Conference at Duke University equates Zionism, apartheid
A weekend conference urging divestment from Israel was set to wrap up Sunday at Duke University after a series of speakers who equated Zionism with South African apartheid and called for an end to a so-called exclusively Jewish state.
The gathering, the fourth organized by the Palestine Solidarity Movement, stirred up emotions in the Duke community and the Jewish community nationally, with many Jews outraged by PSM's refusal to condemn Palestinian violence. As a result, some Jewish professors refused to take part in PSM's panels, and some Jewish donors threatened to halt contributions to the university.
"We felt without a renunciation of violence, it's hard to have a conversation," said Eric Meyers, director of Judaic studies at Duke.
The administration allowed the conference to take place because it said it is committed to free speech.
As of early Sunday, the heavily guarded events were peaceful, despite warnings from PSM organizers that demonstrators had threatened violence. Only a handful of local protesters gathered outside the main venue, a gym, to demonstrate. On Sunday, a bus with about 15 demonstrators arrived from New York, far fewer than anticipated.
"The buses we had heard were coming in haven't come in," said John Burness, Duke senior vice president for public affairs. Some said they were scheduled to arrive later in the day. Lee Kaplan, a writer for the Web site FrontPageMagazine.com, was escorted out of one of the events closed to the press after it was discovered he was posing as a participant, Burness said.
On Friday evening, Dianna Buttu, legal adviser in the PLO's Negotiations Affairs Department, applauded the International Court of Justice's recent ruling that determined Israel's barrier is illegal and ought to be torn down. She told an audience of a few hundred, many dressed in "Free Palestine" T-shirts and keffiyehs, that South African apartheid was no different from Israeli occupation.
"Israel is attempting to rid itself of the Palestinians as much as possible while taking as much land as they can," she said.
Rev. Mark Davidson, a Presbyterian pastor from Chapel Hill, said the church leadership's recent decision to explore ways of divesting its holdings from certain businesses that have operations in Israel was a way of "prodding Israel to live up to its highest ideals."
When asked by one audience member whether she would support a divestment campaign that targeted far worse human rights offenders than Israel, such as China or Sudan, Buttu said other divestment campaigns would be legitimate but that Israel deserved to be singled out.
"I think right now the greatest abuser of human rights is not, as you put it, China. The greatest abuser of human rights and the greatest threat to international security is Israel," she said.
When another questioner asked if divestment could gain more popularity if PSM agreed to condemn violence as a form of resistance, Buttu said it was not her place to dictate policy of local activists. "I think it's up to the organizers," she said.
On Saturday, Mazin Qumsiyeh, a Yale University professor and the cofounder of Al-Awda, the Palestine Right of Return Coalition, referred to Zionism as a "disease" and said the media only reported on "resistance to colonization" not on the violence of "repression and ethnic cleansing" by Israel.
He also rejected a two-state solution. "We ought to stop talking about these vague concepts about a two-state solution," he said.
Nasser Aburfarha, a doctoral candidate at the University of Wisconsin, also rejected a two-state solution and called for some federation of Israel and Palestine in the future, but noted that Palestinians would not abandon their right to return to their historic homes inside Israel proper. Palestinians remain "connected to historic Palestine," he said.
Outside the conference, a small group of Jewish students called on participants to condemn Palestinian violence. "Tell PSM to condemn terrorism. Put it in your guidelines," one protester yelled.
Later in the afternoon, PSM attendees participated in workshops. One featured representatives of the International Solidarity Movement, which sends foreign activists to the West Bank and Gaza to protest construction of the fence and the demolition of Palestinian homes and olive trees.
The organizer of the workshop, Huwaida Arraf, said the group only engages in non-violent tactics, but acknowledged, "We don't refuse to work with anyone." ISM has been accused of cooperating with Hamas and other Palestinian terror groups.
Across campus, at the Freeman Center for Jewish Life, Jewish students gathered for an "Israel Teach-In," with lectures on Zionism, US-Israel relations, and how to confront anti-Semitism. Some expressed concern about the PSM conference.
"Many Jews suspect they are trying to take advantage of naive college students who want to right injustices," said David Breau, a Duke University law student who helped bring the bombed-out shell of an Egged bus to display on campus last week. They want to say, 'Hey, these Palestinians are suffering. Let's paint Israel as the bad guy.' "
Former Knesset speaker Avraham Burg, at an afternoon panel on America's role in the Middle East, gave a blistering assessment of the Bush administration's policies, charging that the war in Iraq had made Israel less, not more secure, predicting that the efforts to instill democracy in Iraq would fail, and challenging the notion that US President George W. Bush's support for Prime Minister Ariel Sharon had benefited Israel.
"A parent who does everything that his kid asked for is not necessarily a good parent," he said.
He urged American Jews voters not to vote solely based on which candidate they believe is best for Israel. "If there is one thing that I pray to God won't happen, it is that American Jewry will become a single-issue community," he said.
Burg also questioned the effectiveness of Israel's military tactics. Israel would not be able, he suggested, to overcome the nationalist motivations of the Palestinians "by force, by power, by muscle, or... by oppression."