Rutgers Campus Politics Makes Mideast a Local New Jersey Issue

WASHINGTON - Ever since the intifada began, college campuses have been the principal battlefield for pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian organizations in America. The most recent engagement took place at Rutgers University in New Jersey - and it has already drawn in local politicians, Jewish organizations and the university administration.

The trouble began when a coalition of pro-Palestinian organizations decided to hold their annual convention at Rutgers in the second week of October. Last year, the event was held at Michigan University, and the year before that at Berkeley. The host organization was New Jersey Solidarity, which is considered one of the most extreme organizations in the coalition. One of the group's leaders, Charlotte Kates, for instance, told The New York Post that "Israel is a colonial settler apartheid state" that has no right even to exist, and against which suicide attacks are justifiable. In another interview, with The New York Times, she said: "It is not our place in the United States to dictate the tactics Palestinian groups use in the liberation struggle." The organization also hung posters around the campus in March that declared: "From the River to the Sea, Palestine Will be Free."

New Jersey has both a large Jewish and a large Arab population, and news of the planned conference quickly drew reactions from local politicians. John Bennett, the Republican leader in the state senate, sent a letter to Governor James McGreevey demanding that he "prevent our prestigious and world-renowned university from hosting this abominable conference." McGreevey did meet with the university's president, but was convinced that there was no way to prevent the conference.

Then, however, objections began to be heard within the Palestinian solidarity movement itself. Some members of the New Jersey group quit, charging that the group had become too extreme and that its leaders, in internal discussions, including proposing invitations to Hamas representatives. And the coalition as a whole decided to move its annual conference from New Jersey to Ohio.

But the New Jersey group announced that it still intended to hold a Palestinian solidarity conference in October - with or without the rest of the coalition. It then applied to be registered as a Rutgers student association, which would entitle it to use the campus facilities.

That started the storm anew. McGreevey asked the university to reject the group's application, but Rutgers President Richard McCormick said that out of respect for freedom of expression, he could not refuse to register a group because of its opinions. That decision elicited thousands of protest letters and e-mails, and donors even warned that they would cancel their donations if the group were recognized. In the end, the university announced that the group failed to meet the technical requirements for recognition and its application was therefore rejected.

But New Jersey Solidarity appeared equally unfazed by this decision, and announced that the conference would still take place. "We refuse to be silenced," said Kates in a press release last week. "We will hold our conference wherever we must - in a hotel, in a park, wherever. The Palestinian people have continued to resist despite incredible and overwhelming force displayed against them - and we owe them nothing less than to refuse to be silenced."

Adding fuel to the fire was a flyer distributed on campus over the summer, allegedly by New Jersey Solidarity, calling for an "Israel hate fest" and declaring: "We can't kill Israelis but we can hate them." The group denied any connection to the flyer, and the campus Hillel organization confirmed that it had been fabricated by an extremist group to discredit New Jersey Solidarity - but the incident did nothing to calm tempers.

Now, both sides are bracing for October. New Jersey Solidarity plans to hold its conference then, while Hillel is planning a series of pro-Israel events on campus under the slogan "Israel inspires."

"We decided not to confront them, because that only gets them more publicity," explained Andrew Getraer, the head of Rutgers Hillel. Instead, he said, the group decided to present Israel's positive side.