UPDATED: October 20, 2004
Palestine Solidarity Movement Conference Speakers Attack Israel
Anti-Israel student activists and speakers from around the United States and abroad converged on Duke University in North Carolina on October 15-17, 2004, for the fourth National Student Conference of the Palestine Solidarity Movement (PSM).
As suspected, participants, some of whom represent anti-Israel groups that do not acknowledge the legitimacy of the state of Israel, portrayed Israel as a "racist" and "apartheid" state and refused to condemn suicide bombing.
Attendees at the conference defeated proposals to moderate the PSM's "Guiding Principle #5," under which the PSM refuses to condemn terrorism. Several speakers also made comments expanding upon their unwillingness to condemn terrorism, alleging Israeli control of U.S. media and comparing Israel to apartheid South Africa. For example:
- Nasser Abufarha, a doctoral candidate at the University of Wisconsin, reportedly said he supported Palestinian terrorist groups Hamas and Al Aksa Martyrs Brigade because they "establish life in Palestine." Abufarha said the conflict between Israel and Palestinians stems from "the Zionist commitment to an exclusive Jewish state in a land inhabited by non-Jews…Such a state necessitates discrimination."
- Mazin Qumsiyeh, a Yale University associate professor and founder of the radical anti-Israel group Al-Awda, called Zionism "a disease" and claimed that the violence in the Middle East started with "the idea that the land belongs to the Jewish people." Qumsiyeh also asked audience members, "If apartheid was a problem in South Africa, why do we consider it a solution in Palestine and Israel?"
- Rann Bar-On, a Duke student and one of the conference organizers, compared the treatment of Palestinians by Israel to "Algiers under the French or Poland under the Nazis. There is always violence under occupation." Bar-On also noted the difficulty for activists in the U.S. to speak out against Israeli policy because "any criticism of Israel is taken as anti-Semitism."
- Brian Avery, an International Solidarity Movement activist (ISM), criticized the U.S. media for a "campaign of misinformation by Zionist-leaning news editors." Avery also urged attendees to pressure the U.S. government to stop giving military aid to Israel. "In a lot of ways, the real battle is not in Palestine, the real battle is in America," Avery said. "That's where the power is, that's where the money is."
- Huwadia Arraf, co-founder of the ISM, led a workshop titled "Volunteering in Palestine: Role and Value of International Activists." Arraf urged students to join ISM, which engages in tactics such as obstructing the activities of the Israeli Army, spreading anti-Israel propaganda and voicing support for others who engage in armed resistance against Israel.
- Diana Buttu, the legal advisor for the Negotiations Affairs Department of the Palestine Liberation Organization, compared Israel to apartheid South Africa. "All of the things we saw in place in South Africa are now in place in Palestine and have been in place for 37 years," she said. Buttu also said that "Israel is attempting to actually rid itself of the Palestinians while taking as much of their land as possible."
- The Rev. Mark Davidson, pastor of the Church of Reconciliation in Chapel Hill, talked about the Presbyterian Church's divestment strategy. "The Presbyterian Church has put its money where its mouth is," he told the audience. The PSM also voted to pass a resolution calling for coordination of their divestment activities with the Anglican and Episcopal churches.
- Fayyad Sbaihat, the conference's national contact, blamed the Israel/Palestinian conflict on "a colonialist mentality on the part of Zionists that the natives don't matter." According Sbaihat, "the Palestinians are left on reservations and in ghettos. There was never really the possibility of a two-state solution." Sbaihat also noted that the PSM is modeling its divestment campaign on the anti-apartheid efforts against South Africa and is trying to unite with similar campaigns around the world.
The book 51 Documents: Zionist Collaboration with the Nazis, edited by Lenni Brenner, was sold at a table at the conference. Brenner, a staunch anti-Zionist, has claimed in his writings that the Zionists were in league with the Nazis during World War II and that this alliance was based on a desire by the Zionists to bring about a Zionist state by exploiting anti-Semitism in Europe.
On the last night of the conference, about 50 attendees marched through the campus holding Palestinian flags and posters with messages such as "DIVE$T from ISRAEL." The Neturei Karta, a tiny group of ultra-Orthodox rabbis with a record of hostility to the existence of the state of Israel, joined the march as well. "Zionism is a 100-year-old political movement to gain land, which is expressly forbidden by God," said Karta Rabbi Yisroel Weiss. He also said, "The Islamic people are extremely hurt by what is done in Palestine, and we are kidnapped because it is being done in the Jewish name."
A day after the conference ended, an offensive editorial by Duke student Philip Kurian was published in the Duke Chronicle. The editorial contained a number of classic stereotypes about Jews, including charges of excessive wealth, power and a lack of concern for anyone but themselves.
Campus Jewish Community Responds
The Freeman Center for Jewish Life, the Hillel program at Duke, chose to counter the conference with a weekend of study and prayer on October 15-16, 2004. Billed as an "Israel Teach-In," the students and staff of the Freeman Center orchestrated worship services, panel discussions and various workshops.
The Israel Teach-In began with a presentation by former Israeli Knesset Speaker Avraham Burg (Labor Party). Burg encouraged students to speak out, take responsibility and to be committed and involved.
Burg also took part in a panel with Mitchell Bard, author of Myths and Facts and other Jewish reference tools; Fred Guttman, a reform rabbi who chairs the movement's Israel Task Force; and Jane Kanerek, a Chicago rabbi and a member of the United Synagogue conservative movement.
Workshops included Confronting Modern Anti-Semitism; the Challenges of Middle East Studies Programs; Israel 401: Going Beyond the Basics; From Inspiration to Student Activism and Speaking Out for Israel. Duke faculty members, Israeli consular staff and representatives of the Anti-Defamation League and the David Project were among the speakers.
The Israel Teach-In followed a campus-wide collaborative event on Thursday evening, which focused on building campus support for the fight against terrorism in the Middle East and around the world. Sponsored by "Students Against Terrorism," the event included popular bands and speakers including Duke students and administrators, the Durham mayor and members of Congress.
Prelude to the Conference
Before it even took place, the PSM Conference created controversy on Duke's campus.
Jewish student groups, concerned about the conference's anti-Israel message, issued an open letter to conference organizers asking them, among other things, to "condemn the murder of innocent civilians" and to "support a two-state solution." However, Rann Bar-On, the conference's local media contact, refused to sign a statement condemning terrorism. "We don't see it as very useful for us as a solidarity movement to condemn violence," he said. "That will not achieve any particular goal."
Conference organizers also arranged a list of anti-Israel speakers that initially included Charles E. Carlson, co-founder of We Hold These Truths, an Arizona-based, conspiracy-oriented anti-Semitic group. Carlson's name and workshop was removed from the PSM Web site prior to the conference.
Further controversy ensued in September after Shadee Malaklou, a sophomore at Duke University's Trinity College, wrote a column for The Chronicel, Duke's daily newspaper, defending the conference. Her column was critical of Israel and included references to "Jewish influence" and Jewish "power." In her article, she asked the Duke students: "How many Jewish and Zionist (because in the United States, yes, to be Jewish and to be Zionist is one in the same) students do we have at Duke? How much power do they exude? How many speakers from Israel (or even just pro-Israeli speakers) did we have last year alone?"
Conference Organizers: A Who's Who
The three PSM media contacts that represented the Duke conference all have affiliations with prominent anti-Israel groups:
- Fayyad Sbaihat is the PSM conference's national contact. Sbaihat, born on the West Bank, is a senior majoring in chemical engineering at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. Sbaihat is also a member of Al-Awda, an anti-Israel group active on several college and university campuses that calls for the destruction of Israel, as indicated by its motto, "from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free." In January 2004, Sbaihat wrote an article in the University of Wisconsin's Badger Herald blaming Israel and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon for a Palestinian suicide bombing of a bus in Jerusalem, which killed 11 people. "The bombing in Jerusalem," according to Sbaihat, "was an expected and desired (by Sharon) outcome of the Gaza incursion, and the emerging fact is Sharon will soon have as much Israeli blood on his hands as he does Palestinian."
- Another media contact, Nahla Saleh, a U.S.-born Palestinian-American, is a graduate student in education at The Ohio State University, where the third national PSM conference took place in 2003. At that time, Saleh, one of the spokespersons for the conference, told news agency JTA that participants issued "no clear condemnation of suicide bombings, but also did not express support for them, either." Saleh also stated that Israel "is in violation of international law because they are running their country under an apartheid system. The apartheid that is a part of Zionism is inherently racist, and everyone in Committee for Justice in Palestine and Palestine Solidarity Movement is in agreement on that."
- Rann Bar-On, the Duke conference's local contact, is an Israeli-born Jew and a graduate student in mathematics at Duke University. He is a member of Hiwar (Arabic for "dialogue"), a local student group co-sponsoring the conference, and also a member of the International Solidarity Movement, a protest group that confronts Israeli military forces in Palestinian areas and voices support for others who engage in armed resistance against Israel. Bar-On was previously invited to speak on behalf of ISM at a Duke class dealing with "non-violent activism in Israel and Palestine."