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October 5, 2002

Seeking Campus Dialogue, Not Diatribe


Things got so bad at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor this spring that both Arab and Jewish students reported receiving death threats. In addition to the usual pro-Palestine and pro-Israel standoffs there, pro-Israel groups protested in March when students at a conference in support of Palestinian positions sold a book that called the Holocaust a myth.

Such student clashes over the Middle East turmoil have been taking place on dozens of campuses nationwide. Students at about 40 colleges have organized a divestment campaign against Israel, creating more tumult. At Harvard University, the school year began in September with a warning from President Lawrence H. Summers of growing anti-Semitism in academic communities around the world.

Amid these tensions on campuses, a group that includes leading academics, spiritual leaders and students has created a new organization they hope will dampen the ill will and tone down the angry rhetoric of supporters of Israel and of the Palestinians by acknowledging the legitimacy of both sides and by emphasizing a common humanity.

The group, called the Tikkun Campus Network, is an effort of the Tikkun Community, a San-Francisco-based international organization created in January by Rabbi Michael Lerner, the editor of Tikkun, the liberal Jewish magazine of politics and culture, along with others with a variety of religious beliefs. The community's goal is to promote what it calls a "politics of meaning" that eschews materialism in favor of a more ethical society.

Working with Rabbi Lerner are two co-chairmen of the Tikkun Community, Cornel West, the prominent black scholar who is a professor of religion at Princeton University, and Susannah Heschel, the chairwoman of the department of Jewish studies at Dartmouth College and daughter of Abraham Joshua Heschel, the Jewish theologian and philosopher. Tikkun is the Hebrew word for repair and has a connotation of healing and transformation.

Rabbi Lerner said he conceived the idea for the campus network this spring after he received numerous anguished telephone calls from Jewish students and their parents. They were alarmed, they said, by an often-shrill discourse that did not reflect the complexity of their views.

On the one hand, callers committed to the State of Israel complained that some student groups were demanding uncritical support for Israel, regardless of its government's policies.

On the other hand, they said, the increasingly vocal pro-Palestinian groups on many campuses often equated Zionism with racism and compared Israel to the old South Africa or Ariel Sharon to Hitler.

"There is real anti-Semitism," said Rabbi Lerner, who heads a 200-family synagogue in San Francisco that is part of the Jewish Renewal movement. "But right now, we have Jewish political correctness run wild. The new McCarthyism in American society is that anyone who criticizes Israel is an anti-Semite."

He mentioned the comments by Mr. Summers and the debut last month of Campus Watch, a Web site by a pro-Israel research and policy group that compiles dossiers on professors and schools for their views on Palestinian rights or political Islam.

Marisa Handler, the national organizer for the Tikkun Campus Network, calls the campus a microcosm of the conflict. "We see the voices that are getting paid attention to are the extreme views on either side," she said.

Ms. Handler has spent the last few weeks visiting dozens of schools in the Midwest and the East Coast to attract students and faculty to the network's founding conference, to be held in New York City Oct. 11 to 14 at John Jay College and the Stephen Wise Free Synagogue.

The network is interfaith but Ms. Handler said she has mostly drawn Jewish students.

At New York University on Monday night, Ms. Handler presented the case for the Tikkun Campus Network and the idea of a "middle path" to Middle East peace at a meeting sponsored by Kesher, a group for Reform Jewish students. About 20 students showed up at the Bronfman Center for Jewish Student Life, and 8 huddled with Ms. Handler afterward and exchanged telephone numbers.

Some students said the idea of a new Jewish McCarthyism was an overstatement and dismissed the Tikkun version of a middle path as a muddle of 60's slogans and vague politics.

Integral to the network's idea of this middle path is an end to the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, compensation to Palestinians for property losses, and security guarantees for Israel. The co-chairmen of the conference, graduate students at the University of California at Berkeley, said they envision a tent broad enough to include Zionists critical of the current Israeli government and advocates for a Palestinian state who are also pro-Israel.

The conference schedule includes speakers like Professor West and the playwright Tony Kushner, brainstorming sessions about how to teach Middle East history from more than one perspective and how to master effective discussion techniques.

"It is the Jewish spiritual position to see the other side to heal this terrible rift," said Ofer Sharone, a 35-year-old sociology student and a co-chairman of the conference. "There's a kind of understanding among Israelis and American Jews that we say these things privately, but to come out and say that publicly is a whole other level, it may endanger Israel. The fear is that the nuance will get lost."

Professor West said, "We must draw a distinction between hating the politics of a government and hating a people."

Some Jewish leaders are either privately or publicly dismissive of Rabbi Lerner and the need for a Tikkun Campus Network. They say that debate is indeed a cornerstone of Judaism and is already flourishing and that Rabbi Lerner is a marginal figure.

Abraham H. Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, which has also sounded alarms about the rise of anti-Semitism on college campuses, said: "He's part of the community, and he has been able to dissent all his life. The Jewish community is open, is diverse, has more views than you can imagine."

Rabbi Lerner, a Zionist whose son served in the Israeli army, said he had personally been threatened by other Jews and called "self-hating." He added that the Tikkun Community has also been accused by some Arab and Palestinian groups of simply promoting Israel's interests.

Mohamad Bydon, 22, a Dartmouth graduate who started the first Arab-American student group at Dartmouth last year, welcomed the idea of the new campus network. "We really tried to bring in more than one perspective and have a dialogue with Jewish students," Mr. Bydon said, adding that it was difficult because of the palpable tensions on campus. "In many ways, Tikkun Campus Network is exactly what the campuses need."

Some students said the urgency of the Middle East situation had made them reflect on the connection between political goals and human rights.

Abra Pollock, 19, a University of Chicago sophomore, said she had always been pro-Israel but had grown disenchanted with the lack of respect students with opposing views show each other. She said she was intrigued by the Tikkun goal of peace and reconciliation.

"The length of the intifada has made me realize it's more important to work for peace than to work for hasbara," she said, using a Hebrew word that means explaining the Israeli perspective.

Daniela Gerson, the editor of "New Voices," a national Jewish student magazine, said that at a national conference of Jewish student journalists in May, many participants said that there was no place for a critical discussion.

"I don't know much about the Tikkun Community," said Ms. Gerson, a 24-year-old Brown University graduate. "I don't know if that's the answer. Still, Jewish students said their non-Jewish, progressive peers are asking difficult questions: `Didn't Israel take Arab lands? Why is Israel using guns against people throwing rocks?'

"These are complicated issues, but it becomes `You should support Israel,' " she complained. It is a sentiment that she says is ever-present. "I feel," she said, "like I face it every day."

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