Raed Salah 88 224.
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
One would imagine that advocating Zionism on Israeli university campuses would be like preaching to the choir.
But for the on-campus moderate-centrist Zionist movement Im Tirtzu, which identifies itself as "the only entity that has provided a response to the spread of anti-Zionist currents in Israeli universities," the choir has been slightly harder to reach.
Two weeks ago, during student elections at the Hebrew University's Mount Scopus campus in Jerusalem, members of the movement were greeted with the Nazi salute by two separate individuals, sparking an uproar from students and requiring the intervention of university staff.
Wednesday evening, members of the group's newest branch, at the University of Haifa, were again thrust into the headlines as they clashed with security officers while protesting a speech given by Sheikh Raed Salah, leader of the Islamic Movement's northern branch and well-known for his inflammatory rhetoric.
That incident is now propelling the group further into the spotlight as it mulls its next move.
"We've already spoken about getting Salah's speech on the schedule for a hearing at the Knesset Education Committee," said Kobe Dana, one of Im Tirtzu's coordinators at the University of Haifa. "We're also weighing the idea of writing an official letter to the dean, because we actually want to see change here. We don't want something like this to happen again."
Salah's Wednesday speech was fiery, as expected, and the Islamic leader drew on many of his regular talking points - government digging under the Temple Mount, and rejection of concessions in Jerusalem - to stir up the crowd.
"We love life, our families, our homes and our children," Salah said during the speech, "but if they suggest that we give up our principles and holy sites, we would rather die, and we welcome death."
But Im Tirtzu members said that it wasn't just Salah's words that upset them. That the controversial figure was allowed to speak on campus at all, they said - compounded by the fact that Jewish students were not allowed into the auditorium during the speech - has presented the organization with what they perceive as a duty not only to strengthen student Zionism, but to outwardly defend it.
"If we weren't on campus, the situation would be completely and totally out of control," Dana said. "At the University of Haifa, there are already Arab students here who openly talk about martyrdom, not to mention all of the craziness that took place here during Operation Cast Lead."
Dana recounted how day after day during the IDF's military operation in the Gaza Strip in January, massive protests had erupted on campus, often featuring rhetoric and poster slogans that he said had been downright offensive.
"Im Tirtzu formed their University of Haifa branch two months later," he said. "We knew that there were students here who need our help, and it's needed now more than ever."
The organization has groups operating at both Hebrew University campuses in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv University, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, and now Haifa, in addition to smaller groups that operate at a number of the country's smaller colleges.
For now, Dana said his group's main battle was trying to scuttle further instances of speakers such as Salah coming to a campus uninvited by university staff but at the behest of a student organization.
Haifa university staff on Wednesday said they had been unhappy with Salah's appearance on the campus, but had been given legal advice recommending that they not prevent the event from taking place - out of concerns for violating free speech.
"But that free speech is obviously being abused when you host an event and then ban Jewish students from entering," Dana said. "This is going too far."