Just back from a mission to Israel for college newspaper editors, the incoming editor in chief of the University of California at Irvine weekly was asked by a reporter about his reaction to the massacre at Hebrew University.
"Obviously it feels closer to home because I’m a university student myself," said Abel Pena, a 23-year-old senior, referring to the July 31 bomb blast credited to Hamas that killed nine people, including five Americans. "But I don’t want to rush to any kind of judgment on the action that was taken against the students."
Referring to suicide bombing in general, Pena said: "It seemed to me suicide bombings were obviously extreme actions. It’s my opinion they do this because they feel oppressed in one sense or another. I don’t want to be quick to judge in people doing suicide bombing."
He and several other of the eight student editors on the Anti-Defamation League-sponsored trip said they now feel more confused about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and were sympathetic to the plight of Israeli Arabs.
As Jewish college students brace for a new round of anti-Israel sentiment with the start of classes, the editors’ ambivalence about Israeli policy sheds light on the struggle to confront a growing pro-Palestinian movement on campus.
College experts are expecting a host of anti-Israel campus activities on Sept. 28, the second anniversary of the Palestinian intifada.
A campaign to lobby university administrations to withdraw investments in Israel (divestment) is expected to be at the top of the list, experts said.
"There is information to suggest there will be mobilization to commemorate the second anniversary of the intifada," said Jeffrey Ross, director of the Department of Higher Education for the Anti-Defamation League.
Ross cited a memo from the National Student Conference of the Palestine Solidarity Movement calling for regional conferences "to demand university divestment on the weekend of Sept. 28-29 to commemorate the anniversary of the Al-Aqsa Intifada."
Meanwhile, hundreds of Jewish students and officials from a dozen national Jewish organizations gathered at a camp retreat in Pennsylvania last week to strengthen Jewish involvement on campus.
Part of the agenda at Hillel’s six-day Charles Schusterman International Student Leaders Assembly featured a variety of lectures and mini-courses on countering pro-Palestinian propaganda on college campuses. Establishment leaders like David Harris, who heads the American Jewish Committee, and Malcolm Hoenlein, the top professional at the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, spoke of their own student activism days and encouraged the young people to become educated advocates for Israel on their campuses.
The ADL’s Ross cautioned that the divestment issue is not really about finances.
The anti-Israel groups "don’t expect to change the policies. The purpose is for mobilization and a propaganda device which seeks to delegitimize and demonize Israel," Ross said. "They want to make a comparison between Israel today and South Africa of the 1980s."
Further, Ross said he expects the anti-Israel forces to "fine tune" their divestment message, moving away from a general call to "more targeted divestment of American companies which provide arms to Israel."
Several calls and e-mails to Students for Justice in Palestine were not returned.
Pena, the California student editor, and the other college journalists were on a fact-finding mission to Poland, Bulgaria and Israel. The program was started 10 years ago by ADL national chairman Abraham Foxman to battle Holocaust denial on campus and "educate … about the history of the Holocaust and the Jewish state." Unlike past trips, none of the participants were Jewish.
Many in the group confessed they returned from Israel more confused about the Israel-Palestinian conflict.
"It’s kind of mind-blowing and hard to wrap your head around it," said Ashleigh Graf, a 21-year-old senior at Syracuse University who is the managing editor of the campus Daily Orange. "Instead of being easier to understand, the situation is much more complicated than I ever thought it to be."
Most of the students said the biggest revelation they encountered was the charges of discrimination by Israeli Arabs, whose leaders they met during several seminars.
"They feel they love their country but it’s very hard to be a non-Jew in a Jewish state," he continued. "The State of Israel basically wants to be a Jewish state and also wants to be a democracy and I think it’s difficult to reconcile the two positions, and the Arab Israelis are caught right in middle of this clash. Eventually something’s going to have to give."
Pena said there was a tense mood at his UC-Irvine campus last year, where there is a large Muslim population, and he expects more protests this fall.
Asked about the issue of divestment and comparing Israel to apartheid South Africa, he confessed ignorance about apartheid.
But Johanna Hanink, a 19 year-old junior at the University of Michigan and incoming editorial page editor, said: "There’s one thing I definitely know and that is Israel is not South Africa. There is racism in Israel like there is in America. It’s not government policy."
David DeBartolo, 21, editorial chair of the Harvard Crimson, flatly rejected as "odious" attempts to compare Israel with apartheid South Africa.
"The Israeli government does not officially enforce segregation of Israeli Jews from Israeli Arabs" but noted they often live in separate communities and Israeli Arabs "are often treated unequally and unfairly."
DeBartolo said he is against the divestiture movement "because it hinders rather than helps efforts to resolve the conflict." He contended that Israel must feel secure to allow a Palestinian state.
"By drawing support away from Israel, the divestiture movement makes Israel feel even more insecure."
Mariano Castillo, a 22-year-old senior at Texas A&M who had visited Israel eight months ago (the only participant who had been there before), said he was impressed with the diversity of political thought among Israelis, from right to left.
Castillo said he views the situation through the lens of a native Peruvian who lived in Lima during the years of the 1990s Shining Path terrorist attacks. "I can say I have a lot of sympathy for the Israelis for living in a situation when people can kill your family the next day," he said.
But Castillo added: "I also had deep sympathy for the Israeli Arabs because they are a minority." He said he found fault on both sides and felt the moral issues are "getting murkier and murkier."
Foxman said he has no regrets about the program and in fact believes it is successful.
"We are not out there to indoctrinate them or make them Zionists," he said. "I measure success with them saying, ‘Wow, it’s not that simple, there’s a lot of questions.’ Our problem is when people out of ignorance come to simple conclusions.
"With Israeli Arabs," Foxman continued, "anybody knowledgeable knows it’s a serious problem that needs to be dealt with and is being ignored."
Castillo said the trip taught him the importance of balancing news stories and making sure both sides are represented.
"It’s also given me the wisdom to better draw the line on what is simply criticism of Israel and what is anti-Semitic," he said.
Hanink, of Storrs, Conn., said before the trip she would have been scared to censor a letter or opinion piece, feeling too ignorant of the issues. But now if she received an op-ed defending suicide bombing, "it’s something I would look twice at."
She said perhaps the most important lesson was in talking to "people our age" from various Israeli universities and walks of life.
"They are really just like us, and it’s sad when you see people you really identify with on a personal level scared of doing the everyday things," Hanink said. "Now we have friends in Israel, and next time something goes wrong we have something to worry about and names to look for."
- Anti-Defamation League
- South Africa
- Abraham Foxman
- University of California
- David Harris
- Malcolm Hoenlein
- Jeffrey Ross
- Eric J. Greenberg
- Palestine Solidarity
- Johanna Hanink
- Abel Pena
- Mariano Castillo
- New York
- Social Issues
- Staff Writer
- Hebrew University
- David DeBartolo