This coming week, the student organization Students Allied for Freedom and Equality (SAFE) is putting on a lecture series entitled "Palestine Awareness Week," coinciding with "Israeli Apartheid Week 2008," being held by pro-Palestinian groups from Berkeley to Norway. The event, according to the website apartheidweek.org, "[raises] awareness and [disseminates] information about Zionism, the Palestinian liberation struggle and its similarities with the indigenous sovereignty struggle in North America and the South African anti-Apartheid movement."
In an interview, SAFE co-chair Hena Ashraf indicated that their inspiration for the week's event was not these events, but rather Islam Awareness Week, which occurred on campus earlier this year.
"Our purpose is not anti-Israeli, but pro-Palestinian," said Ashraf's counterpart, Andrew Dalack. "The focus is not on Israel."
"We want to reach out to a different population of students, those who don't have a personal stake in the conflict," Dalack stated as the purpose of the event. SAFE has hosted similar events in the past, including hosting controversial writer Joel Kovel during the uproar over his book "Overcoming Zionism," published by the University of Michigan Press. It was hoped this event would have people engage in a "difficult conversation over the state of affairs in Palestine," according to Ashraf.
Sasha Gribov, the chair of American Movement for Israel at U-M, expressed some worry about the event. "The idea of a Palestinian Awareness Week is one which is important and worthwhile," she said. "However, it is imperative that such an event should not be used as a means of disseminating misinformation about the State of Israel."
"We wanted local people, and there is such a base of local knowledge of the Palestinian cause," Ashraf said about why they chose the speakers they did. "We wanted speakers who would engage the audience."
One speaker, Professor Thomas Abowd of Wayne State University, a passionate pro-Palastinian activist, has been criticized for his affiliation with the Anti-Racist Action (ARA) organization at Wayne State, which has called Israeli action in the West Bank "ethnic cleansing," and has criticized pro-Israeli groups at Wayne State of practicing "white supremacist politics" and called black and Jewish civil rights activists at Wayne State "patronizing liberals." ARA has also harassed Jewish students and displayed a swastika at a rally.
Another speaker, Neve Gordon, a professor from Ben Gurion University, has long been criticized for his anti-Israel positions; his columns about Israel have been posted on neo-Nazi websites. He, too, has called Israeli action in the West Bank and Gaza "ethnic cleansing."
One planned speaker, Ali Abunimah runs the website Electronic Intafada, a pro-Palestinian news site. Abunimah is the author of "One Country: A Bold Proposal to End the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict," which pushes to revive the idea of a one state solution the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
"The educational goals of this week are compromised by the fact that this event is directly related to international 'Israel Apartheid Week' on other campuses," Gribov said.
Other speakers include Rima Hassouneh, a lecturer in the Near-Eastern Studies Department at U-M who also teaches Arab-American literature. Tirtza Even is a documentary film maker and video artist at the School of Art. Delivering a lecture on the similarities of South African apartheid and Israel is Hani Bawardi, from U-M-Dearborn, who is a Palestinian Christian and a fellow at the Center for Arab-American Studies.
The SAFE members expressed interest in coordinating debate or dialogue series with pro-Israel groups on campus, and hope that such events will be put on in the future. Until that time, they will continue to speak out for Palestinians.
"It remains to be seen if the leaders of SAFE will live up to their promise of making this week into an educational experience for the audience to learn about the Palestinian people and not into an event which unjustly attacks Israel" AMI's Gribov said. "We sincerely hope and trust that SAFE will not let down and mislead the students of the University of Michigan."