NEW YORK – About a dozen people, community members and college students, gathered in a chapel at Drew University, a small Methodist-affiliated school in Madison, New Jersey, on Tuesday night for a screening of a movie about the plight of Palestinian Christians, kicking off Drew’s – and the New York area’s – Israeli Apartheid Week 2014.
The head of Drew’s recently formed Students for Justice in Palestine, junior Noran Elzarka, informed the audience that Palestine is the homeland of Christianity. It had been written out of the history of Israel and Palestine so often, however, that the conflict is now viewed as one of religion between Muslims and Jews, when it was really about politics, Elzarka continued.
The hourlong movie The Stones Cry Out focused on a village that was close to the Israeli-Lebanese border called Kafr Bir’am, near the modern-day Kibbutz Bar’am.
The small turnout did not discourage Elzarka or her two co-chairmen of Students for Justice in Palestine. “We have about 10 to 15 active members, and we’re still growing and changing,” she said.
For the next month, at schools across America and around the world, pro-Palestinian student groups will sponsor similar activities as part of IAW, an annual event that began in 2005 and has been closely associated with the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement.
Elzarka said the SJP at Drew has yet to engage in any direct BDS events on campus, though she remains optimistic about group’s future. “The dialogue [around Palestine] is changing for the better,” Ezlarka said, citing the academic boycotts of the American Studies Association and the Asian American Studies as positive influences for their cause. “It means we’re changing our ideas of academic freedom, and that’s impacting how we think about the occupation in Palestine.”
Elzarka and Christine Smith-Baxter, a student in Drew’s master’s of divinity program, said that most people on the campus were apolitical or apathetic when it came to issues such as Israel.
Smith-Baxter attended the movie on Tuesday because, she told The Jerusalem Post, she felt she had “been living under a rock for two years” while working on her degree, and she wanted to “become informed about an area that I am clearly not up to date with current events on.”
Education is a goal of both the pro-Palestinian and pro-Israel sides of the debate.
As IAW gears up on 28 college campuses across America, so do organizations such as Rethink2014, Jerusalem U’s Step Up for Israel initiative and the David Project, groups focused on changing the Israeli narrative on college campuses in the US and UK. The David Project in particular works by partnering with local student leaders and providing trips to Israel for Jewish and non-Jewish students.
Paulina Marcucci, a senior at Temple University in Philadelphia, and Zach Shaffer, a sophomore at the University of Pittsburgh, said that two days into the Israeli Apartheid Week, everything on campus seemed quiet. Shaffer and Marcucci are involved in their campus David Projects and said that they had yet to see the fake eviction notices on dorm room doors or the “apartheid walls” erected in the middle of campus that have typified Israeli Apartheid Weeks in the past at other schools.
“We really don’t know anything,” Marcucci said, when asked what IAW events might be planned at Temple.
“I think they [the SJP] do it on purpose to keep it a secret.”
Shaffer said the David Project at the University of Pittsburgh spent the week before the launch of the IAW planning a proactive response.
“We tabled every single day, we handed out flyers, Israel swag items, even humous, and we tried to do an event every day,” he said. “We have a pretty positive culture in general for Israel on campus.”
Unlike at Temple and the University of Pittsburgh, IAW events are planned and being publicized at New York University, said senior Jackie Retig. Those events won’t be taking place until later in the week, when the ASA will be holding a two-day BDS conference, hosted by faculty member and ASA president- elect Lisa Duggan.
“Every spring semester when IAW comes to campus, we see it take different forms,” Retig said, noting that the SJP at NYU has in the past constructed cardboard apartheid walls, and even had Omar Barghouti, the head of the BDS movement, on campus to speak.
“Every year we’ve [responded] a little different. We’re facing new challenges, but we also have new strengths, and a bigger group of students that organize and more support from the New York community.”
Retig, a member of NYU’s David Project, said its response will be to send an open letter to the NYU administration, co-signed by student leaders, criticizing them for allowing an outside group to politicize the campus.
Such activity is counterproductive and does not belong in an academic setting, she said.
Retig and her fellow David Project members said that they’ve found fostering personal relationships on campus much more effective than bombarding the student body with their message.
The David Project’s mission of changing the narrative is also a pet project of Israel’s New York Consul- General Ido Aharoni, who told the Post that these kinds of events are a perfect example of the need to “broaden the conversation” about Israel.
Jacob Baime, executive director of the Israel on Campus Coalition, said that such efforts, both changing the conversation and preemptively counteracting negative messages about Israel on US campuses, require a personal touch on each campus. “The absolute best response to these sorts of anti-Israel theatrics is demonstrations of support for Israel on the campus,” Baime said, asserting that despite claims to the contrary, BDS was not making in-roads at US universities.
BDS activity was only galvanizing the pro-Israel movements, he said.
Baime pointed to grassroots movements at schools such as UCLA, where campus leaders, including campus Republicans and Democrats, issued statements in support of the American-Israeli relationship following an attempt to start a divestment campaign on campus.
On Wednesday morning, the UCLA student government voted down a divestment resolution by a vote of seven to five, the pro-Israel group StandWithUs announced.
The leaders of most campus pro-Israel organizations were not concerned about any expansion of BDS.
“We don’t think it’s a growing movement that’s attracting ever-growing number of students,” said Geri Palast, managing director of the Israel Action Network. “We are concerned that this exists and sends the wrong message on campus; it can make Jewish and non-Jewish students who don’t want to be involved feel uncomfortable.
And on the other hand, we don’t want to get it more amplification than it deserves.”
“We’re certainly always concerned about IAW,” said Oren Segal, director of the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism. “But to some degree, it’s the same old, same old. We’d like to let things play out.”