Last Wednesday, approximately 70 New York University students viewed “The Impact of Occupation: This Body is a Prison,” as part of Israeli Apartheid Week.
While they watched the film, which is highly critical of Israeli policies in the occupied West Bank, many in the audience noshed on popcorn from cups plastered with pro-Israel messages.
The pro-Israel popcorn cups, distributed outside the theater, were among many responses and activities executed last week by Jewish groups here and across the country, in reaction to the anti-Israel week, which ended last Sunday. The week, initiated in Toronto in 2005, has spread to more than 25 cities around the world with events commemorating what planners call the expulsion of Arabs from their land in 1948, when Israel was born.
“Its goals are to defame and delegitimize Israel,” said Lawrence Muscant, deputy director of the David Project, “and there is a concerted effort focused on New York.”
The David Project, an educational organization that trains high school and college students to advocate for Israel, has been crucial in planning and implementing responses to Apartheid Week activities throughout the country.
Educational information and flyers for events and rallies are available on its Web site, and the organization held an intense one-day regional seminar at NYU on March 1 to prepare students for Apartheid Week. The David Project encouraged pro-Israel students to attend the pro-Palestinian events and ask questions.
Shmuel Aiello, co-president of the Gesher Israel club at NYU, attended the event entitled “NYU-Tel Aviv: A Partnership in Occupation,” which was protesting the study-abroad site being established by the university.
“I went up afterwards and asked a question, which was ignored, and I was then called a Nazi,” said Aiello, who asked a professor leading the panel if he planned to resign when the Tel Aviv program begins. A student in the back of the room called out the slur, and the question went unanswered.
Aiello also organized a pro-Israel rally, which gathered in Washington Square Park last Tuesday afternoon in near frigid temperatures. Professor Lawrence Schiffman, the chair of the Hebrew and Judaic studies department at NYU, addressed the crowd, as did two students representing Christians United for Israel. More than 60 students gathered in solidarity with Israel at the event, holding flags, posters and flyers.
Later that night, over 300 people attended an NYU screening of Alan Dershowitz’s film, “A Case for Israel.” The film features prominent academics and historians, in addition to familiar faces like Natan Sharansky, Shimon Peres, Benjamin Netanyahu and Ehud Barak.
“I wanted to show that there is a very strong pro-Israel presence on campus and that there are NYU students who stand with Israel,” said Jordanna Birnbaum, the event’s organizer.
Among the 20 sponsors for the event were The David Project, StandWithUs, MASA, NYU College Republicans and NYU College Democrats.
Uptown at Columbia University, students also responded to the week’s events.
“On Tuesday we had a huge flyer-ing campaign around campus,” said Cory Doliner, the public relations director of LionPAC, the university’s pro-Israel political affairs committee.
The committee also encouraged pro-Israel students to attend the anti-Israel events, and while these students were allowed in, their questions generally went unanswered. But they remained respectful while attending all events on campus.
“We don’t want to create a ruckus,” said Doliner. “We don’t want to use fighting words.”
Meanwhile, at Hunter College the Jewish community took action in its own way.
The Hillel at Hunter has invited speakers from MASA and Hagshama to hold Israel roundtables weekly to answer students’ questions about Israel, said Stephanie Wasserman, the Hillel student president.
“In this way students can educate themselves on the facts about Israel’s history, culture and politics,” she said.
Hunter’s pro-Israel students also tried to engage and interact with pro-Palestinian students who set up tables outside the cafeteria.
“[The pro-Israel students] go over to the tables and ask thoughtful questions in an attempt to educate others that surround the table regarding the situation,” Wasserman said.
Even at Yeshiva University, hardly a bastion of pro-Palestinian sentiment, students did not ignore Apartheid Week.
“What we have been doing on our campus is pushing our students to attend events at other colleges concerning this week of Israel bashing,” said Max Saltzman, president of YU’s Israel Club.
YU organized buses to the events at NYU, and also held a four-series class on combating anti-Israel rhetoric, to give students the tools to support Israel.
Saltzman also started several Facebook groups aimed at facilitating communication among Israel groups and leaders on different campuses. Students post links for events on their campuses and encourage others to attend, and they also share resources and ideas.
At Fordham University, attempts to create dialogue were a little more difficult.
Last Tuesday, the undergraduate college hosted the controversial former DePaul professor Norman Finkelstein, whose speech was entitled “Behind the Gaza Massacre.”
“Most, if not all, events at the law school have a speaker and then someone else who gives a rebuttal or comments on the speaker,” said Aaron Messing, a second-year law school student at Fordham.
“But they said absolutely not, they were unwilling to compromise on that — unwilling that there be another point of view,” Messing said.
So instead, Messing and other students handed out literature and fact sheets outside the room before attendees entered Finkelstein’s lecture.
“They really went to extreme lengths to prevent there from being an academic discourse,” Messing said, after the organizers of the event forbade all recording devices and pre-screened all questions for Finkelstein, requiring they be submitted in advance on index cards.
Messing and other student leaders on campuses across New York said organizations like the David Project and StandWithUs were instrumental in organizing a response to Israel Apartheid Week.
“Despite not knowing exactly what events [Israel Apartheid Week] would run, we know from previous events what their main messages against Israel are, and we are prepared to defeat them,” said Dani Klein, North American campus director for StandWithUs.
“Allowing IAW events to take place without a proper counter message would be counterproductive to promoting Israel’s image.”
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