Roxane Ellis Rodriguez Assaf is a free-lance writer based in Chicago.
Whoever said that college is wasted on the young should make an exception for the likes of University of Michigan senior Fadi Kiblawi and his associates. Kiblawi's school, along with the University of California at Berkeley, are at the forefront of a nationwide student effort to urge their institutions to divest from Israel in the same way that this country's academic community took a stand against South African apartheid in the 1980s.
Despite President Mary Sue Coleman's admitted objection to the idea of divestment, the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor hosted visitors from 70 colleges for the Second National Student Conference on the Palestinian Solidarity Movement. The Students Allied for Freedom and Equality (SAFE) had pitched their conference with enough aplomb to receive $5,000 in funding from the student government and to earn the school's approval for use of its facilities from Oct. 12 to 14. Promised demonstrations by pro-Zionist protesters, as well as an atmosphere tinged with the mystery of e-mail sabotage and legal action by Zionists against the university, had campus security on high alert.
"We want to make more mainstream the idea that Israel's occupation of Palestinian territory is apartheid," said Kiblawi, an American of Palestinian ancestry. The articulate computer science major and other conference organizers stressed the importance of advancing nonviolent ideas that will ultimately lead to peace in the region. They view religious discrimination as an obstacle, asserting that equality can be achieved by applying pressure on the side with the power--Israel. Following official school policy, SAFE has submitted a request for an investigative committee at U of M to assess the morality of the $155 million the university has invested in companies that do business with Israel.
Such an action is not without precedent. In 1978, the U of M broke financial ties with South Africa because of ethical concerns over apartheid. Today, the Board of Regents is being challenged to do the same, given Israel's flouting of U.N. Security Council resolutions and numerous counts of ongoing apartheid committed by Israel against the Palestinian people. SAFE's eloquently composed request includes a quote from Archbishop Desmond Tutu's April 29, 2002 article "Apartheid in the Holy Land," in which Tutu stated, "It reminded me so much of what happened to us black people in South Africa."
A verbal gauntlet greeted conference goers on Saturday. Flanking the hall entrance were men of varying ages in yarmulkes and prayer shawls shouting protestations including, "You go in there, and you're supporting suicide bombers!" and "This is an act of anti-Semitism. You are participating in a Jew-hating conference." Undaunted attendees walked around in "Free Palestine" T-Shirts and keffiyehs.
Amid accusations of funneling support to terrorist organizations, the speakers took to the podium with confidence. Mahdi Bray, a seasoned civil rights activist and executive director of Freedom Foundation, received several rounds of applause and a standing ovation. "Freedom is not complicated. It's an inherent right of all people," he said. "Israel is indeed a repressive, racist apartheid state. It doesn't delegitimize the State of Israel to say it maintains an apartheid regime. And to set the record straight for Daniel Pipes and the rest, this isn't about anti-Semitism. It's about doing the right thing."
Facetiously thanking the "pro-Zionist forces for the great publicity," UC-Berkeley professor and native Palestinian Hatem Bazian went on to say, "It takes a child to say, `The emperor has no clothes.' So we are the new children who are saying to Israel, `You have no clothes.'"
Referring to divestment as a "tall order," Bazian nonetheless encouraged "creative tension" on campuses and pointed out that if it were not for U.S. purchases, "Israel Bonds would be rated lower than junk bonds. …