Palestine Conference and Related Events Under Way
Saturday, October 16, 2004 | Following weeks of controversy, the fourth annual national conference of the Palestine Solidarity Movement (PSM) began its first full day of programs Saturday on the campus of Duke University.
A crowd that began at about 200 people but climbed steadily heard speakers criticize Israeli policies as oppressive and colonialist. The conference unfolded peacefully in Duke’s intramural building before a diverse audience that ranged from students wearing “Free Palestine” T-shirts to opponents making recordings of speakers. Organizers said 500 people had registered by Saturday morning and another 200 were on a waiting list.
In the afternoon, the conference moved across campus to smaller sessions in the Social Sciences building. Small group of protesters gathered peacefully at both locations, with a larger protest expected Sunday.
The Freeman Center for Jewish Life, which on Friday hosted a speech by former Israeli Knesset speaker Avraham Burg, also held a series of discussions and workshops on Saturday afternoon.
Security personnel and Duke officials were out in force at all of the venues, even as others on the Duke campus enjoyed a beautiful October day. Some played tennis near the main PSM site.
At a press conference Saturday, two PSM spokesmen explained how the group had come to Duke to advance its goal of encouraging universities and other institutions to stop doing business with Israel -- a position Duke President Richard H. Brodhead recently reaffirmed Duke has no intention of pursuing.
National spokesman Fayyad Sbaihat said the PSM is modeling its divestment efforts on the anti-apartheid campaign in South Africa and trying to connect with like-minded campaigns around the world, although it faces what he called "the world’s greatest propaganda machine." The other spokesman, Duke graduate student Rann Bar-On, said it is harder in the United States than in Israel to speak out against Israeli policy. "Any criticism of Israel (in the U.S.) is taken as anti-Semitism," said Bar-On, an Israeli-born Jew.
Both said this year’s conference at Duke has attracted more attention -- and more opposition -- than the previous three gatherings, a shift that has raised the PSM’s visibility and provided what Bar-On called a "net gain. "
Responding to criticism that the PSM’s organizers at Duke refused to sign a statement that condemned terrorism, Bar-On said the statement could be seen to interfere with Palestinian self-determination and included positions the PSM cannot endorse. "That statement was cherry-picking issues, " Sbaihat agreed, noting it did not condemn controversial Israeli actions. "We should be debating the roots of the violence," said Bar-On, who emphasized with Sbaihat that the PSM is a nonviolent movement.
While noting some security delays driven by this year’s high level of controversy, both praised Duke for its handling of the event and said the campus had been selected in part because of its location in a region where the PSM had not met previously. They said the group would decide in the coming months where to meet next fall.
The conference has drawn national and international attention, including reporters from the Jerusalem Post, the Chronicle of Higher Education, al-Jazeera television and the New York Sun.
The PSM said its Saturday morning panel was intended to provide historical background about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Mazin Qumsiyeh, associate professor of genetics at Yale University and author of "Sharing the Land of Canaan," began by tracing the conflict back to what he described as "a colonialist mentality on the part of Zionists that the natives don't matter." He said the result has been that "the Palestinians are left on reservations and in ghettos. There was never really the possibility of a two-state solution."
Rebecca Stein, assistant professor of cultural anthropology at Duke and editor of "The Middle East Report," said she was concerned how critical appraisal of the conflict often leads to accusations of anti-Semitism. "We shouldn't understand history in polarized terms," she said. "Acknowledgement of one people's historical tragedy does not justify ignoring the tragedy of another."
The morning’s third speaker, Nasser Abufarha, a doctoral candidate in cultural anthropology at the University of Wisconsin and author of the Alternative Palestinian Agenda, said the conflict stems from "the Zionist commitment to an exclusive Jewish state in a land inhabited by non-Jews.… Such a state necessitates discrimination."
Abufarha drew parallels between Israeli policies and apartheid as formerly practiced in South Africa but said, "It is worse in Palestine." He called upon the world to isolate Israel through divestment, as it did with South Africa’s former apartheid regime.
Across campus at the Freeman Center, an overflow crowd of nearly 200 people packed a basement meeting room to hear panel members address the obstacles and the possibilities for dialogue between Palestinians and Israelis.
"It is very important to listen to some of the things the other side is saying," said panelist Rabbi Fred Guttman of Greensboro, N.C., a veteran of the Israeli Army who represented the American Jewish Reform Movement.
"A key role of the United States in the future should be to paint a vision of what co-existence should look like," he added, saying the only vision offered by President George W. Bush is one of fear.
Chicago Rabbi Jane Kanerak, of the American Jewish Conservative Movement, said "what we all want is peace and rest from conflict." The Palestinian-Israeli conflict has historically been "primarily about land," she added, "but it is increasingly becoming a religious conflict between Jews and Muslims." Calling this trend "clearly dangerous," she said "religious conflicts tend to be intractable and last much longer."
"We need to speak out to each other,” Kanerak added. "We need to know each others' culture."
Discussion outside the PSM conference’s Saturday afternoon workshops in the Social Sciences Building occasionally became heated as protesters argued with participants.
"Please stop killing us. We want peace," an activist, who arrived in Durham from New York on Friday, called out repeatedly to people coming and going from the workshops. "Condemn terrorism."
But some conference-goers argued with the activist and other protesters that the Israeli government and army are guilty of terrorism against the Palestinian people and create an environment of oppression that fosters extremism.
Shadi Abdallah, a sophomore at Guilford College in Greensboro, who came to the United States from Palestine, said four of his friends were killed by Israeli authorities. The 19-year-old pre-med student said he opposes both suicide bombings and the tactics employed by Israel.
"I just want to know that we can live and not be shot at," he said. "We're looking for a way to live in peace."
The PSM conference opened Friday evening with a panel discussion on "Divestment: The Weapon of the Global Fight for Justice." One of the speakers, Dianna Buttu, a legal adviser to the Palestinian Liberation Organization, said Israel’s new security barrier was designed "not just as a barrier, but as a means of expanding discrimination," since it encompassed not just current Israeli settlements, but areas of expansion. She said Palestinians living within areas cut off by the wall were subject to restrictive "closed zone regulations" on their movement that were forcing them to leave. Thus, she said, the wall has become "not just a system of apartheid or discrimination but a means to get rid of Palestinians in those areas."
The Rev. Mark Davidson, pastor of the Church of Reconciliation in Chapel Hill, described the divestment policy by which the Presbyterian Church has used its $8 billion portfolio as a means to influence Israeli policy.
"The Presbyterian church has put its money where its mouth is," he told the audience. Davidson challenged critics who saw the church's divestment policy as favoring the Palestinians, saying it is "prodding Israel to live up to its highest ideals."
Following the PSM panel discussion Friday evening, the intramural building hosted performances of poems, music and narrated artworks that aimed at expressing defiance and hope of the Palestinian people.
The Freeman Center also began its program on Friday evening, with former Knesset speaker Burg telling a 150-person audience that Israelis and Palestinians will only find the answers they seek when each respects the other's history.
"The question is not necessarily who started or who provoked, because it's impossible to prove," Burg said. "When they kill us, it's the Holocaust all over again; when we kill them, it’s colonialism all over again."
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