Rutgers Nixes Palestine Conference
09/19/03
Staff Writer
The Palestine solidarity student conference is off. Off campus, that is. Rutgers University canceled the controversial three-day conference slated for the campus Oct. 10-12, declaring that the student backers of the event, NJ Solidarity, failed to file the necessary paperwork and make a deposit to use university facilities. NJ Solidarity quickly charged Rutgers with political repression and vowed to find a new location. Rutgers' decision came after months of turmoil at New Jersey's state-funded university, which ensnared Gov. James McGreevey over the issue of free speech on college campuses. A national pro-Palestinian conference apparently is still going forward at the Ohio State University after a split between the national student advocacy group and the New Jersey affiliate. The National Student Conference of the Palestine Solidarity Movement said it could not work with the New Jersey chapter because it was too extremist against Israel. Rutgers officials also said it could not work with NJ Solidarity. "Despite our best efforts to work with the students to plan a successful event, they failed to meet our established requirements and have not been forthcoming with the basic information that we require of all student groups seeking to use university facilities," said Emmet Dennis, the university's vice president for student affairs. "We do not even have a title or a list of speakers for the conference at this point," he said. "The situation has been further complicated by the fact that the national organizations that were originally planning the conference with NJ Solidarity have withdrawn their participation and intend to hold their own conference in Ohio in November. As a result, we're unclear as to the scope of extent of the event being planned for the Rutgers campus." In a written statement, Dennis listed the required information NJ Solidarity failed to provide: a deposit of all money to cover conference expenses; a parking plan and cost estimate; and a list of room requirements. But NJ Solidarity denied withholding information, adding that it raised $6,000 to pay for the event. "This is political repression: just as the Palestinian people have been repressed through history," Paola Rizzuto, a Rutgers College sophomore and president of the campus NJ Solidarity chapter told the Star-Ledger of Newark. "The university is attempting to abuse bureaucracy in order to silence student voices." The group also criticized Rutgers for moving the conference last month, against its wishes, from a student center in New Brunswick to the more remote campus athletic center in Piscataway. Rutgers administrators denied their decision was political. "Our commitment to free speech and the right of individuals and groups to express their views remains firm," said Rutgers President Richard McCormick. "In rescinding the reservation, the university makes no judgment on the content of the event or the organization's position." NJ Solidarity planned to look for an alternate site in the New Brunswick area, including local hotels or parks. A spokeswoman said between 250 and 300 people had pre-registered. "We literally have 100 plane tickets that have been bought by people to come to the conference. ... We're having a conference," said Rutgers-Newark law student Charlotte Kates. Meanwhile, "Israel Inspires," a campus pro-Israel event slated for the Oct. 10 weekend, is scheduled to continue. Also, Hadassah, the Women's Zionist Organization of America last week presented Rutgers Hillel with a check for $10,000 to support a yearlong pro-Israel initiative. Rutgers Hillel Rabbi Esther Reed said she believed the university was treating NJ Solidarity as it would any other student organization. "We see this not as a free speech issue. We see this as the university enforcing the rules they always enforce," Rabbi Reed said. Nevertheless, the rabbi said Hillel intends to stay vigilant. "For us the feeling is that nothing has changed: They are still planning a conference and we anticipate they will continue to be an antagonistic presence on campus to Hillel and towards those who support the existence of the State of Israel," she said. She said NJ Solidarity was planning to protest Israeli minister Natan Sharansky's visit to Rutgers this week. Last year, she said, NJ Solidarity hung a banner in the student center declaring "From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free." Rabbi Reed said Hillel tried to educate uninformed students who did not get the coded message: that the banner was advocating the destruction of the State of Israel.

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