“Our movement will succeed and only end in victory,” Noura Erekat, legal advocate for the U.S. Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation, said in closing her talk at the Palestine Solidarity Movement conference this past weekend.
Starting from the pre-conference press meeting early Saturday, however, victory seemed very far off. After passing through security, complete with a security gate and a university police officer equipped with a wand, I had managed to sit next to Lee Kaplan, a journalist from FrontPage.com, who had fiery questions to ask not of the Palestine Solidarity Movement’s goals, but of the character of its members. University spokesperson Erik Smulson, who attended the press conference, ultimately had to issue warnings against Kaplan’s aggressive questioning as he began to yell over the queries of other journalists present.
What did the press want to know? The Jerusalem Post wanted an official statement from the PSM on the use of terrorism. The British Broadcasting Corp. wanted to know if the PSM was tied to the International Solidarity Movement, a pro-Palestinian group accused of harboring terrorists. Kaplan wanted a statement on the alleged connection between one of the conference’s workshop leaders and terrorists.
Prior to the conference, Georgetown had confirmed with the FBI and the State Department that the PSM indeed had no known connections to terrorists, according to University spokesperson Erik Smulson. Yet following the Georgetown Students for Justice in Palestine announcement in early January that they planned to host the conference, criticisms and threats ballooned. The hype motivated the Department of Public Safety to take heavy security precautions, making audiences at the conference’s workshops and speeches slow to swell, as attendees were gradually sifted through various security checks in Healy Hall and the Inter-cultural Center.
According to conference organizers, approximately 400 students and activists attended. As a member of the media, I had limited access to conference events.
At the end of spring semester 2005, SJP extended an invitation to the PSM to host its annual conference on the Divestment from Israel Campaign. The group confirmed the event at the opening of the current semester.
“Bringing the national conference to our nation’s capitol is a natural step for our movement, and one that expresses the fact that divestment from Israel has become an issue of national prominence,” PSM spokesperson Nadeem Muaddi said in the same statement.
In the run-up to the conference, critics loudly argued otherwise. The anger spilled over into the conference’s opening panel on Saturday. During the event’s question-and-answer session, two members of the Jewish Defense League, a self-described “controversial activist group defending Jews against anti-Semitism,” disrupted the discussion so much that university officials were forced to issue warnings against them.
“You’re a liar! You’re slime!” yelled one, targeting panelist Sue Blackwell, who wore a bright yellow T-shirt sporting the word “Caterkiller.”
After ignoring university officials’ warnings to respect the right of others in attendance to hear responses from the panelists, a second JDL member resisted being escorted from Gaston Hall by DPS officers, who were forced to drag the older man from the room.
According to its web site, the PSM is a loose umbrella of organizations whose work focuses on building “solidarity” with Palestine. The group formed four years ago this month, when the University of California in Berkeley chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine held its “Student Conference of the Palestine Solidarity Movement.” It was at this conference that the PSM developed its primary tool of nonviolent resistance to Israeli policies: divestment.
Divestment takes two principle forms: withdrawal of investments from all companies that do business with Israel, and withdrawal of investments from companies that contract with the Israeli military.
Divestment had been used with great success by the international community to accelerate the dismantling of South Africa’s apartheid system during the 1980s. Panelists at the PSM conference said they hope to emulate that success in their campaign to divest from Israel, saying they see strong parallels between the current Israeli policies and the apartheid government that existed in South Africa.
“There is more than a loose family resemblance between South African apartheid and the apartheid in Israel,” the eloquent Mohammed Abed, a lecturer in the department of Philosophy at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, said in a conference workshop Saturday.
In its 1973 convention condemning South African apartheid, the United Nations gave the following formal definition of apartheid: “inhuman acts committed for the purpose of establishing and maintaining domination by one racial group of persons over any other racial group of persons and systematically oppressing them.” Panelists throughout the conference supported their use of the apartheid analogy by giving precise descriptions of the discriminatory implications they saw in various Israeli policies.
Erekat cited several examples, among them the barrier Israel is currently constructing in the West Bank, which she said “separates Palestinians from Palestinians.” She also cited 20 Israeli laws that she said discriminate against Arabs, among them the Law of Return, which allows any person of Jewish descent to come to Israel and gain citizenship.
Some critics call the use of the term “apartheid” propaganda.
“These claims of apartheid are false and are a simplistic way to describe the situation in Israel. Israeli-Arabs have the right to vote, they have representation in the Knesset and they enjoy the freest Arabic press in the Middle East,” Greg Goldberg (COL ‘08), president of the Georgetown Israeli Alliance, said. “Blacks suffering under the Afrikaaner regime did not enjoy any of these freedoms, so why should one use the phrase ‘apartheid’ to describe both?”
Yet conference supporters respond by saying the link to South African apartheid is beside the point.
“It is a simple objective fact that the situation is one of apartheid,” Mark Lance, professor of Justice and Peace at Georgetown, said. “The whole area is an analogy to apartheid.”
University President John J. DeGioia declines support for the divestment campaign.
“Speaking personally, I do not feel that the practice of apartheid is comparable to the complex set of issues involving many parties in the Middle East,” he wrote.
Supporters of the conference, however, said they remain firm in their support of divestment as a means of peacefully ending the human rights violations they say Israel commits against Palestinians with impunity.
“It’s the only meaningful way to change the situation that is morally acceptable,” Lance said in an interview prior to the conference. “[Divestment] is the only possible scenario that we have any control over.”
Critics, however, doubt the movement’s effectiveness. Their counterarguments abound.
Omar Barghouti, an independent Palestinian political analyst, articulated both sides of the debate in a speech on Sunday. He listed the various arguments that attack the movement on multiple levels and offered a frank rebuttal for each.
Barghouti responded to the assertion that Israel is a democracy by pointing out that Zionism, the movement to establish a Jewish homeland in Palestine, by nature ties privileges in the State of Israel to the Jews. According to Barghouti, critics also argue that divestment is counterproductive and will lead to Palestinians losing their ability to influence Israel on the path to peace.
“What influence?” he asked in response. “What peace?”
He concluded his comments with a statement central to the movement’s controversy and its critics’ allegations that the PSM is anti-Israeli:
“A unitary state … is the only moral and just solution to this conflict,” Barghouti said.
Such statements, Jonathan Aires (SFS ‘06), a member of GIA said, question the right of Israel to exist.
“Any promotion of a one-state solution serves as a cover for what its proponents really want: the destruction of Israel,” Aires said. “A two-state solution that respects the rights of both peoples, Israelis and Palestinians, to self-determination is the only viable solution for a peaceful resolution of this conflict.”
Conference panelists argued otherwise in another workshop.
“The state-building paradigm is part of the oppression,” University of Wisconsin-Madison lecturer Abed said.
The workshop’s second panelist, Ali Abunimah, co-founder of The Electronic Intifada news service, said he wants to emphasize that the movement’s target was the system of apartheid Israel supposedly has built, not the Israeli people themselves.
Conference protestors and counter-protestors dueled over the matter on Copley Lawn Sunday. According to Goldberg, Georgetown students had no official connection with the protestors, though some students from George Washington University set up a table to distribute Israeli goods.
Supporters of the conference came from a group of Orthodox Jews called the Neturei Karta International, or Jews United Against Zionism, who disagree with Zionism on various levels, including what they call its threat to “traditional Torah faith.” These beliefs motivate their advocacy of a peaceful dismantling of the Israeli state.
“They are pathetic old men who believe they are following the Torah,” George Haas, an Israeli citizen, director of the Jewish Defense League in Connecticut and intelligence director for the East Coast said of the Neturei Karta. Haas was accompanied by a student from George Washington University.
Members of the JDL protested that they were being threatened by the University and the conference. Haas likened the corrals university security used to designate specific areas for the protestors to a concentration camp.
“Why are you wearing tablecloths on your head?” another JDL protestor asked conference attendee Ehab Zariyeh of New York, who had worn the traditional Palestinian scarf called the kaffiyeh tied around his head on Sunday. Many conference attendees wore the kaffiyeh, each wearing it in a unique way.
When asked what he thought of the divestment campaign against Israel, Goldberg said he found it weak.
“I feel that when you look at the success of the divestment movement worldwide, it is essentially a failing movement,” he said. “It is an attempt to bring a solution to a situation by simplifying the problem, only citing one of the parties to have faults.”
Yet, while conference speakers acknowledged a recent lull in the movement’s momentum on campuses, they cited recent gains in support outside American campuses and in the international arena.
Just this month, the Church of England agreed to a resolution to divest from companies profiting from support for Israel’s policies in the West Bank and Gaza. Among these companies is Caterpillar, Inc., which manufactured the bulldozers seen in footage of the demolition of Palestinian homes in those territories.
Conference speakers said this gain continues the movement’s steady growth.
In 2003, the student council at Wayne State University in Michigan voted to divest from companies operating in Israel. In 2004, the Presbyterian Church voted to support the campaign, followed by the University of Wisconsin in 2005.
The Green Party as well as the cities of Sommerville, Mass., and Sor-Trondelag in Norway have also voted to support the campaign.
The speakers also emphasized the campaign’s important distinction from the international divestment from South Africa. The priority of the Israeli divestment campaign, Abed said in a speech dedicated to describing the movement’s current status, is to subject Israel to a cultural and social exclusion from the international world rather than impose crippling economic sanctions. He said such exclusion would have large effects in pressuring Israel.
This priority motivates additional agitation among the movements’ critics.
“It forgets Palestinian terrorism and denies Israel the right to defend itself,” Goldberg said. “Quite simply, divestment is a failing enterprise because it is not a suitable means to create a lasting peace.”
See “PSM Conference” on page 14.
Yet this weekend’s conference focused specifically on educating attendees on the tools they can use to begin their own local divestment campaigns in an effort to keep the movement strong, Hamid, the conference spokesperson, said.
Conference speakers approached this goal of rejuvenation by outlining the movement’s current weaknesses.
“We’re not ‘cool’,” lecturer Abed said, noting the movement’s current lack of supporters among figures of popular culture. “We’re not doing a good job of popularizing this.”
More deeply, he said the movement had failed to define its vision. The divestment campaign from South Africa had an inclusive vision, he said, one that said if the ruling white regime dismantled its policies, there would be a future for them in South Africa. He said that the PSM’s divestment campaign needed to form a similar vision, one that communicated its desire to include Israelis in a future solution, yet he maintained that a two-state solution was not viable.
Despite the speakers’ openness in addressing these weaknesses, they remained optimistic about the movement’s future and posited sources of new strength.
“We need to stop talking about founding states,” Abed said. “We should form a strong movement around a comprehensive human rights agenda.”
“We do have movement forward and this is something to be inspired by,” he said in summary of the conference’s activities.
Reflecting on the conference, Rabbi White, senior Jewish chaplain in Campus Ministry, said he was less convinced.
“The fear of many people in the Jewish community was recruitment; that they would recruit people to their cause: the divestment movement,” he said. “I believe that the presence of so many administrators at the conference sessions may have tempered it.”