Jew sits at table of Palestinian discontent

A Jew sits at the table of Palestinian discontent

Staff WriterOctober 12, 2004 

When a controversial Palestinian conference opens at Duke University on Friday, Rann Bar-On will be the local host running workshops and answering questions from the media.

But Bar-On -- a 24-year-old Duke graduate student with a long ponytail -- stands out among other leaders of the Palestine Solidarity Movement. He is an Israeli-born Jew.

Bar-On was born in Jerusalem and attended elementary school in the northern Israel city of Haifa. Although he has lived abroad for 13 years, he holds an Israeli passport and visits his parents in Haifa each year.

Despite his roots, though, Bar-On has staked out a position as a fierce critic of the Jewish state. He thinks Israeli government policies toward Israeli Arabs and Palestinians are racist.

"Zionism," said Bar-On, "enshrines the notion of an exclusively Jewish participation in the running of the state."

His views are not widely held by most Israelis, but neither are they uncommon. The Jewish community is often perceived as solidly united in support of Israel. But there are, in fact, multiple opinions in its ranks.

Among the members of the Palestine Solidarity Movement, as many as 20 percent may be Jewish, according to Fayyad Sbaihat, the national spokesman. That multiplicity of opinion is nowhere more evident than among Israelis.

"There is a segment of Israeli society that is influenced by post-colonial thinking that rejects the most basic premise on which Israel exists," said Yaakov Ariel, a professor of religion at UNC-Chapel Hill. "It's a larger group than it used to be."

Bar-On's involvement with the Palestinian student umbrella group has rankled some Jewish leaders locally. They say the conference violates "the true spirit of academic dialogue."

Most declined to speak about Bar-On publicly. Instead, they've been working to promote a separate set of events, including a "Students Against Terror" rally Thursday.

"I regard the PSM as a group that seeks to de-legitimize the state of Israel by making outrageous comparisons with South Africa," said Malachi Hacohen, a professor of history at Duke.

The Palestinian movement's goals include pressuring universities to divest from all companies that do business in Israel -- a tactic some universities took in the 1980s and early 1990s to protest South African apartheid. Duke President Richard Brodhead recently said Duke would retain its Israel-related investments.

For Bar-On, however, it is precisely the South African struggle that forms the basis of his thinking.

A view from Africa

In addition to being an Israeli, Bar-On spent most of his teens in Botswana, a nation bordering South Africa. His father, Arnon, worked as a professor of social work at the University of Botswana.

At the time, the apartheid regime was falling apart in South Africa. A year later, Nelson Mandela was elected president.

In 1999, when Rann was a senior in high school, an Israeli activist spoke at his school comparing the plight of the Palestinians to those of the black South Africans.

Bar-On, who always thought it strange that there were never any Arab students in his school in Israel, latched on to the idea.

"That's been a theme of my thinking since then," he said.

As an undergraduate student at the University of Warwick in England, Bar-On became active in Palestinian causes. He brought that with him when he came to Duke for graduate school in mathematics in 2003.

Last year, Bar-On attended the Palestine Solidarity Movement conference at Ohio State University. Together with the group's national organizers, he hammered out a proposal to hold its next annual conference at Duke.

Divesting from Israel is not a new idea. In July, the 2.4 million Presbyterian Church U.S.A. voted to selectively divest from corporations operating in Israel. The Anglican Communion, with 75 million people worldwide, is considering such a move, too.

Many Jews, however, find the tactic abhorrent. To them, there's something fundamentally unfair about divestment because it attempts to punish Israel without punishing Palestinians for their acts of terror.

"It misrepresents the issue," said Mollie Lurey, a Duke junior and one of the Jewish leaders on campus. "It's not about racism; it's about security."

In addition, mainstream Jews contend that unlike South Africa, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has at its root the struggles of two national movements, not two races.

The human side

Bar-On sees the conflict differently. For the past two summers, he has spent time living among Palestinians in West Bank towns and villages. There, he said, he saw separate and unequal access to roads, water and jobs -- a system he found similar to South African apartheid.

While in the West Bank, Bar-On said he was treated with a tremendous hospitality.

"Israelis are not aware that Palestinian society has a human side," he said. "They see it as a monolithic bloc of the enemy. It's very difficult to get beyond that."

Bar-On's father, who took his son to Arab villages as a boy, is proud of his son's work. "I feel comfortable that Rann is someone who thinks for himself and has a conscience," Arnon Bar-On said.

The Duke activist is not oblivious to the bombings that have rocked Israeli cities and hardened Israeli attitudes toward Palestinians over the past four years. He was in Jerusalem when a suicide bombing shook a street in 1999. It only strengthened his resolve to see an end to the occupation, he said.

Still, Bar-On and the Palestinian movement that he is a part of have refused to sign a statement drafted by Jewish student leaders at Duke condemning terrorism and affirming a two-state solution.

"It's not our place to dictate solutions," said Bar-On, adding that the solidarity movement is committed to nonviolence.

So Friday, when the conference begins at Duke, he will take his seat as one of about 385 students from across the United States championing the Palestinian cause.

Across the Durham campus, many of his fellow Jewish students will hold a teach-in of their own.

Staff writer Yonat Shimron can be reached at 829-4891 or yshimron@newsobserver.com.

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