always violence under occupation," says Bar-On, whose grandfather, Hanan Bar-On, was a Foreign Ministry veteran and one of Israel's most senior diplomats.
Fayyad Sbaihat, a Palestinian from Jenin who is studying in the U.S. and is also a conference organizer, adds a practical explanation: "And if we say to the Hamas to stop firing rockets from Gaza, will they listen to us? We don't want empty words without action."
The protesters outdoors, however, have trouble understanding why the PSM finds it so hard to devote even a sentence to terrorism. On the second evening of the convention, Shlomo Marmur and Daniel Shoval of the Amcha movement are standing outside the auditorium waving sings. The university administration fenced an enormous lawn for the protesters and surrounded it with guards, but on this chilly evening Marmur and Shoval are alone in a corner. "Just let them say that they're against terrorism. Silence encourages terrorism," says Marmur, who came from New York to protest the convention.
Abe Greenhouse was one of the people passing by who heard their demand for a disavowal of Palestinian terrorism. Greenhouse, known as the Jewish student who tossed a cream pie at then minister Natan Sharansky two years ago at Rutgers University, responds with a question: "Why don't they say anything against the Israeli government that is killing civilians?" He objects to the murder of civilians on any side, he explains. Next to him is Nirit Ben-Ari, an Israeli from Ramat Hasharon who has lived in New York for eight years and is active in the organization Jews Against Occupation. "Violence is not just bombing buses," she says. "The attacks are just the symptoms, the violence is the disease."
At the convention Israel was compared to South Africa under apartheid, called a "disease," and there were calls to stop American aid to Israel. But there were also several attempts to speak with the demonstrators outside and ceaseless claims that the gathering is not anti-Israel, only anti-occupation.
At the end of the day, representatives of the organizations that comprise the PSM voted on resolutions to change a clause in the organization's guidelines that stipulates a neutral stance on terror attacks. These proposals were defeated by a majority, so the movement maintains its refusal to condemn terror.
Greenhouse ascribes the striking Jewish presence in the organization to the tikkun olam (setting the world to rights) tradition," but Yona Berman of Amcha sees matters differently: "They were educated to justice, but didn't learn anything about what goes on in Israel.
Except for Amcha, which counter-picketed the convention, most Jewish organizations avoided confrontation and prefered holding a parallel convention about Israel, featuring former MK Avraham Burg. Chabad brought to Durham the sign from the No. 19 bus destroyed in Jerusalem, and the Jewish community held a concert against terror.