NEW YORK (AP) — The lecture hall had filled quickly. Several students arrived wearing keffiyehs, the traditional Palestinian headscarves, while in the front row, a young man sat draped in the Israeli flag. As the meeting opened, a student government officer reviewed the rules of debate, warning physical confrontations would not be tolerated. “We want this to be safe for everyone,” she said.
It was time for a ritual that has become increasingly commonplace on many American college campuses: a student government body, in this case at the University of California, Davis, would take up Israeli policy toward the Palestinians, and decide whether to demand their school divest from companies that work with the Jewish state.
In the United States, Israel’s closest ally, the decade-old boycott-divestment-sanctions, or BDS, movement is making its strongest inroads by far on college campuses. No U.S. school has sold off stock and none is expected to do so anytime soon. Still, the current academic year is seeing an increasing number of divestment drives at colleges and universities, stretching from the University of California system to Northwestern University and beyond. Since January alone, student governments at four universities have taken divestment votes.
While the campaigns unfold around resolutions largely proposed by chapters of Students for Justice in Palestine, outside groups have become increasingly involved — from American Muslims for Palestine and the Quakers’ American Friends Service Committee, on one side, to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, or AIPAC, on the other. At some campuses, candidates for student government are being asked their views on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The heated rhetoric has led to claims of anti-Semitism and of infringement on free speech.
“I don’t think anyone is surprised when they hear a BDS movement is coming,” said Ira Stup, a 2009 Columbia University graduate and former director of J Street U, the college arm of the liberal pro-Israel lobby J Street, which opposes BDS. “It’s becoming a regular occurrence.”
“It’s creating a debate. It’s creating a significant amount of conversation in the entire community and it’s set on the terms the activists want it to be set on,” said Rahim Kurwa, a doctoral candidate and member of Students for Justice in Palestine at the University of California, Los Angeles.
The boycott-divestment-sanctions movement grew from a 2005 international call from Palestinian groups as an alternative to armed struggle over control of the West Bank, Gaza and east Jerusalem, which Israel captured in 1967 and Palestinians seek for an independent state.
BDS advocates say the movement, based on the campaign against South African apartheid decades ago, is aimed at Israeli policy, not Jews, in response to two decades of failed peace talks and expanded Israeli settlement of the West Bank and east Jerusalem.
But supporters of Israel say that boycotting the country is no way to make peace, especially since many BDS supporters do not differentiate between protesting Jewish settlements on occupied lands or Israel as a whole.
In the U.S., activists have pressed for boycotts of Israeli products and cultural events, and for divestment by churches and investment funds. None of these efforts has gained as much momentum in the U.S. as the campus divestment movement.
College activists organize lectures and workshops on Israeli policy and Palestinian history, while staging protests that include mock Israeli military checkpoints, or a mock West Bank separation barrier that activists call an “Israel apartheid wall.” Flash mobs perform the dabke, or Arabic folk dance, to highlight Palestinian culture.
Advocates write op-eds for campus newspapers with appeals to protect Palestinian human rights, often accusing Israel of colonialism and racism. Pro-Israel groups counter with their own demonstrations, lectures and opinion pieces. When divestment proposals come up for a vote before student governments, the hearings can last for days, drawing campus-wide attention, whether or not the measure prevails. The 2013 hearings at UC-San Diego stretched over three weeks.
“It helps get the plight of the Palestinian people into mainstream discourse,” said Taher Herzallah, national campus coordinator for American Muslims for Palestine, an Illinois-based education and advocacy group that provides advice and support for student activists.
Protesters at some schools have taken a harder line in their activism. Palestinian advocates generally will not engage in dialogue or joint public events with pro-Israel students, calling such interactions “faithwashing” meant to weaken the movement.
Last year at Ohio University in Athens, student senate president Megan Marzec accepted an ALS ice bucket challenge, but instead of ice she poured fake blood over her head in what she said was “a message of student concern of the genocide in Gaza.”
“There definitely is a sharpness to the anti-Israel side that’s uncomfortable,” said Hal Ossman, executive director of the Jewish campus group Hillel at Cornell University, where a divestment proposal failed to win passage last year.
The student divestment votes are symbolic. University administrators and boards — not student governments — oversee investments, and trustees have rejected the resolutions for several reasons, including that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is too complex to single out one country.
Only a few dozen student governments have cast ballots on divestment proposals since 2012. Of those votes, about a dozen have won passage.
Yet, the number of campus campaigns has grown steadily in recent years, and Israel and Palestinian advocates say the 2014-15 academic year, which started soon after Israel’s war with the militant group Hamas in Gaza, is shaping up as one of the busiest so far.
Nowhere is the impact more evident than the University of California system. Student governments at five of the 10 UC campuses have voted for divestment. Two more, Santa Cruz and Davis, did the same, but the votes were thrown out over procedural issues. Since December, divestment also won the backing of the labor union UAW2865 representing thousands of teaching assistants and other workers for the entire UC system, and the University of California Students Association, which represents student government bodies statewide.
The UC Board of Regents has said they would only divest from companies working in a country that the U.S. government said was committing genocide. But the West coalition of Students for Justice in Palestine is pressing ahead.
“The movement is getting more and more organized. They’re learning from their own best practices,” said Roz Rothstein, chief executive and co-founder of the California-based group Stand With Us, which helps train students to defend the Jewish state. “The strategy is being shared across campuses.”
The gains have spawned a kind of ideological arms race on campus: Both sides have been building up networks to support student activists.
American Muslims for Palestine provides posters, speakers and a step-by-step planning guide for demonstrations; another handbook is distributed by the U.S. Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation. The Institute for Middle East Understanding, an educational and advocacy group for Palestinians, the American Friends Service Committee and Jewish Voice for Peace, a national group that supports BDS, help with organizing or media strategies. In 2013, the Palestine Solidarity Legal Support Fund launched with the help of the Center for Constitutional Rights and others, to provide legal advice and representation for activists. At last year’s annual meeting of National Students for Justice in Palestine, about 120 schools registered, the organization said.
Meanwhile, every major American Jewish group has in some way put resources into countering the college divestment movement and the uptick in anti-Israel activity. These include the Israel on Campus Coalition, Stand With Us, CAMERA on Campus, The David Project and AIPAC. Among the newer groups is the California-based AMCHA Initiative, which aggressively watches for anti-Semitism on campus.
“There was a huge surge in anti-Israel activism, and then you saw the pro-Israel community respond with an even larger surge of pro-Israel activism,” said Jacob Baime, executive director of the Israel on Campus Coalition, which works closely with Hillel, the national Jewish campus organization.
At some schools, student government candidates are being asked to state their position on Israel — and AIPAC has suggested students solicit position papers from the candidates. At UCLA, Palestinian advocates asked student government candidates to sign a pledge that they wouldn’t take Israel trips organized by some pro-Israel groups. Some candidates signed on.
The push for divestment comes at a time when the American Jewish community, and especially younger Jews, are more divided than ever about Israeli policies, and pro-Israel groups worry about losing the support of a generation. It’s also a time of a larger and better organized Muslim and Arab student presence on U.S. campuses.
However, the fight over Israel is not playing out strictly as Jew versus Muslim, or Jew versus Arab, even though members of each group play prominent roles, according to Cary Nelson, a retired English professor at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, and co-editor of the book, “The Case Against Academic Boycotts of Israel.” The BDS movement in the U.S., he said, is emerging “from the heart of the American left.”
Advocates for Palestinians have linked divestment to social justice movements against racism, militarization and globalization that are important to many college students. United Students Against Sweatshops, which focuses on labor rights, endorsed National Students for Justice in Palestine. In 2013, the council of the Native American and Indigenous Studies Association endorsed a boycott of Israeli academic institutions. Campus divestment advocates often come to student government hearings with the backing of student associations for blacks, South Asians, Mexican-Americans, gays and others.
“Drawing these connections cross-struggle has been huge for our movement,” said Tory Smith, a 2012 Earlham College graduate and member of National Students for Justice in Palestine.
The increased activism has spread alarm about anti-Semitism on campus. After the divestment hearing last month at UC Davis, the school’s Jewish fraternity Alpha Epsilon Pi was defaced with swastikas. Fraternity leaders said they believed they had been targeted over their support for Israel. The coalition of student groups that supported divestment condemned the vandalism.
At Temple University last year, a Jewish student was slapped by another student at a booth for Students for Justice in Palestine. The group condemned the assault and said the assailant was not a member of their organization.
After University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, junior Daniel Pearlman spoke last year against an ultimately unsuccessful divestment proposal, he said he was “terrified” by ugly name-calling on Twitter and Facebook and comments that he said left Jewish students feeling targeted — “They mentioned genocide, apartheid, ethnic cleansing.”
In 2010, at the urging of 13 leading Jewish groups, Education Secretary Arne Duncan extended protection to Jewish students under the Title VI civil rights law. So far, no violations have been found, a department spokesman said.
Advocates for Palestinians have made their own complaints of harassment and intimidation against school administrators and pro-Israel groups.
The Students for Justice in Palestine chapter at Loyola University Chicago was temporarily suspended after some of its members tried to register for one of the Taglit-Birthright Israel trips that are meant to bond young American Jews with Israel as their ancestral homeland. After a review, administrators concluded neither the Jewish nor Palestinian students had properly registered their activities, but no one was found guilty of harassment.
At Barnard College in New York, the Students for Justice in Palestine chapter said their free speech rights had been violated when administrators removed a banner promoting “Israel Apartheid Week,” part of a protest held throughout North America and Europe. Pro-Israel students said the placement of the sign, which had a drawing of Israel and the territories without any internal borders, implied an official school endorsement. Barnard administrators said they would review their display policy.
Dima Khalidi, director of the Palestine Solidarity Legal Support Fund, said her group received 230 requests for help in 2014, and about 70 percent came from college students and faculty who said they were being harassed or unfairly punished by school administrators, or their activism had been curtailed through excessive security fees for their school events or administrators’ requests for the name of every student participant.
As the BDS movement has gained traction, many pro-Israel groups have begun to ask whether their approach so far has helped their cause or has inadvertently inflated the significance of the opposition. Pro-Israel students at some campuses have decided to no longer attend divestment hearings, saying their presence gives the proceedings an unwarranted legitimacy. And some Jewish students say the threat of anti-Semitism at colleges has been overblown. Jewish community leaders are debating whether resources would be better spent on projects among Palestinians and Israelis that aim to find a peaceful solution to the conflict.
Rothstein, of Stand With Us, disagrees. She said Palestinian advocates arrive at school each year “prepared to go on the attack,” so her organization will be expanding to counter them. “We’re trying to grow and scale up,” she said, “as fast as we can.”
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