Against the backdrop of Israel's sometimes-fragile image, an organization seeking to promote dialogue about Israel and the Middle East has brought former MK Effie Eitam to US college campuses to advocate for Israel.
But Eitam, who is known for right-wing politics and past controversial remarks about evicting Arabs from Israel, conjured the opposite effect at some schools, including SUNY's University of Buffalo, where protesters criticized his presence.
In a series of lectures organized by Caravan for Democracy, a project of Media Watch International and the Jewish National Fund, Eitam traversed the US Northeast during a two and a half week US tour, from October 28 to November 15. He spoke at a dozen colleges and several high schools during this trip, telling The Jerusalem Post that he spoke for the Israeli consensus. Caravan plans to host him twice more this spring.
In the past, Caravan for Democracy has brought President Shimon Peres, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, government spokesman Mark Regev and Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky to speak to US college students.
"There's a tremendous amount of anti-Israel activity on campus. We really wanted to bring another pro-Israel voice, someone who's articulate, who's thoughtful, someone who could inspire students to ask questions," said Rebecca Kahn, JNF's campus programs manager.
Eitam, known for controversial political views, made headlines in 2006 when he called for the expulsion of Arabs from the West Bank and the Knesset. "We will have to expel most of the Judea and Samaria Arabs from here. We cannot live with all these Arabs. We will have... to remove the Israeli Arabs from the political system," Eitam said during a memorial service for a soldier killed in fighting with Hizbullah in southern Lebanon.
Eric Lankin, chief of institutional advancement and education at JNF, said the organization was not concerned those statements would compromise his effectiveness as an advocate for Israel. "What really unites all of our speakers is that they speak the truth," he said. "We had no specific concerns because we depend on the will of the Israel voters" who elected him to office.
Criticism of the events, he said, had nothing to do with Eitam but the broader challenge of anti-Israeli rhetoric and activities on college campuses.
But at SUNY Buffalo, some students and faculty members disagreed.
"He's an explicit advocate of ethnic cleansing. He's proposed disenfranchising Israeli Palestinians," said Jim Holstun, a professor at SUNY Buffalo, who said he urged Hillel to reconsider the invitation. Several years ago, Holstun was lambasted by the Buffalo Jewish community for inviting Norman Finkelstein to campus.
"It is irresponsible of a campus group to host a racist speaker and to then apologize and say innocently 'oops,'" wrote Nicolas Kabat, a member of Students for Justice in Palestine at SUNY Buffalo, in the November 6 edition of the student newspaper, The Spectrum.
But JNF and Hillel officials said such criticism lacked context.
Joe Davis, director of Buffalo's Hillel, said he and others were not fully aware of the controversy surrounding Eitam. Several days before the event, Holstun and Students for Justice in Palestine asked Hillel to cancel the event, citing a series of quotes attributed to Eitam that "were taken out of context," Davis said. "There are several professors at the university, and Holstun is one of them, who are involved in anything that's anti-Israel, anti-US," he added. "After discussing it with members of the community and the students, we decided to go ahead with it."
During the speech, between 30 and 40 protesters demonstrated outside an auditorium where nearly 300 gathered to hear Eitam speak.
Afterward, protesters took photos of attendees and posted them on Facebook along with intimidating captions.
"When we first planned this program, we had no concept that it would be controversial," Davis said. "When we found out about the controversy we decided to go ahead with the reception afterward because it would be a good opportunity for Effie to represent himself to individuals."
He said the protest was an eye-opening experience. "It doesn't matter if you brought in Yossi Beilin or Ehud Barak. People who are demonizing the State of Israel will try to stifle free speech," he said.
Those who heard him speak - at Buffalo and on other campuses - said Eitam steered clear of any controversial remarks.
Matthew Cohen, president of Harvard Students for Israel, said Eitam focused on his experience during the raid on Entebbe and a discussion of the Iranian nuclear threat. A single protester showed up at Harvard.
"He was really a lot more nuanced than obviously he's portrayed, as this caricature," said Cohen. "I agreed with Mr. Eitam's preface of the speech, saying that American Jews and non-Jews alike, the rest of the world, should really confront the Iranian regime."
Eitam responded that he took it upon himself to defend Israel on college campuses after he retired from his political and military careers. He said he does not advocate transferring Arabs or any other extremist opinions.
"My views today represent the Israeli consensus," Eitam said. "Whoever questions me has not heard me. I try to inspire the Jewish students to be proud of Israel. All I do is tell the truth."
Eitam said he would report to Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu about the state of Israel advocacy on college campuses. He said he would urge him to form an army of Israeli, English-speaking volunteers to speak on American campuses.
"My impression of our situation on campuses has been tough," Eitam said. "We are harmed by the Islamic presence, extreme Leftist Israeli professors, the passivity of Jewish students, and the ignorance of regular non-Jewish, non-Muslim students, who think that if we evacuate a hilltop in Judea or Samaria, all of the problems with Islamic extremism will disappear. Israel is fighting this battle poorly, but it is not lost."
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