Tense campus

Tense campus

This past Tuesday, Ali Abunimah, co-founder of the online anti-Israel publication “Electronic Intifada,” was welcomed as a speaker on the campus of the University of Pittsburgh. His lecture was sponsored by a host of pro-Palestinian groups including the Coalition for Peace and Justice in the Middle East (CPJME), and the Pittsburgh Palestinian Solidarity Committee.

On March 2 and 3 — also on campus — the CPJME publicly screened two anti-Israel films: “Occupation 101,” a documentary portraying Palestinians as blameless victims persecuted by an apartheid Zionist state; and “Divine Intervention,” a black comedy laying the blame of Palestinian hopelessness squarely on the shoulders of the


The inflammatory, anti-Israel play, “My Name is Rachel Corrie,” will be presented on March 29 at Pitt. The play contends that an Israel Defense Forces bulldozer deliberately ran down Corrie, an American peace activist. The Israel Defense Forces Judge Advocate’s Office, however, after an investigation of the incident, concluded that her death was a tragic accident.

In January, “Hope Under Siege,” an incendiary photo exhibit by the president of Pitt Students for Justice in Palestine was displayed for two weeks, at the William Pitt Union, presenting a one-sided narrative of the Israeli/ Palestinian struggle.

These events are just a few in a long list of constant on-campus anti-Israel programming, which has increased at an alarming rate since late last fall.

“There is a tremendous volume of anti-Israel programming happening on our campuses that we haven’t seen in years,” said Aaron Weil, executive director of Pittsburgh’s Hillel Jewish University Center.

“This started in November,” Weil continued. “It’s a national, well-coordinated, well-organized, well-funded campaign. Some of it borders on anti-Semitic. When an organization calls for the destruction or removal of the Jewish state of Israel, thus denying the Jewish people the U.N.-given right to self-determination, this is anti-Semitism.”

Weil said that anti-Israel groups are targeting college campuses in about 40 cities across the United States.

“This is not just a campus issue,” Weil said, “but a city issue. When anti-Israel comes to town, it starts on college campuses.”

Jewish students at Pitt have been feeling the impact of the barrage of anti-Israel programming, said Carly Adelman, president of Hillel at Pitt.

“We noticed an increase in anti-Israel, pro-Palestinian programming probably in the beginning of December,” Adelman said. “It accelerated in January when we got back from winter break.”

“The first two weeks of January, it was at its worst,” Adelman said. “Coming back from break, I think a lot of Jewish students were not prepared to speak about the issue. So, people were getting a lot of information from the anti-Israel groups.”

So far, the administration of Pitt does not see the influx of anti-Israel activity as a problem. The university gives “student groups the freedom to select the topics of the things they wish to pursue,” said John Fedele, associate director of news, university news and magazines. “They have a wide latitude.”

While the administration is “supporting all students, and not favoring one group over another,” said Adelman, “we have been assured that if even one student were targeted, the administration said it would do something. If anyone’s safety were threatened, it would step in. But they can’t step in with just an exchange of ideas.”

Adelman said that in January, there was a lot of coverage in the campus newspaper about “what both sides were saying. But I think some of the writers of the Pitt News were not educated about the history of Israel, so they were writing opinion, not fact.”

“I would definitely say there is a large concern about what’s going on,” said Naomi Wischnia, president of Panthers for Israel, a Pitt group that promotes Israel’s cultural contributions.

Earlier in the year, protests such as the March of the Dead — where pro-Palestinian activists dressed in black with white masks and marched while carrying coffins — made many Jewish students uncomfortable.

“People were definitely feeling threatened by the protests [against the Gaza incursion] going on at the beginning of the year,” Wischnia said. During the March of the Dead, Jewish students heard someone call out, “we’re going to kill all the Israelis,” Wischnia recounted.

Although Wischnia said that the anti-Israel events have not been particularly well attended, “that doesn’t mean it’s not cause for concern. It’s important that we deal with these issues. We have to definitely do something about it.”

To that end, Hillel and other Jewish organizations on campus have come together to create a plan of action, including Israel advocacy training sessions, re-framing the political discussion, and promoting Israel in a positive way.

“We’re trying to re-form the discussion on campus, so the question is not always Israel’s actions in Gaza, but Hamas’ actions in Gaza, and why hasn’t the U.N. closed the refugee camps,” said Weil. “The occupation ended four years ago. If suffering is happening in Gaza, and the Palestinians are being governed by a democratically elected government, why is that government keeping its people as refugees?”

“We as a staff are working with students to have tools to discuss the issues,” Weil said. “The anti-Israel organizations have blurred the issues so that Israel is the aggressor. When women and children are being used as human shields, they are blaming it on the people firing on them, rather than on those holding them hostages. These nuances are lost on campus. And [the anti-Israel groups] display horrific pictures that define the context.”

While the anti-Israel groups are using “110 percent of their energy,” Adelman said, the Jewish groups are finding it challenging to respond on the same scale. “It’s hard to have that kind of response when Israel is not the only thing we’re doing.”

But, Weil said, Jewish students are stepping up to run the pro-Israel programs on their own, and are responding to the anti-Israel groups with an “informative and positive campaign.” Weil hopes that speakers this spring such as the head of foreign news for ABC in April, and, on Monday, March 23, Yossi Klein Halevi, Israel correspondent and contributing editor of the New Republic, will help present a more accurate account of politics in the Middle East.

Jewish students are trying to respond to the anti-Israel groups’ negative crusade by focusing on the positive, said Weil.

“We’re having cultural events,” said Adelman. “We’re having an Israeli movie night. We’re trying to educate people about what Israel has to offer.”

“While we’re defending Israel on campus, we have to remember to celebrate the very aspects of Israel that make her worth defending in the first place,” Weil said.

(Toby Tabachnick can be reached at tobyt@thejewishchronicle.net.)

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