The hacky sac intifada

The most popular movement on college campuses is divided between moderate Arab students and radical lefty white kids who have adopted the Palestinian cause as their own.

Published October 9, 2003 10:44PM (EDT)

Charlotte Kates is a South Jersey gal, hailing from the state of casinos, beach resorts and all-American suburban sprawl. Fayyad Sbaihat is a West Bank guy, raised in the stateless land of intifadas, uprooted olive trees and sprawling piles of Palestinian rubble, of the post-house demolition variety.

While growing up, Kates enjoyed trips to the public library to check out her favorite books. Sbaihat, on the other hand, spent much of his childhood playing a strange version of hide-and-seek with Israeli soldiers -- they tried to throw him in jail, he tried to throw rocks at their heads.

Kates' father is a truck driver, her mother is a bank teller and her brother is a U.S. marshal. Sbaihat's father and uncles have all done time in Israeli prisons for civil unrest, and his religious Muslim mother will only leave the house if wearing a scarf on her head.

Kates speaks English with a typical East Coast twang. Sbaihat still rolls his R's a little bit, and his H's come from somewhere deep in his Semitic throat.

Both Kates and Sbaihat are college students in America. But only one of them is a radical pro-Palestinian activist who says that Israel has no right to exist. Only one of them advocates Palestinian resistance "by any means necessary" to liberate all of the land "from the [Jordan] river to the [Mediterranean] sea," land currently under the control of "Israeli oppressors."

Guess which one of them it is. Here's a hint: This one often wears a red kaffiyeh, or Arab headdress, as a clothing accessory, and also liberally sprinkles his or her speech with Arabic catchphrases like "nakba" -- "the catastrophe" of Israel's creation in 1948. Still not sure? Fine, one more: This person is a leading member of the organizing committee of a national Palestinian activism conference slated for this coming weekend near Rutgers University, in New Brunswick, N.J. The forum has been the subject of intense criticism from figures like New Jersey Gov. James McGreevey and Rutgers University president Richard McCormick, who called the group's views on Israel "reprehensible."

If you remembered which one lives in New Jersey, that last clue probably gave the answer away, didn't it? Yes, that's right: The kaffiyeh-wearing activist is the all-American Kates.

This irony is not an isolated one in what has emerged as the fastest-growing protest movement on U.S. college campuses: Palestinian liberation. But as the movement has expanded, it has developed its own dramatic, internal conflict between white American students, eager to revel in their disdain for American "imperialism" and embrace the most extreme positions, and Arab students, determined to find a sympathetic mass audience through more a diplomatic approach. This battle over the movement's soul might best be represented by the differences between the American, Kates, and the Palestinian, Sbaihat.

True, Sbaihat is himself a pro-Palestinian activist at the University of Wisconsin, where he is a graduate student. He speaks Arabic, and certainly understands the meaning of "nakba." He's also been known to wear a kaffiyeh every now and then, and he's just as passionate about defending the rights of his people as Kates is about defending the rights of ... well, his people.

His experience with his cause also has personal roots; Sbaihat could only watch on television as the Israeli army literally flattened large swaths of his home city of Jenin last year. "It was one of the most horrifying times. Many people I knew died," he says. "I definitely view the Palestinian cause as more of a personal issue than one of international justice and human rights."

But compared to Kates, Sbaihat sounds like a virtual peacenik. "I see suicide bombings as a dangerous sign of the grave situation that Palestinians have come to," he says. "Bombings are an obvious indication of despair and helplessness, but they haven't been effective. They provide an excuse for the Israeli government to grow more radical, and cause isolation in the already small Israeli peace camp."

Sbaihat and many fellow pro-Palestinian activists throughout the country recently decided to break off from the New Jersey conference coordinated by Kates' group, New Jersey Solidarity -- in part because they felt Solidarity was portraying its own extreme political ideology as representative of the entire pro-Palestinian movement. Instead, the rebelling activists will hold their own conference the weekend of Nov. 7, at Ohio State University.

The nationwide schism is the climax of long-festering tensions within the Palestinian-advocacy movement, stretching back to the beginning of the Palestinians' second intifada, or uprising, three years ago. In September 2000, after several years of relative calm under the Oslo peace accords, Palestinians once again engaged in active -- and sometimes violent -- resistance against Israeli rule. An ocean away, the Palestinian struggle caught the attention of American leftist activists. The same people who pass out neon flyers on every campus calling for the U.S. government to "Free Mumia!" had found a new cause. Well, not exactly a new cause; the plight of the indigenous Palestinians had long struck a chord with anti-imperialists. But an old cause with a new urgency, and a broad national and international appeal.

Enter Berkeley, the unofficial capital of collegiate counterculture and all things anti-.

In February 2002, Berkeley became the site of the first annual National Student Conference of the Palestine Solidarity Movement, a forum for pro-Palestinian activists from around the country to meet and discuss strategy. The plan was to promote what has become the centerpiece of the Palestinian movement: a demand that American universities divest from all companies with holdings in Israel, to force the Jewish state to end what the activists call its "apartheid-like" policies. The campaign was borrowed from the South African anti-apartheid movement of the 1970s and '80s -- but hasn't been quite as successful. So far, no universities have agreed to divest, and many have publicly denounced the divestment movement. That, however, hasn't stopped pro-divestment groups from forming at dozens of campuses, including Harvard, Yale, Penn, Virginia and Duke.

Back in early 2002, though, the movement was still in its fledgling stages, so the conference did not feature many delegations, and the Berkeley students dominated the proceedings. Will Youmans, an Arab-American who had been a leader of Palestinian activism as an undergraduate at the University of Michigan -- a school with a large Arab and Muslim student body -- was then attending his first year of law school at Berkeley. He helped jumpstart the California branch of the movement and was amazed at how widespread the support was. "But it had its limitations, too," Youmans says. "People there don't have much patience for education or actually discussing the issues amongst themselves. It got very frustrating.

"It's hard to organize people who subscribe to anarchism as a philosophy of life."

This motley crew of leftists voted, in part, to decry Zionism as "racism" and to "declare (their) solidarity with the popular Palestinian resistance ... a legitimate strategy." Israel supporters instantly condemned these statements for what they felt was tacit support of terrorism.

Then came the second annual conference, at the University of Michigan, in the heart of the most heavily Arab region in the nation. And this time, in addition to cheerily discussing the activists' resistance tactics, a huge debate erupted over the movement's stand on the often violent nature of Palestinian resistance. According to sources who attended meetings closed to the public, it was here that a rift first became apparent: Non-Arabs, led by the Berkeley contingent, who fought to keep the incendiary language, versus Arabs, led by the Michigan group, who wanted to drop the issue from the movement's principles altogether.

After hours of intense wrangling, a decision was finally reached: The endorsement of Palestinian resistance would stay. Suddenly, it seemed that Palestinians like Sbaihat had lost control of their cause to people probably once more concerned with the legalization of pot than the political status of Jerusalem.

Jump forward a year. Instead of one united conference, there are two -- both claiming to be the official venue of the national Palestine Solidarity Movement, a loose coalition of organizations in cities and universities across the country. What finally caused the schism? Weeding your way through the many contradictory answers to that question is about as simple as solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict itself.

Organizers of the breakaway conference to take place at Ohio State say New Jersey Solidarity, the sponsor of the Rutgers conference, hijacked what was supposed to be a democratic movement. Before the split, at a Chicago meeting of the participating groups in July, the leaders of Solidarity allegedly refused to reach decisions about the conference democratically, and instead claimed veto power over every vote.

Among those attending the July meeting was Sbaihat, who says, "We were very reluctant to break off -- we knew that we risked a lower turnout for our own conference. We wanted to find common ground." But the New Jersey Solidarity leaders, he says, "just said, 'This is how it's going to be.' They refused to compromise and walked out of several meetings."

So in August, groups affiliated with the national Palestine Solidarity Movement -- including Sbaihat's -- voted 29 to 13 to change the official venue from the Rutgers campus to Ohio State, meeting the two-thirds requirement stipulated in the principles laid out at the first conference at Berkeley.

Or, to put it another way: A group of students led mostly by Arabs and Muslims revolted against an organization led by white Americans in an effort to salvage the principles of democracy. It's a striking role-reversal, considering the time -- and money -- the United States spends these days lecturing the Middle East on how a real democratic government should be run. "But we Arabs appreciate it more than anyone else because we don't have enough of it," Sbaihat says.

It's also better politics. The Ohio State organizers contend that the issue of proper democratic procedure motivated their decision to disassociate themselves from the Rutgers conference. They insist that the split was not the result of any disagreement over ideology concerning the cause itself; in fact, organizers still refrain from taking a definitive stand on Palestinian attacks on civilians. They also point out that many of the groups endorsing the Ohio State conference espouse relatively radical political beliefs -- a "one-state solution," for example, that would call for Palestinians and Israelis to live as equals in one nation, essentially meaning the dissolution of the current Jewish state.

"This is not at all a situation of a left-right divide," says Fatima Ayub, a recent graduate of George Mason University and member of its campus group Students for Justice in Palestine. "[Solidarity] just completely refuses to acknowledge the legitimacy of the vote."

Kates, a second-year law student at Rutgers and Solidarity's most high-profile member, has embraced Palestinian activism as one of several venues in what she calls the "global struggle for self-determination." She says she first started "doing anti-racist things" when she was still a student in junior high school in New Jersey. Her initial education on "racism, oppression and exploitation" had begun several years earlier, however, when she was just 10 years old. It was then that she first began checking out books from the library about the history of the Soviet Union and Marxist struggle.

"I was a kid who liked to read," she says.

Now she finds herself at the center of a controversy that she says is mostly just "political." Beyond that, she and the other members of New Jersey Solidarity refuse to comment on the split, other than to express their support for any venue that furthers awareness of the Palestinian cause. (Her group has done its best, however, to create the perception that its conference is the only legitimate one. When the Ohio State conference adopted the Web site, Solidarity quickly bought the rights to and

"The struggle for Palestine is the cause of the Palestinian people," she says. "But it's also the struggle of oppressed people everywhere."

Kates' group has managed to create a fairly high profile, and quickly, including coverage the New York Times. In the articles, Solidarity's views -- that Palestinians should fight Israel "by any means necessary" -- were conflated with those of the national movement, which surely only built resentment among its detractors.

In April, months before the nationwide schism, New Jersey Solidarity faced similar tensions within its own ranks. Seven members of the group's executive committee -- the majority of them Arab -- split from Solidarity and formed their own organization. The seven wanted Kates and the other leftists, who represented a minority of the executive committee, to moderate their tone on Israel. That meant getting rid of the controversial statements calling for resistance by any means and saying that Israel had no right to exist.

Kates and her allies refused. The seven -- including Summer Sharaf, an Arab-American and Rutgers alumnus -- resigned in protest, taking 30 members of the group with them.

"We don't support any violence against civilians," Sharaf says. "It's against international law, and it's immoral. Most of the Arabs I know genuinely do not believe in using violence."

"I think it's funny how the people running the Rutgers conference are all non-Arabs," Sharaf says. "It makes me wonder why they're here, why they're doing what they're doing."

New Jersey Solidarity seems to fall into the same category as the career activists of Berkeley. In fact, according to the Rutgers conference Web site, the Berkeley delegation still endorses the New Jersey conference and plans on attending -- an endorsement conspicuously missing from the Ohio conference's site. Organizers of the Ohio conference also link New Jersey Solidarity to the group ANSWER, an international anti-imperialist group known for its antagonistic tactics. Members of Solidarity admit that ANSWER has been supportive of their efforts, but deny any official connection between the two organizations.

While there are obviously many differences between the two wings of the Palestinian activism movement, it would be a mistake to dismiss the Rutgers conference as a fringe movement -- even though people have tried. Many Israel advocates jumped on the split in the national pro-Palestinian movement as a way to marginalize the New Jersey activists as extremists. Rutgers University officials cited the formation of the Ohio conference -- as well as a missed application deadline -- as reason to cancel the October conference. ("If they were working through a hotel, it wouldn't be acceptable either," Rutgers spokeswoman Sandra Lanman told me, failing to note the several not-insignificant differences between the guiding missions of a university and a hotel.)

If anything, though, the controversy has gained New Jersey Solidarity more sympathy and support throughout the activist community.

Solidarity has vowed to hold the conference, and has moved the event to a nearby Ramada Inn. Kates still says she expects between 300 and 500 attendees. Plus, many pro-Palestinian groups, including some from the West Bank, continue to endorse the Rutgers conference, despite the schism.

What's more, despite their personal differences with New Jersey Solidarity, the organizers of the Ohio conference continue to support the Rutgers venue simply because it increases awareness about Palestine. And especially because they sympathize with the many attacks from the Israel camp that Solidarity has had to endure.

Nahla Saleh, an Arab-American graduate student at Ohio State and a member of the campus Committee for Justice in Palestine, says she considered traveling to Rutgers for the competing conference, just to express solidarity against the "Zionists."

"The fact that the university there could shut things down is absurd," she says. "I'm afraid it could have an effect on the movement elsewhere."

Perhaps, then, when it all comes down to it, the ideological differences between the two groups are more aesthetic than anything else. In many ways, the Ohio conference's decision to play down its position on suicide bombings is more a matter of public relations than of conscience. Saleh herself says she remains personally conflicted about Palestinian resistance tactics. But one thing is clear to her: what sells better to the broader public.

"You have to get to mainstream America," she says. "I would love freedom for the Palestinians to happen immediately, and maybe in my heart I'm a radical because I want it now. But there's strategy. We have to win over the hearts and minds of average people, and maybe that can't happen now. Some people think you're selling out, but really I think we're just being smart."

The pro-Palestinian movement's politically correct strategy mirrors and even mimics the public relations tactics of the pro-Israel camp.

To counter the Palestinian activism movement that's blossoming at campuses throughout America, the forces of Israel advocacy have developed their own attack. The latest and most forceful salvo is set to take place at Rutgers -- at the same time and place as the Palestine conference sponsored by New Jersey Solidarity.

The pro-Israel conference, innocuously titled "Israel Inspires," will feature big-name speakers like Israel Minister Without Portfolio Natan Sharansky, as well as a large pro-Israel rally, a pro-Israel "block party," whatever that means, and even performances by a few pro-Israel bands.

Unlike the leaders of the Palestinian movement, Stephanie Schwartz, the president of the Rutgers Hillel, the umbrella organization of campus Jewish groups, knows how important it is to maintain a unified front in the face of enemy forces. Of course, the pro-Israel movement has its fair share of extremists as well -- people who don't think a Palestinian state should ever exist, even people who believe that Palestinians in the West Bank should be forcibly transferred to other countries to make way for Jewish settlers. Thankfully, though, Israel activists have taken care of their pesky radicals by uniting around a nifty little slogan, one that's as vague and elusive as an honest intention: "Wherever we stand, we stand with Israel."

When she talks about her work as an Israel activist, Schwartz repeats this phrase like it's a personal mantra. While blatantly patriotic, the statement's political meaning -- if there is one -- is blatantly unclear. That was done on purpose, Schwartz says, to make sure it includes everyone, no matter what his or her political persuasion. In fact, the pro-Israel camp refuses to condemn any of the oft-dubious military campaigns of the Israeli army, saying it's not their place to criticize the tactics Israel decides to use. (Sound familiar?)

"I think people in the Jewish community at Rutgers are smart," she says. "If they support population transfer -- and there probably are people who do -- they don't say it, because it's not smart. But I would still want that person to be part of Israel Inspires, because that's not the message being spread.

"The message we want to spread is: wherever we stand, we stand with Israel."

So in the end, it seems that a generation of Arabs and Muslims born of immigrant parents or themselves from foreign countries are quickly learning the importance of that most all-American of virtues: good marketing. They're learning how to be American so well that they're quickly outgrowing their alliance with the antiestablishment whites who spend all of their time wishing so badly that they were anything but American.

The result? The same kind of bickering and political infighting that has plagued the Palestinian cause from its inception in 1948 is now here. What has long characterized activism in the Middle East is now just as rife in the American branch of the movement.

"Throughout Palestinian history, this has always happened to us," Sbaihat says. "Division has always killed our momentum; one group would always try to impose its own way on a national umbrella organization, whether it had the best idea or not. But this time, it will be different. This time, not a single group will be above our guidelines.

"Forming our own conference will be a good direction for us."

By Christopher Farah

Christopher Farah is an editorial fellow at Salon.

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