Debate over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has created a stir on U.S. campuses in recent weeks, with the latest flare-up at the University of Michigan.

Much of the controversy spawns from a nascent campaign by supporters of the Palestinian cause demanding that universities divest of stock in companies that do business in Israel.

Two students in Ann Arbor, Mich., sued the university this week in an attempt to halt a conference, sponsored by a pro-Palestinian student group, aimed at advancing a national divestment strategy. More than 450 students from at least 72 campuses registered.

Michigan president Mary Sue Coleman has said that she does not support divestment, but that organizers have a right to hold the conference. On Wednesday, general counsel Marvin Krislov said the lawsuit is baseless, adding, "An attempt to impose a gag order violates the most fundamental precepts of the First Amendment."

The divestment campaign, patterned after similar efforts targeting South Africa in the late 1970s, began nearly two years ago, but it has intensified since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks as students grow more aware of international issues, says Francis Boyle, an international law professor at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign. It was Boyle who first suggested the divestment campaign.

To date, thousands of faculty, students, staff and alumni nationwide have signed petitions urging divestment.

That has led to counter-petitions--in some cases as strong or stronger than the divestment efforts. As of Oct. 2, for example, 130 faculty at Harvard and MIT had signed a petition favoring divestment "until the rights of the Palestinians are respected." A second petition urging the universities not to divest bears 582 faculty signatures.

On some campuses, protests have grown ugly. At San Francisco State University last spring, for example, Palestinian supporters shouting "Hitler did not finish the job" crashed a rally led by Jewish students.

This fall, activity has widened and grown more organized on both sides:

  • In response to the divestment conference, a Jewish student group at the University of Michigan recently launched an "Invest in Israel" campaign, raising funds to rebuild a cafeteria at Hebrew University in Jerusalem that was destroyed in a bombing in July.
  • More than 300 college presidents signed a statement, published Monday in The New York Times, decrying intimidation of Jewish students or supporters of Israel and vowing to punish offenders. The statement was initiated by six college presidents and circulated to about 1,800 college presidents by the American Jewish Committee. Many presidents who opted not to sign the statement said it should not have focused solely on anti-Semitic acts.
  • Meanwhile, a think tank called the Middle East Forum is posting on its Web site news articles and other information on professors of Middle East studies who criticize U.S. support of Israel. Director Daniel Pipes dismisses charges that the site threatens free speech.
  • With the campus dialogue so polarized, many students are "caught in a struggle," says Michael Lerner, editor of Tikkun, a liberal Jewish magazine. To that end, he says, Tikkun is hosting a conference this weekend to develop a national campus network aimed at finding a "middle path" that works toward reconciliation.

    Says Lerner, "No deal will work unless there's a change at the heart level, and the heart level means recognizing the humanity of the other."

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