New York University’s Office of Student Life was the scene of a peace negotiation last week that Colin Powell can only dream about.
On one side of Sally Arthur, assistant vice president for student life, sat two leaders of a pro-Israel Jewish student group called TorchPAC. On the other side sat two officials from the pro-Palestinian Arab Student Union, the largest Arab student group at the Greenwich Village institution.
Leading the two-hour discussion was Arthur, who summoned the parties in an effort to calm the growing tensions between the two groups, which have become nastier in recent months reflecting the escalating violence in the Middle East.
The conflict includes charges by TorchPAC that ASU distributed anti-Semitic literature via its e-mail list serve, and that ASU tried to disrupt pro-Israel rallies.
"Generally, this is not something the university would customarily be taking upon itself," NYU spokesman Jon Beckman said about Arthur’s May 2 conference. But, he added, "The level of rancor between these two groups and the level of scrutiny to find fault with one another has been exceptionally high."
Such hostility between pro-Palestinian and pro-Israel student groups has been rising at universities and colleges across the United States in varying degrees of intensity.
In perhaps the most publicized case, 79 anti-Israel protesters were arrested at a rally at the University of California at Berkeley last month after storming and taking over a classroom building.
Members of the group Students for Justice in Palestine likened the Middle East violence to the Holocaust, but with the Palestinians as the victims. They urged the university to divest itself of any Israel-related investments.
Campus administrators have suspended the Arab group from campus and told 41 students they may be suspended for a year. The group is appealing.
Less volatile protests were held across the country.
But at San Francisco State, anti-Israel protests crossed the line into anti-Semitism, experts said, when a poster displayed on campus accused Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon of killing Palestinian children according to Jewish rituals.
The tentacles of the Middle East conflict have also reached into university classrooms, with some Jewish students accusing their professors of bringing an anti-Israel bias into their lectures.
In Europe, hundreds of university professors are urging boycotts of their Israeli counterparts from participating in international research projects until Israel "ends the occupation."
And while most college terms end within the next three weeks, a new threat is lurking: Jewish campus leaders are warning about plans in the fall for a coordinated nationwide anti-Israel college campaign by pro-Palestinian student groups. The campaign will paint Israel as an apartheid state, present the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a human rights issue, and push university officials to divest their institutions from Israel-related investments.
A similar anti-Israel campaign was set to begin in September but was canceled after Sept. 11 because Arab student leaders feared a backlash against their message in light of the radical Arab-Islamic terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
"We anticipate the temperature will be getting hotter," said Bob Lichtman, associate vice president for Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life, when asked about potential anti-Israel campus activities in the fall.
"We came across information that implores [Arab student groups] to organize, and we can expect more in the fall," said Lichtman, who is also Hillel’s New York regional director.
In response, Hillel is mobilizing its own national education campaign.
The group is planning to gather hundreds of Jewish students for intensive training and strategy sessions to learn how to counter campus anti-Semitism and educate uninformed college students about the facts of the Middle East conflict.
Most college students seem to be disinterested in the issue, observers said, despite demonstrations by both pro and anti-Israel groups.
"The vast middle ground [of college students] is unaffected and confused," Lichtman said. "Aside from the Jewish students feeling strongly, and the anti-Israel students feeling equally as passionate, this isn’t a broad and sweeping issue on campuses."
But Hillel executive director Richard Joel is particularly concerned about the rising anti-Semitism on campus, as evidenced in a recent e-mail he sent to staffers announcing Hillel’s emergency student solidarity mission to Israel next month.
"Many campuses experienced anti-Israel rallies in the last week. Some of these rallies expressed a disturbing level of hatred for Jews and the Jewish state," Joel wrote.
He said the upcoming solidarity trip, which is being funded by individual philanthropists and Jewish federations, "will demonstrate to Israel and the American Jewish community that they can count on Jewish college students for their support. It will also bolster our efforts to create an effective network of activists for the years to come."
Joel noted that the project "is not rooted in hatred but in our dedication to the State of Israel and its right to live in peace with its neighbors."
Based on the last few months, Hillel has its work cut out for it.
For example, Students for Justice in Palestine is developing campus chapters across the country. And a review of anti-Israel events on American campuses demonstrates a disturbing increase in incidents that could be labeled hate crimes by government law enforcement officials.
The incidents include:
# At Colorado University in Boulder, the Hillel Center’s Israeli flag was defaced with anti-Israel graffiti on April 14.
# On April 20, an Israeli couple living near the University of Illinois campus was the target of vandalism when a rock was thrown through their front window, where an Israeli flag was displayed.
# At the University of California-San Diego, Muslim student groups have been posting fliers featuring distorted, fabricated or out-of-context quotations from the Talmud painting Jews in a bad light. One flier claimed that "A Jew is permitted to rape, cheat and perjure himself but he must take care that he is not found out, so that Israel may not suffer."
New York-area campuses have been relatively calm, said Hillel’s Lichtman.
"There’s nothing in New York that’s remotely close yet to [Berkeley]," he said. "If you stick your finger and take the temperature, it’s getting warmer, but it’s not yet boiling. Yet we anticipate the temperature getting hotter."
Nevertheless there have been "hot spots" in New York, with Lichtman singling out NYU and Columbia.
"Over the last year if you’ve been listening to the anti-Israel drumbeat at campuses across New York, you see more at NYU, which has a liberal international environment," he said. "Similarly you’ll find that at Columbia, which houses a significant foreign and Muslim student population.
Lichtman recounted an incident at the Morningside Heights campus three weeks ago when pro-Palestinian students called for a boycott of classes to demonstrate against Israel. He said several Columbia faculty members "crossed the line" when they canceled classes and encouraged students to join the boycott. "That’s a violation of the academic code of conduct."
At the State University in Binghamton, Jewish students this semester have been complaining about an alleged anti-Israel bias in a new course devoted to the study of terrorism. Binghamton Hillel director Gary Coleman said upon review it did appear that the course did not present a balanced view about Israel.
The issue came to a head last month when Jewish students met with the university president and the course professor to air their complaints. As a result, the professor agreed to have a representative from the Israeli Consulate present Israel’s position on terrorism.
"An important lesson was learned here ó that students have a right to protest what they found to be offensive and do something about it," Coleman said Monday.
There have also been incidents at Hunter College, part of the City University system with a 30 percent undergraduate Muslim population, Lichtman said.
He said that three months ago, pro-Israel students trying to attend a meeting to organize a local AIPAC chapter were blocked from entering the campus Hillel by pro-Palestinian demonstrators.
Last Thursday, a small but vocal group of Muslim demonstrators protested a campus lecture by Daniel Pipes, a strong critic of Islamic fundamentalism and the Palestinian Authority.
Meanwhile, tensions are also rising between Jewish and non-Jewish scholars as a result of a call to boycott Israeli professors because of Israel’s recent military actions.
In recent weeks, hundreds of European university professors publicly called for a moratorium on research and cultural exchanges with Israel "unless and until Israel abides by UN resolutions and opens serious peace negotiations with the Palestinians."
"This is a serious problem for Israeli academics. It would bring tremendous harm to them," said NYU Professor Lawrence Schiffman, president of the Association for Jewish Studies, which last week condemned the anti-Israel boycott.
Meanwhile, at NYU, the student leaders have agreed to tone down their nasty rhetoric and keep the lines of communication open between the two groups.
"It was a satisfactory meeting," said outgoing TorchPAC president Daniel Rosen. "We’ll see how things go from here."
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