Al Awda (the Return in Arabic) is also known as the Palestine Right to Return Coalition (PRRC), a political advocacy organization that calls not for a peaceful settlement with Israel, but “peace” through the replacement of Israel by an Arab dominated state called Palestine. A close partner with the International Solidarity Movement, Al Awda sponsors several conferences a year, almost all on university campuses, where professors who teach Middle East Studies and anti-Israel activists gather to promote the economic boycott of Israel and American Jews. Al Awda held this year’s national conference at San Francisco State University July 14th to 16th.
After being denied a press pass, I decided to pay my way. But when I first arrived, my entry was blocked until I pointed out that I had already received assurances from the SFSU administration that nobody could be barred for their beliefs. After all, this was to be an “educational event.”
I began by wandering among the vendor tables on the first floor. One vendor from Pennsylvania, who spoke with a heavy German accent, was selling Arafat-style keffiyahs and assorted Palestinian memorabilia. After making sure I was not going to purchase anything, he said he knew about me and my articles about the ISM. “You make up everything you write,” he told me. “You make up hundreds of things about the ISM. You know you do.”
“Oh?” I replied, “Can you cite one example?” He couldn’t come up with one.
Upstairs, just before the speakers program began, I found myself seated across from Judy Greenberg of the Worker’s World Party. I played dumb and asked her what the WWP was and she replied “the US Communist Party.” When I asked why she supported dismantling and boycotting Israel she replied, “It’s because it’s part of our platform.” Someone passed her a note telling her who I was and she quickly changed tables. Another grandmotherly-type from Vallejo named Ynez, who was seated next to me, told me she came because Israel is “ethnically cleansing” the Palestinians. I explained to her in normal conversation how the Palestinian population had actually increased dramatically since 1948, even tripling since 1967 while Israel’s had decreased. The woman answered me she did not know that, but that it made no difference to her anyway.
Judy Greenberg of Workers World. Die-hard commies from the 1950’s are still around and active with the Palestinian movement.
I was soon surrounded by five husky “monitors” who physically menaced me because I was chatting with Ynez. One demanded to see my driver’s license. I refused. Fortunately for me that first night, Inez brought her sister along who was from out of town and not a part of Al Awda and seated with us. Her sister told the people surrounding me that we were just talking and to go away. Along with my threats to call the campus police just outside the hall, this helped convince them to leave.
Jess Ghannam, the head of the San Francisco chapter of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee and an Ethnic Studies Professor at SFSU with an emphasis on Palestine, began the program by bemoaning the “historical carnage of our Arab brethren seeking Palestinian liberation and in Iraq who are facing brutal attack.” He repeated that places under US attack were “Iraq, Palestine, Haiti, New Orleans and the rest of the country. Syria and Iran are threatened again [by the USA],” he told the audience.
Professor Rabab Abdulhadi, in charge of Arab-American Studies at the University of Michigan at Dearborn, next began her opening speech to an audience that swelled to about one hundred and twenty-five people. At one point she rejected nationalism by saying, “I do not believe you are born with a genetic identity.” She then continued, “There is something that brings us together when it comes to Palestinian rights. This unity called Palestinianism will exist until liberation.” “Liberation” meant the end of Israel to be replaced by a Palestinian state. She also attacked the United States: “In the United States patriotism is what we call xenophobia and not conducive to questions of humanity,” she explained.
During a follow-up seminar the next day titled “Gender and Resistance,” Abdulhadi was asked about honor killings in the Palestinian Authority, a practice where an Arab woman is murdered by a male family member in order to preserve the family honor for losing her virginity, even if due to rape, and her killer then allowed to go free. Abdulhadi claimed the West uses deceptive language to demonize Arabs in such cases.“What you call honor killings would be just called crimes of passion in the West,” she said. The attendees gave her cheers and standing ovations.
Besides Professor Abdulhadi, other academics that weekend who spoke included Dr. Hatem Bazian, a PhD in Islamic Studies and a lecturer in Near Eastern Studies at UC Berkeley whose courses are featured in the Center for Middle East Studies on that campus and Berkeley’s law school; and Dr. Salman Abu Sitta, another PhD from the Palestine Center.
Ghannam introduced Dr. Abu Sitta, an author of “over 200 articles on the right of return,” who flew in from London. Abu Sitta, grandfatherly-like, seemingly benign and elegantly dressed in a three piece suit and tie, spoke eloquently, but rarely was truthful in what he said, speaking in ellipses and dispensing at times outright misinformation. For example, he stated, “Nine decades before Bush conspired to destroy the Palestinian people, the Palestinians revolted for democracy in 1921.”
The comment was historically inaccurate and even illogical, although this crowd didn’t pick up on it. The 1921 riots were in fact attacks by Arabs against Jews in the region of Tel Aviv-Jaffa—a partial pogrom that had nothing to do with Arabs revolting for democracy, but rather against Jews for immigrating to Palestine. The British convened the Haycraft Commission to investigate and it was determined the riot started as a clash between Socialist and Communist Jews that the Arabs exploited to attack Jews. It was also determined that Arab police officers contributed to the Arab rioting. Historians generally concur this was a precursor to the 1929 riots against Jews in the Holy Land by the Arabs where many more Jews were massacred.
Referring to the current Road Map peace plan, Abu Sitta asked the audience “How can Palestinians give away 54% of their country to US immigrants?” But the number of US immigrants residing in the Holy Land is about only 3% of the Israeli Jewish and Christian population there, and more than 55% of the country is made up of Jewish refugees and their descendent from Arab countries, not to mention the number of native born Israelis, or Sabras, who make up much of Israel’s population today.
Dr. Abu Sitta at the Conference. The woman at the door watched me like a hawk.
Abu Sitta went on to claim that today’s Palestinian population worldwide numbers 10.5 million Palestinian Arabs, “two thirds of which are refugees.” UN estimates of such refugees and figures claimed by most Arab intellectuals place the number from 1948 at about 750,000, most who are now deceased. Even the Palestinian Authority puts the Palestinian population worldwide at about 7 million today. Abu Sitta’s fuzzy math showed him to be more of an advocate than a competent scholar, but the audience at the Conference did not care.
Ehud Appel, a Jewish boy from UC Berkeley who always advocates for the PLO and Hamas against Israel with the Students for Justice in Palestine, told the roomful of Arab-American students how to revitalize the faltering anti-Israel movement on campuses. Appel always had an excuse for supporting Al Awda’s goals, even making excuses for links to Nazi websites by the so-called “human rights organization,” Al Awda. But at one point when Appel tried to suggest a peaceful alternative that if Israel withdrew to 1967 borders, so then the right of return or compensation could be extended only to areas outside those borders, Dr. Abu Sitta interrupted him and explained to the room that the right of return applied to all of 1948 Israel and could never be compromised; even if an individual Arab agreed to accept compensation and even renounced going back, he still had no right to do so.
Ehud Appel, (center, left, in white t-shirt), the only “Jewish” student present at a seminar for college anti-Israel activists, led attendees on how to “revitalize” anti-Israel activism on their campuses. Appel insists Hamas has nothing against Jews despite the Hamas charter and works to boycott Israel.
When Hatem Bazian of UC Berkeley spoke he also kept with the Al Awda program, although most of his lecture was aimed at the United States. Bazian, who the UC Berkeley Chancellor once lauded for his “heroism” as a professor, blamed America for all the ills of the Arab world and accused the United States of wanting to keep the Arabs “on the plantation.” Bazian, who once called for an “intifada in America,” also mentioned indignantly that people frequently ask him in his lectures what about terrorism and what happened on 9/11, and why he never mentions this as a reason for American intervention in the Middle East.
“Do I have to keep discussing terrorism?” he asked his rapt audience. “All right. Terrorism! Terrorism! Terrorism! Terrorism! Terrorism! Terrorism! Terrorism! Terrorism!” His audience laughed out loud as he asked, “What has that to do with what is really going on in the Middle East?”
Although I did not come to debate, just my reporting on the event was enough to elicit threats and intimidation from the organizers. I was followed repeatedly into the men’s restroom, was not called on deliberately during question and answer sessions, and constantly had cameras shoved into my face as if my picture would serve as a weapon against me. A colleague of mine who also attended told me she was accosted in one seminar for taking notes and asked by the organizers to stop. Signs were placed all over not allowing any recordings, photos or videos, an odd rule for an educational conference on a taxpayer-supported campus, and husky young men watched for any such equipment like hawks.
All of the seminars and discussions that discussed ways to attack Israel and Jews in America who support the Jewish state were summed up on the last day:
 They decided to set up a national database of Palestinian grocers who would not sell Israeli products who would be given a special decal to place in their windows, to set up a major divestment target among US consumers.
 They decided to identify an individual divestment target that is large but achievable (i.e. Israel Bonds or Caterpillar Corporation) and to begin a divestiture campaign.
 They are seeking to build broad alliances with youth, minorities and organized labor, as well as continuing their relationship with the radical Left.
 They are creating a national database of Palestinian-Americans who have been denied entry into Israel that will be used to pressure Congress. They are looking for a test case to bring to the Israeli Supreme Court over denied entry. They are seeking to document everyone who has been denied entry and who are working closely with the ISM on this.
They considered using Norcal ISM head Paul LaRudee, who was deported from Israel after being exposed here in Front Page Magazine, but they decided he was too revealed to be a test case.
The Al Awda convention could best be summed up by the response from Ken Powers, the sole SFSU campus administrator who was present and in charge of the event, who defended the Conference vociferously to me.
When asked by me if Israel had a right to exist, he laughed and refused to answer.
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