by Eric Fingerhut
Staff Writer, Washington Jewish Week
More than two dozen pro-Israel students from Washington-area universities joined fellow students at George Mason University last week to demonstrate before the start of Palestinian activist Hanan Ashrawi's speech on the Fairfax campus.
Students from the University of Maryland at College Park and George Washington University and American University, both in the District, held up signs, waved Israeli flags and distributed literature to people waiting in line to enter the GMU Johnson Center cinema on the Fairfax campus Wednesday of last week.
A capacity crowd of 300 filled the theater, while hundreds more were turned away. About 200 people remained outside the theater to listen to Ashrawi on a static-filled speaker.
Ashrawi's speech was sponsored by George Mason's department of public and international affairs and Institute for Conflict Analysis and Resolution and co-sponsored by the university's Arab Student Association and Amnesty International. (See article, page 14, for coverage of the talk.)
Some George Mason students were upset that a university academic department sponsored a speaker on a controversial issue without presenting an equivalent speaker from the Israeli perspective.
"We're not against letting Ashrawi speak," said GMU senior Courtney Dozier. "We're disappointed that an academic department had no alternative speaker" to give a counterpoint to Ashrawi's opinions, she said.
Peter Mandaville, an assistant professor in the public and international affairs department, said the Ashrawi appearance was scheduled at the last minute because of a personal connection -- Ashrawi's daughter, Zeina, is a student at GMU -- but that the department would be interested in hosting an Israeli speaker if a similar opportunity arose.
As with GMU protesters, the pro-Israel protesters from other schools also did not object to Ashrawi's right to speak, but wanted to make sure those in attendance were aware of her history and public record.
"We're telling people who she really is," said Zev Singer, a junior at Maryland and a member of that school's Israel Action Committee.
"We had a strong desire to represent Israel at this sort of gathering, and express our opinion," said Adam Chandler, a sophomore at GWU.
Singer said he initially found out about Ashrawi's appearance at GMU when a student in an Islam class he is taking mentioned she would be speaking in the area. He contacted the Hillel at the school to find out what he could do to help.
Maryland students distributed fliers containing quotes from Ashrawi that express support for Palestinian terrorist groups and deem Israeli settlers in the West Bank and Gaza Strip "legitimate and select targets of Palestinian resistance."
Students from the GWU Student Alliance for Israel handed out fliers decrying the demonization of Israel and Jews in Palestinian school textbooks, while GMU students distributed Americans for Peace Now fliers expressing support for the Mitchell Committee report, which proposed a peace plan for the Middle East. Signs had slogans such as "Real human rights advocates don't call for violence" and "Stop teaching hate."
Students reported that some of those in line thanked them, but others were not as receptive, crumpling up the fliers immediately. One pro-Israel student said he was the victim of an anti-Semitic slur while passing out literature; another said he was shoved. A student standing behind a group of pro-Israel demonstrators posing for a picture held up his two middle fingers. That student refused to give his name or comment.
The crowd in attendance was heavily pro-Ashrawi -- more than three-quarters of the audience gave her a standing ovation when she came out to speak.
Northern Virginia's Abdullah Palmer said he was not a student at the school but wanted to hear Ashrawi speak because he had seen her on television and has "great respect for her."
Palmer said he believes Israel is a "racist state" and that by giving money to Israel, the United States was helping to commit a "war crime."
Janienah Sahouri of Great Falls, who described herself as having "Palestinian roots," denied that Ashrawi has ever justified terrorism. She also was disappointed that many of the pro-Israel protesters from other schools left when Ashrawi began to speak and did not remain outside the auditorium and listen to the talk over the loudspeaker.
"It's great they came out, but they should take something from it," she said.
Ashrawi spoke for more than an hour, but only took three questions before time contraints ended the program. Mandaville, the event's principal organizer, said he had hoped for a longer question-and-answer session and was "disappointed that we didn't get other views." He had hoped that a "constructive dialogue" could have ensued, but because the speech started 30 minutes late and Ashrawi spoke longer than expected, that did not happen.
Mandaville emphasized that the department did not seek out Ashrawi, but that Zeina Ashrawi was instrumental in bringing her mother to the campus. He said his department's goal "over time is to present a plurality of views."
Mandaville also said there was no "definitive plan" to present a pro-Israel speaker in response, but said that if a similar opportunity arose to bring former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to the school, he would "leap at that."
Mandaville noted that the school does not have to present both sides of the issue at the same time because "I don't believe the talk entered into an empty vacuum."
People have their own opinions on the issue, he said, noting he thinks many students have a pro-Israel point of view, even though the students believe it is a "neutral point of view."
"I've been struck to the extent that [many students] didn't know much about the Palestinian point of view," Mandaville said.
After Ashrawi's speech, a number of Jewish students reported that another student had yelled at least three times "Go back to Auschwitz!" at them. One student, seeing a reporter with a notebook, yelled, "The media is controlled by Jews!"
That student would not identify himself or explain his remark, but his friend, senior Hassan Barasse, said, "The Jewish side [of the Middle East] conflict has been presented through the American media for the past 30 years; it's about time [we] start presenting the Palestinian side without the American media diluting it."
He also said that if Israel commits "political assassinations," then Palestinians have the "right to kill [Israeli Prime Minister] Ariel Sharon because of [the 1982] Sabra and Shatila" massacres.
Scott Bailey, director of George Mason Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life, said he was saddened by the anti-Semitic remarks some students heard, but does not believe it was widespread.
Bailey hoped that Jewish and Muslim students could set up some kind of dialogue with each other that would "provide human face-to-face contact" and allow both sides to be better educated about each other.
Bailey said he has already discussed such a dialogue with the Muslim religious leader on campus and received a positive response.
Rabbi Bruce Aft of Congregation Adat Reyim in Springfield, who serves as George Mason Hillel's rabbinic adviser, also thinks a dialogue is a good idea. Building a relationship, he said, means that both sides "know where each other stands."
Aft led a meeting following the Ashrawi speech where Jewish students shared their thoughts and frustrations about the speech and the surrounding events with each other.