Mid-East debate overcomes apathy

by Megh Duwadi | 5/21/02 5:00am

Editor's Note: This is the first in a two-part series examining the state of Israeli-Palestinian relations at Dartmouth and college campuses nationwide.

Protest rallies and controversial advertisements characterize other schools, Dartmouth students argue -- not in Hanover, where apathy runs deep. But with conflict in the Middle East flaring to unprecedented heights, campus organizations are unsure whether their efforts will lead to action or simply more discussion.

From an April 18 demonstration in front of the Collis Student Center that brought attention to the plight of Palestinians to Dartmouth Hillel's approval last week of an ardently pro-Israel slogan, Dartmouth students appear to be following a national trend of political activism that might end years of seeming insouciance.

"We have seen the beginnings of faculty and student concern about the issue," Arab student group Shamis co-chair Leyla Kamalick '02 said.

In recent history, college campuses have stepped away from the forefront of national and international events to focus on issues closer to home -- issues where students know improvement is feasible. But student activists across the United States now believe that with perseverance, they can effect changes in strife-torn Israel.

Through campaigns promoting Palestinian freedoms in the West Bank and Gaza Strip to Zionist groups that back Israel's right to exist, masses of students have signed on to movements dealing with the Middle East in hope of breaking a long cycle of unresolved ethnic violence. Most often, such organizations endorse particular groups -- the pro-Palestinian Students for Justice in Palestine and the Zionist group Harvard Students for Israel are examples.

These organizations maintain that they strive to spread awareness about Palestinian-Israeli affairs to the public, a task made easier by the rapidly increasing number of groups diffusing related information.

A recent campaign for divestment of college funds from corporations that operate in Israel -- and the more forceful counter-movement that pushed Harvard President Lawrence Summers to nix the proposal there last Thursday -- reflects this growing awareness. At 30 universities, divestment and anti-divestment efforts have served as an impetus for students and faculty to voice support or dissent. Thousands of signatures line petitions for or against the movement at MIT, Georgetown, Columbia and the University of Michigan.

"People throughout campus seem to be more fired up about this and engaging in public discussion than any other topic that I can remember," Harvard Hillel president Benjamin Solomon-Schwartz said. "There's been a lot of fiery debate."

On the reasons for the sudden interest in Middle East affairs, Solomon said that "students want to be able to make an effect -- to try to change the situation for the better" after passively observing the conflict for so long.

Some pro-Palestinian activists have drawn parallels to civil rights struggles during the 1950s and 1960s and the anti-South African apartheid campaign, which resulted in many U.S. universities divesting from the country in the 1980s.

Princeton University anti-divestment spokesperson Leo Lazar dismissed such claims as being "intellectually dishonest." Lazar also serves as co-chair of the Princeton Israel Political Affairs Committee.

"Countering the divestment campaign is extremely difficult because essentially the only way ... is taking the simplistic, reduced approach to the Arab-Israeli conflict," Lazar said.

For Dartmouth Israel Political Affairs Committee vice president Mike Sevi '02, the comparisons are utter fallacies.

"It's clear why they do it," Sevi said. "It evokes traditional empathy. It's a strategic maneuver on their part."

Princeton's divestment campaign organizer Vincent Lloyd disagreed.

"I think you've already seen people reacting on this issue in a variety of ways -- people are looking for ways to respond to the human rights issues they see perpetrated by the government of Israel," Lloyd said.

At Dartmouth, students said heightened awareness of the Arab-Israeli conflict does not entail full-scale mobilization of the campus.

"I still think that there's a lot of work to be done, and that a lot of people don't have the facts," Dartmouth Hillel president Rebecca Kurzweil '03 said. "As far as fueling the fire for more activism, I really don't think that this campus will come to that."

Kurzweil added that Middle East-oriented campus groups "have brought a lot of information to the forefront."

Sevi said that pro-Palestinian movements at other schools have not brought in students who were previously inactive politically, but are liberal activists by nature.

"I definitely notice a lot of cross-cause activism," Sevi said. "Basically, what you see is that those people in favor of the Palestinian cause are those protesting the World Bank, the IMF ... lots of the liberal causes."

"The situation in the Holy Land is intense," Kamalick said. "People are going to have to be educated about it. I think that will happen to a large extent on college campuses" in the United States.

With the creation of Shamis, "a strictly cultural organization," according to Kamalick, Arab students at Dartmouth have been given a voice to express their viewpoints.

A pro-Palestinian political organization to counter the efforts of the DIPAC is not in the works, Kamalick added.

Whether officially represented or not, pro-Palestinian opinions at the College have not been stifled. A question-and-answer session at a speech by former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and a speech on "Israel's Apartheid" by Pulitzer Prize-winner Chris Hedges allowed pro-Palestinian views to be heard, according to students who attended the events.