A national student campaign to convince universities to divest their holdings in companies that do business with Israel was launched the weekend of Feb. 16 on U.C. Berkeley's campus. Organizers of the National Student Conference of the Palestinian Solidarity Movement are deliberately modeling their campaign on the 1980s anti-apartheid divestment campaign.
I attended the conference to learn and listen and understand the goals of the attendees. Yet, as some some friends and I entered the session, held at Boalt Hall School of Law, we were marked as "Zionists." Conference organizers told us we were not welcome and should leave. Since the conference was a public event held in a public building, we were well in our rights to stay, which we did, much to their consternation. The organizers then treated us to a day of harassment and intimidation, as "security teams" followed us everywhere, surrounded us in workshops and tried to provoke us into confrontation.
Some 250 students attended the conference from 22 campuses in the United States and Canada. Co-sponsors included student and non-student groups such as the "mainstream" Arab-American Anti-Discrimination Committee, the Muslim Public Affairs Council, an array of leftist revolutionaries, the conservative Muslim Student Association -- whose Web site opposes homosexuality as "immoral," a gay anti-Israel group, and dozens of others. A number of groups set up information tables, such as Left Turn, A Jewish Voice for Peace, and Queers Undermining Israeli Terrorism, among others.
Judging by comments made during debates over the conference's final statement, I can say with confidence that the participants were not seeking peace with Israel, but rather "peace" without any Israel. The leader of the Berkeley Students for Justice in Palestine -- the event's principal organizing group -- rose and declared his opposition to any negotiations with Israel and to a two-state solution.
The conference drew up a final statement that said participants: "declare our solidarity with the popular Palestinian resistance to Israeli occupation, colonization, and apartheid, just as we unequivocally support the right of all people, wherever they may be, to resist oppression. Popular resistance is a legitimate strategy...As a solidarity movement, it is not our place to dictate the strategies or tactics adopted by the Palestinian people in their struggle for liberation."
The resolution ignores the hundreds of innocent Israelis murdered by suicide terrorists acting in the name of this "popular resistance." It makes no distinction whatsoever between civilians or soldiers. All, apparently, are "legitimate" targets of this "popular resistance" whose "strategies" and "tactics" the resolution implicitly endorses by failing to oppose suicide-terrorist massacres against Israeli civilians.
In tone and spirit this language is decisively anti-peace. It is a return to the zero-sum vocabulary of the pre-Oslo era. It condemns yet another generation of Palestinians and Israelis to bitter conflict, to rivers of blood and tears.
While this gathering most likely has little chance of achieving its stated goal of getting universities to divest, we should not underestimate the organizers who successfully formed a national network of anti-Israel student activists. They seek divestment as part of a broader international strategy to convince the United States and other governments to -- in the words of the final resolution -- "end all diplomatic, political and economic aid" to Israel.
They are planning a national "Day of Action" for April 9. They are organizing another conference "to demand university divestment" on the weekend of Sept. 28, the second anniversary of the current intifada. And they are reaching out to mainstream liberal-interest groups, such as those in the environmental movement.
This divestment movement, whose aim is to delegitimize, demonize and dehumanize the state of Israel, will make its presence known on college campuses nationally. To varying degrees it will influence the tone and substance of the Middle East debate on American campuses. Jewish and non-Jewish students alike will be challenged in their thinking about Israel's very right to exist.
But this movement's efforts will not go unchallenged. With the unflinching assistance of the Bay Area Jewish community, a group of students involved with Berkeley Hillel raised over $4,000 during the 25 hours of the conference. Standing oppposite Boalt Hall, under a banner proclaiming "INVEST IN ISRAEL; INVEST IN PEACE," the students sent a powerful message that while Israel's foes may be talking about divestment, Israel's supporters will invest in Israel and make that country stronger.
This kind of creative and dynamic activism is what we will need much more of, not only locally, but also on campuses across the country, where thousands of pro-Israel students are energetically promoting Israel's cause.
Meanwhile, Israel's campus foes will plan and organize. But they should know that their efforts are only motivating and activating the Jewish community -- both on and off campus -- to even greater levels of determination to not only meet their challenge, but to overcome it.