Fueled by family ties to the Middle East and personal trips to the region, college students with pro-Israeli or pro-Palestinian leanings have brought debate over the contentious Middle East conflict to university greens across the country.
Students who support the Palestinians have used political street theater, creating mock Israeli checkpoints at Pennsylvania State University and the University of Pennsylvania.
Mimicking the 1980s divestment movement against South African apartheid on college campuses, the pro-Palestinians have also called on universities to divest of stock in companies that sell military supplies to Israel.
Students who support Israel have countered by invigorating campus Jewish groups, holding lectures to promote Israel's perspective on the Middle East conflict, and attacking the divestment drive as anti-Semitic.
Students are not the only ones lunging into the fray. College presidents - who moved quickly to prevent a backlash against Arab students after last year's terrorist attacks - are now speaking out against what many call increased anti-Semitism on campuses. A Philadelphia-based Web site called Campus Watch, meanwhile, lists faculty members who the site's backers contend teach an anti-Israeli perspective on the Middle East.
Nomi Deutch, a Penn State sophomore from Glenside, has been to Israel 15 times. She recently rallied pro-Israeli students on campus to counter what she viewed as growing anti-Semitism. "There was no active pro-Israeli political base here," she said.
So, with financial help from Hillel, a Jewish student-life group, she and others formed the Israel Action Committee, brought in speakers, started a pro-Israeli petition drive, and built an electronic mailing list of 300 students.
Although her father grew up in Israel and fought with the Israeli army, Deutch says he doesn't understand why she expends such energy over the debate.
"But the students we reach on campus could be the next congressmen, the next ambassadors, future heads of corporations," Deutch said. "Their experiences on campus will help shape their view of the world."
On that point, at least, pro-Palestinian students agree. That's why they began organizing in the first place.
Uri Horesch, a Penn graduate student who grew up in Israel and served in the Israeli army, speaks against Israel's policies in the occupied territories. "Most Israelis stand by, doing nothing," he said, "or complain about their own situation: Because of the suicide bombings, they can't go out to dinner.
"I sympathize - but that's not the only concern," Horesch said. "We see a lot of pro-Israel stuff on campus done blindly. We know what's going on there and can't just let that go. Israel has the means to protect itself, and, unfortunately, it does more than protect itself."
Horesch said he has long held a contrary view of Israel's responsibility to Palestinians. On a high school trip to Treblinka, a concentration camp in Poland where Nazis gassed Jews during the Holocaust, students could sign a guest book. Horesch wrote, "Let us not do to others what has been done to us."
"My classmates were furious - they thought the lesson of the concentration camps should be to build a strong Israel."
Student activism on the Middle East conflict has prompted college presidents to speak up.
In September, Harvard University's Lawrence Summers surprised many by arguing in a university address that "profoundly anti-Israel views are increasingly finding support in progressive intellectual communities. Serious and thoughtful people are advocating and taking actions that are anti-Semitic, in effect, if not their intent."
Some Harvard faculty members who favored divestment were offended by his statement and were miffed to have their support labeled anti-Semitic.
Gregory Farrington, president of Lehigh University who invited Muslim and Arab students to his home for dinner after the terrorist attacks - to make a point that they are equally a part of the school's community - recently signed a controversial letter published in the New York Times that decried anti-Semitism and called for "intimidation-free campuses."
The letter, issued through the American Jewish Committee, was signed by several hundred college presidents.
But many more college presidents, including Penn's Judith Rodin, declined to sign, arguing that the language was too specifically tied to anti-Semitism and not broad enough to include other ethnic biases.
"As we learned during the era of campus speech codes," Rodin wrote to the Penn community, "the fastest way to empower and embolden hatred and intimidation is to try to suppress it."
The pro-Palestinian students' call for divestment has generated the most forceful debate on campuses, as well as cries from pro-Israeli students of anti-Semitism.
"Not all criticism of Israel is anti-Semitic, but there are anti-Semites who are using criticism of Israel as a cover," said Rabbi Howard Alpert, executive director of Hillel of Greater Philadelphia, which oversees the Jewish student groups on 28 campuses.
To counter the divestment push, Penn graduate student Mimi Stillman and her mother, Ronni Gordon Stillman, launched a petition to oppose divestment and support Israel. Mimi Stillman said the drive has gathered more than 9,100 signatures from faculty, students and neighbors.
"Israel has a right to exist free from terror," the petition states. "To place blame solely on Israel for the recent state of affairs and to demand unilateral concessions without showing any concern for its self-defense is unjust."
Many of those most vocally opposed to divestment are the college presidents who oversee their institutions' endowments.
"Divestment is extreme and should be adopted rarely," said Penn's Rodin. "There are many countries in this dispute and many aggressors and no call for us to divest from all of them. Divestment is a very blunt instrument."
After years of debate, Penn did divest during the anti-apartheid movement. "South Africa was an extreme situation," Rodin said.
Pro-Palestinians bristle when they hear their divestment petition called anti-Semitic.
Penn student Kalid Hadeed, a Palestinian who grew up in Kuwait, says that "anti-Semitism has been used for decades to stifle criticism of Israel."
The divestment petition on Penn's campus, its supporters argue, differs from those at other schools because it calls for the divestment of arms manufacturers that do business with any nation with human-rights violations, including Egypt, Turkey and Colombia.
Still, the petition does focus on Israel. "That's because Israel is the largest recipient of U.S. military aid, it's a consistent violator of human rights, and it's close to us - we are Jewish Americans, Palestinian Americans and Israelis," said Sasha Costanza-Chock, a Penn graduate student who comes from a Jewish family but sides with the pro-Palestinian cause.
"People ask, 'Why not focus on worse human-rights abusers, like China?' We're concerned about all human-rights abuses," Costanza-Chock said. "But if we wait to criticize Israel because there's another country with a worse record, we will never get anywhere... .
"We unconditionally condemn suicide bombings. But Israeli occupation will be at the root if there is a resurgence of anti-Semitism."
The Israeli-Palestinian debate has had startling results on some campuses. Concordia University in Montreal imposed a three-month moratorium on all public gatherings concerning the Middle East, after violent September protests forced former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to cancel a speech.
Harvard University's English department canceled a lecture planned by an Oxford poet who harshly critiqued Israel - then reinvited him.
Meanwhile, Rabbi Alpert said the pro-Palestinian efforts have reinvigorated student Jewish groups on campuses. For instance, he said, for the first time in years, there is a pro-Israel group at Temple University.
Amid all the turmoil, there is a sense of bafflement over how to end the Middle East conflict. At Swarthmore College, sophomore Dina Aronzon heads Zionists for a Two-State Solution. "In the end, there will be a Palestinian state," she said. "But I don't know how to get there.
"There's been a horrid loss of life. With each person killed, we get farther from the trust needed to find a resolution."
As the debate grows more strident, some college presidents worry about the impact on higher education itself. "I consider the university as almost sacred territory," Lehigh's Farrington said. "They are islands in society where people of very different backgrounds should be able to explore and debate differences in a civilized way. Without civility, it's impossible to explore differences."
Response Letter to Philadelphia Inquirer from Daniel Pipes
To the Editor:
In "Middle East conflict comes to campuses" (The Philadelphia Inquirer, Dec. 27, 2002), James O'Neill writes that "A Philadelphia-based Web site called Campus Watch … lists faculty members who the site's backers contend teach an anti-Israeli perspective on the Middle East."
Not so. Had Mr. O'Neill bothered to visit www.Campus-Watch.org (the correct name of the site), he would have found a mission statement there setting out what Campus Watch does.
It "monitors and critiques Middle East studies in North America, with an aim to improving them. The project mainly addresses five problems: analytical failures, the mixing of politics with scholarship, intolerance of alternative views, apologetics, and the abuse of power over students."
I thought the first rule of journalism is to ascertain facts. By misstating the name of our website and misrepresenting its goal, Mr. O'Neill does our work and your newspaper a disservice.