After weeks of planning, preparation and debate, administrators and organizers are putting the final touches on their plans for the Palestine Solidarity Movement conference on campus this weekend in the face of planned protests by pro-Israeli groups.
Most of the conference’s panels, speeches and workshops will take place on Saturday and Sunday following registration tonight, according to the full conference schedule released Monday. Speakers will include Sue Blackwell, a British professor who led a boycott of Israeli universities last year, Huwaida Arraf, co-founder of the International Solidarity Movement and Jessica Rutter, a national organizer for United Students Against Sweatshops.
Georgetown has resisted calls from pro-Israeli activists to cancel the conference, which is being hosted by the campus group Students for Justice in Palestine. University President John J. DeGioia said at a meeting with students last month that university-sponsored groups like SJP have the right to host peaceful meetings on campus regardless of their viewpoints.
PSM has received criticism from some groups for advocating the withdrawal of U.S. business investments in Israel and for some of its members’ reluctance to openly condemn Palestinian terrorist tactics. Organizers, who emphasized the PSM’s commitment to peaceful action, said that they expect a number of protesters to demonstrate against the meeting this weekend.
SJP member Maher Bitar (SFS ’06), one of the principal organizers of the conference, said that a group of about 25 volunteers made began making final technical preparations for the three-day event last night and are continuing today. Bitar said that plans for the convention were progressing well despite the threat of protests.
“I’m very optimistic. Hopefully it’s going to be huge,” he said. “I think the student body has been overwhelmingly positive and supportive of what we’re doing. . Really the negativity has come out not from within the campus but from outside sources.”
PSM spokesman Nadeem Muaddi said that he expected 500-600 people to attend the conference, most of whom would come from the Washington, D.C., area. He emphasized the openness of the conference to the public and invited any interested members of the campus community to attend.
Muaddi said, however, that conference organizers were concerned about some of the groups planning protests, particularly the Jewish Defense League, an activist pro-Jewish group with some former members who have been linked to violent incidents in past years.
“[JDL] in particular is an organization with . a violent past,” he said. “Just because the Jewish Defense League is there we have to take extra precautions.
“We just hope that everything stays organized and safe and that people on Georgetown’s campus begin to seriously take part in academic debate about the Palestine-Israel conflict,” uaddi added. “We’re taking into consideration now that we’re in Washington, D.C., which is a large city, so the protesters may come out in large numbers.”
David Morrell, vice president for university safety, said that administrators developed a plan for conference security over the last several weeks by working with students, conference organizers and Student Affairs officials. He declined to discuss specific details of the plan, but said it would be flexible enough to respond to whatever events develop.
“We have planned for 20 people showing up, [or] 200 or even more,” Morrell said. “There’s plenty of resources that will be on hand to deal with whatever situation develops.”
Safety officials erected metal barriers yesterday on Copley Lawn, creating two “designated demonstration areas” to contain protesters both for and against the conference.
Morrell added that the university is working with the etropolitan Police Department and has researched groups that could potentially protest on campus this weekend.
“We’ve been paying attention to the Internet, we’ve even been talking to some of the groups. So it has been proactive,” he said. “We’ll be prepared for however many groups and people show up.”
Department of Public Safety Director Darryl Harrison said that DPS would also adjust the number of officers it maintains on duty according to the security needs of the conference, as it has with past high-profile events such as Prince Charles’ visit to campus last November.
JDL Eastern United States Director Robert Turk, who is organizing the group’s demonstration on campus this weekend, said that JDL would bring at least 200 people from across the country to protest the conference.
Turk also said that the group would be willing to act in self-defense if provoked.
“This will be a peaceful protest. If anyone from the other side is violating that, then President DeGioia knows all bets are off,” he said. “We have our people who are well-equipped to defend themselves physically.”
Turk said that the group’s members would not bring weapons to campus, however.
JDL officials said that the organization’s main protest would likely take place on Sunday.
Campus protests during the preparations for the conference have been minimal, and Jewish student groups said they have opted to focus on their own events rather than organize demonstrations against the PSM conference.
Georgetown Israel Alliance organized an event last week featuring two mothers, one Israeli and one Palestinian, discussing ways to bring about peace in the Middle East. On Monday, the group hosted a lecture by Moshe Ya’alon, former chief of staff of the Israeli Defense Force, on Israel’s counter-terrorism methods and diplomatic efforts in the region.
“You really don’t learn anything from a protest,” GIA President Greg Goldberg (COL ’08) said. “We really wanted to push the message that we stand for peace, we stand for coexistence.”
Despite the planned protests and the debate surrounding the conference, SJP member and conference co-organizer Bayann Hamid (SFS ’07) said that after months of searching for speakers, organizing workshops and coordinating travel plans, she remained excited about the event.
“Everyone is pumped for the conference and ready to go,” Hamid said. “I don’t expect [the protests] to be a problem. . I trust in the university.”