Administrators will allow the Palestine Solidarity Movement to hold its fifth annual conference on campus next month, despite heated criticism from some civil and religious groups that charge that the group promotes extreme anti-Israeli views .
The conference, which will be hosted by Georgetown’s Students for Justice in Palestine, will be held from Feb. 17-19 and is expected to draw around 700 participants from as many as 100 universities across the country, said PSM spokesperson Nadeem uaddi. Details regarding the schedule of speakers and events have yet to be released.
“The university administration has been extremely helpful and supportive in ensuring we are able to run an effective and safe conference,” SJP said in a statement released by its executive board.
But since the announcement of the impending conference, several religious and political groups have objected to what they say are PSM’s extreme views. PSM, among other things, fails to condemn terrorism and denies Israel’s right to statehood, the groups alleged in letters sent to University President John J. DeGioia and some members of the university community
Maher Bitar (SFS ’06) and Bayann Hamid (SFS ’07), who sit on SJP’s executive board, denied charges that PSM has supported Palestinian terrorist organizations like Hamas and Islamic Jihad.
“We support democratic and nonviolent means,” Hamid said.
Muaddi also said that PSM does not support violence in the iddle East and does not challenge Israel’s right to exist. However, he did say that PSM is critical of certain Israeli policies, including its establishment of settlements in the Gaza Strip and its construction of the West Bank barrier.
“What Israel is doing is, one, immoral, and, two, in violation of international laws,” Muaddi said.
In a letter sent to DeGioia late last month, Ronald Halber of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington and David Bernstein of the Washington chapter of the American Jewish Committee called on Georgetown’s president to clarify that Georgetown does not share PSM’s view of Israel.
Georgetown defended its decision to host the conference in a statement released Monday, citing its Speech and Expression Policy for its decision.
“Any student organization with access to university benefits, such as SJP, may reserve available facilities for its events,” the statement said, adding that the university’s decision to host the conference does not imply endorsement of its message.
Another issue that has provoked criticism is PSM’s advocacy of university divestment from Israel, which Muaddi defined as encouraging schools with a “business or military relationship with the state of Israel” to withdraw their investments.
“It’s an absurd position,” Bernstein said of divestment in an interview. “Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East.”
DeGioia has not publicly responded to Halber and Bernstein’s letter, but university spokesman Erik Smulson separated the university from PSM’s views on divestment.
“As a matter of practice Georgetown University does not use its endowment portfolio to pressure governments or create political or social action,” Smulson said.
Bernstein also said that while he wants Georgetown to distance itself from PSM’s views, he does not deny the group’s right to convene on campus.
Other critics of the conference have sent mass e-mails to members of the Georgetown community and encouraged recipients to call or e-mail DeGioia.
Criticism of the university’s decision to host the conference have come only from off-campus groups. Georgetown Israel Alliance President Greg Goldberg (COL ’08) said that his organization has no plans to protest the conference.
“The Georgetown Israel Alliance believes that all groups have a right express their views, even extreme groups such as this one,” Goldberg said of PSM.
Previous PSM conferences across the nation have often stirred conflict at the campuses they visited. Duke’s administration sent 100 patrol officers to look after the campus during an on-campus conference last year, triggering counter-programming from pro-Israeli groups, according to The Chronicle, Duke’s student newspaper.
Maher and Hamid said they are mindful of security concerns and are in contact with university safety officials. They said that they do not expect any counter-programming.
The announcement of the conference came a little more than a month after administrators at the Georgetown’s Marriott Conference Center rejected a bid to hold an anti-terrorism conference by the pro-Israel group America’s Truth Forum, formerly the We the People’s Truth Forum, after officials cited financial concerns over potential protests that the conference might have caused.
Smulson said that the rejection of the conference was not inconsistent with the Speech and Expression Policy. “The decision regarding the We the People’s Truth Forum was made by Marriott, as it runs the hotel and conference center, not by Georgetown University.”
Bitar dismissed criticisms voiced by some of the critics that the PSM conference was part of a larger bias against Israel by Georgetown. Some have suggested that the approval of the PSM conference, in concert with other recent events such as the $20-million donation to Georgetown by Saudi Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal, has suggested such a bias.
“There is a perception that money has too often driven the academic agenda of Georgetown,” Bernstein said.
“They’re trying to create these connections out of nothing,” Bitar said of the critics.