Student Protests and Death Threats: The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict Gets Personal at FAU
Illustration by Paul Garland
The dormitory hallways at Florida Atlantic University were uncomfortably quiet. By 3 p.m. Friday, many residents had left to begin their weekends. The air conditioner thrummed loudly in their absence. A stale odor, mixed with the chemical sting of cleaning products, struck 21-year-old Gabi Aleksinko as she and her friends made their way from door to door.
Aleksinko looks the part of a hippie activist, with long brown hair flowing past her shoulders and oversized earrings in the shape of peace signs. But there's a steeliness there too. Though she's lived in South Florida since she was 11, her parents are Argentine, her great-grandfather a Ukrainian refugee. Righteousness runs in her blood.
On the afternoon of March 30, Aleksinko, a nonpracticing Catholic, was accompanied by three other members of the campus club called Students for Justice in Palestine — including her boyfriend, Matthew Schneider, who is Jewish and vice president of the club. A resident adviser escorted them through three dormitories as the students used tape and printer paper to carry out their mission. They chatted, laughed, and told jokes, eager to break the silence of the halls.
Stamped diagonally in large, gray, capital lettering across their fliers was the word Eviction. A fake Palm Beach County Court case number and warrant number appeared in the upper right corner. On the lower left was the official seal of Palm Beach County, and in the lower right corner was a stamp of approval from FAU's Housing Department. "We regret to inform you that your home is scheduled for demolition shortly," the flier began. "You have three days to vacate the premises... or you will be subject to arrest."
A couple of students emerged from their rooms and panicked. "Crap, we got evicted," Aleksinko heard them whisper.
"Is this for real?" someone else asked.
"Nah, keep reading," the protesters responded.
At the bottom of the page, in large, bold letters, the flier stated: "Not a real eviction notice. Not affiliated with county." Then, in smaller type: "This notice is meant to spread awareness for the plight of the Palestinian people. Remember, American tax dollars pay for the Israeli occupation."
By sunset, Aleksinko's feet ached from walking up and down so many flights of stairs. Her team was exhausted. They were disappointed that only six or seven people stopped and asked them about the fliers. They had no idea what was coming.
With her FAU T-shirt and long, curly dark hair pulled back in a ponytail, Noor Fawzy does not look the part of the frightening activist. She has a 4.0 GPA, is majoring in political science, serves as secretary of the College Democrats, and dreams of being an ambassador.
In early May, Fawzy gathered with other members of Students for Justice in Palestine's board on the couches of the FAU student union in Boca. Downstairs, her classmates played Ping-Pong. Upstairs, the hallway was mostly quiet, except for the stream of visitors — everyone from custodians to students — who walked by to say hello. "SJP! My people!" one man shouted, raising a fist in support.
Fawzy, 21, is the Muslim daughter of Palestinian refugees. Her mother was raised in Venezuela, her father in Kuwait. Her grandfather fled Palestine in the years leading up to the establishment of Israel, when violence between Zionists and Palestinians was frequent. Fawzy attended high school in Coral Springs. Her family is among roughly 101,000 Arab-Americans in Florida, a state with the fourth-largest Arab-American population in the country, according to the Arab American Institute.
Fawzy still has relatives living in the area she calls Palestine — a swath of land between Egypt and Jordan where Jews and Muslims trace their ancestral roots back thousands of years. In the late 1880s, a movement called Zionism beckoned Jews to return to their Holy Land in droves, to establish a safe haven from deadly persecution they faced in Russia and other parts of the world. At the time, Palestine was part of the Ottoman Empire. Great Britain took control of the area during World War I.
In 1947, after 6 million European Jews were murdered in the Holocaust, the United Nations proposed partitioning Palestine into two independent countries — one for Jews and one for Palestinians. The Palestinians declined. Instead, Arab forces attacked Israel and lost. The 1948 war ended with the establishment of Israel — the world's only modern Jewish nation — and hundreds of thousands of displaced Palestinian refugees. Israelis celebrated their Independence Day. Arabs called it "the Catastrophe."
For the past 64 years, Palestinians and Jews have lived an uneasy coexistence marked by frequent violence. In the 1967 Six-Day War, Israel captured the territories of the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip from neighboring Arab nations. Under a United Nations accord reached after the war, captured lands were to be returned to the Palestinians in exchange for peace. However, neither the land swap nor peace has ever come.
Today, whenever either group builds homes or schools on occupied land, it is effectively staking a claim on that area. Israel maintains military and political control over large swaths of the occupied territories. It's nearly impossible for Palestinians to receive permits to build in these areas, and thousands of their homes have been razed because the Israeli government believes they are harboring terrorists or have built the structures illegally. Angry and feeling powerless, many Palestinians have fled the region over the decades. Others — including Hamas, the Islamic fundamentalist group that governs the Gaza Strip — have launched suicide bombs and rocket attacks and called for Israel to cease to exist. How the two sides might come to live peacefully is a riddle that no president, prime minister, or assassin has been able to solve, though many have tried.
Fawzy has seen the conflict firsthand. As a high school graduation present in the summer of 2009, Fawzy was given a trip to visit family in Ramallah, in the West Bank. She says her family was detained for hours at the airport in Tel Aviv. "And we were questioned, simply because we're not Jewish," she says.
Once she arrived in the West Bank, she saw the "horrors of occupation." There were paved roads that only Israelis could travel on, while Palestinians navigated over dirt and gravel. Some mornings, she woke up to find that her family's house had no water, while Jewish settlements half a mile away enjoyed lush, green lawns. At a checkpoint on the way to Jerusalem, Fawzy watched Israeli soldiers treat her mother with contempt, scanning her passport and then throwing the document back into the older woman's lap. "It's an 'I'm the boss of you' attitude," Fawzy says. "Very disrespectful."
By the time she arrived at Florida Atlantic University, Fawzy was a devoted Palestinian advocate. FAU is a largely commuter school not known for campus activism. Three years ago, the most active political group on campus was the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. But there's been a minor political awakening: The Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender group held rallies this past school year, as did the College Democrats. Other students protested budget cuts.
Fawzy discovered that the college had a Palestinian American Organization, but it was more a cultural group than a political one. "I didn't think it was advancing the Palestinian cause," she says. So last year, she decided to revamp the club as a part of Students for Justice in Palestine, a group with 75 chapters across the country. In Boca, Fawzy found about 20 dedicated supporters. She says there are more Jewish members of the club than Palestinian ones.
The three leaders of the club — Fawzy, Aleksinko, and Schneider — vehemently deny that they want Israel to cease to exist.
"We're pro-Israel," Schneider says. "It's just the Israeli government and what they're doing to the Palestinians."
"We all believe in a just solution for Israelis and Palestinians," Fawzy adds. "We all believe in the Palestinian refugees' right of return." (To many pro-Israel advocates, the right of return implies an end to the Jewish state. If millions of displaced Palestinians return to the country, they could outnumber the Jews there.)
Fawzy envisions a one-state solution in which people would live together freely, regardless of race, ethnicity, religion, or nationality. "Everyone is equal," she says. "There's no occupation."
In September, the group held a rally to support Palestinian self-determination. In late February, for Palestine Awareness Week, it erected a replica of what it called the "apartheid wall" — the security wall erected by the Israeli government to separate Israel from the West Bank.
And this spring, it heard about Palestinian clubs at Harvard, Yale, and Tufts universities having demonstrated by posting mock eviction notices on students' dorm rooms to raise awareness about the plight of Palestinians living in the occupied territories outside Israel. Group leaders decided to copy the idea.
So they whipped up the fliers, which looked liked eviction notices but also had some explanatory text. They read: "The Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions reports about 25,000 homes have been destroyed by Israeli military forces since the Occupation of Palestine began in 1967." They quoted Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director of Human Rights Watch: "The Israeli government is depriving Palestinians of the right to live in their own homes."
The fliers also included a reference to Rachel Corrie, a 23-year-old American activist who was killed in 2003 while she acted as a "human shield" and stood in the way of a bulldozer that was demolishing a Palestinian home in the Gaza Strip. The Israeli government has insisted her death was an accident, that the driver of the bulldozer could not see her. The eviction notice described Corrie's death but not Israel's explanation of it.
The students had Artie Jamison, associate director for residential life at FAU, approve the fliers. (Jamison confirmed that she approved them but would not comment further for this article.) And on March 30, they walked up and down the halls of three dorms, spending about three hours posting 200 eviction notices on doors — randomly, they insist.
That evening, Rayna Exelbierd returned from a campus Shabbat service to find the eviction notice on her dorm-room door. A friend ripped it down. Exelbierd scanned the hallway. She didn't see any other fliers on neighboring doors. "I felt targeted," she says.
For Exelbierd, the far-off conflict in the Middle East is deeply personal. The 20-year-old has attended pro-Israel summer camps most of her life. She has visited Israel four times. After graduating high school, she spent a "gap year" there on a program run by the Zionist youth group Young Judaea. She returned again this December on a trip run by the right-leaning Zionist Organization of America. This was no tourist jaunt. Exelbierd says she dated a general in the Israeli Defense Forces. She met Jewish settlers who were evicted from homes they built in Palestinian territories "for reasons of peace and security," Exelbierd says. The Israeli government and the Obama administration have criticized settlers for thwarting the peace process, yet Exelbierd considers them heroes.
"To me, those are the people who are fighting for Israel," she says. Their displacement is "a gesture of peace — only to be repaid with violence."
She visited the city of Sderot, on the border with Gaza, where Palestinian rocket attacks are common. Every house has a bomb shelter, Exelbierd says. There's a menorah made of recycled mortar shells on top of the Jewish school.
Meanwhile in Jerusalem, young Israeli soldiers walk the streets with rifles slung over their arms. All men and women in Israel, once they turn 18, must serve in the armed forces. To thwart suicide bombers, bars and cafés are required to have armed security guards. "Someone puts a bag down for 15 seconds, immediately people are questioning, 'Whose bag is this? Where did it come from?' " Exelbierd says.
When she arrived at FAU last year from Memphis, Exelbierd, who is confident and well-spoken, became an intern at Hillel, a Jewish organization that operates on 500 campuses nationwide. It has roughly 1,000 students involved at FAU. Exelbierd's job was to "show my fellow students how Israel related to them on a personal level," she explains.
Exelbierd's supervisor was Scott Brockman, a man in his 40s who runs the nonprofit Hillel of Broward and Palm Beach from an on-campus office near the FAU library. His task is to work with more than 5,000 Jewish students at all the local colleges, including FAU, Lynn University, and Nova Southeastern University, sometimes taking students on trips to Israel. The full-time job requires him to please wealthy donors while also enticing college kids to attend a Shabbat dinner instead of playing beer pong.
Students for Justice in Palestine say that Brockman clashed with them throughout the year, and he admits he sees the group as an enemy. "I see SJP and the movement they're part of as anti-Semitic," he says. Brockman opens a laptop on his desk and pulls up Students for Justice in Palestine's Facebook page to illustrate his point. In one posting, Fawzy called Israel a "racist, colonial society built on terrorism and ethnic cleansing." Other posts advocate a boycott and divestment campaign against Israel.
None of this makes Brockman want to have a dialogue with Students for Justice in Palestine members. "It's so one-sided and so towards demonization of a people that you can't talk about history," he says. He points out that people in Israel also protest their government's treatment of Palestinians. "You can be both pro-Palestinian and pro-Israeli at the same time," he says.
Exelbierd says she's wary of the decades-old idea that Israel will find peace by returning occupied land to the Palestinians. "Giving up land has not been shown to be a successful way to get peace," she says.
So the night that she found the mock eviction notice on her door, she considered it one-sided, inaccurate, and hateful. "I think it's anti-Semitic. I think it's anti-Israel. I think they put hate on my door."
In the days after the fliers were posted, Hillel invited all students concerned about the protest to stop by its offices on campus. Brockman posted a message on his Facebook page. "While Hillel supports free speech and champions civil discourse on campus, we will not sit idly by when Israel is singled out, delegitimized and demonized," he wrote.
Exelbierd confronted Fawzy, whom she says told her to stop being so dramatic. "She said, 'Give up. You have no case,' " Exelbierd recalls.
Exelbierd decided to contact the media.
On April 4, five days after the eviction notices appeared, the Sun-Sentinel published a story claiming students were intimidated by the incident. The next day, the Florida Jewish Journal ran a story headlined "Fake 'eviction notices' scare Jewish students." This article inaccurately reported that the notices specifically targeted only Jewish students. (Exelbierd says the reporter, David Schwartz, misunderstood her.) Exelbierd was quoted calling the incident a "hate crime." The scandal went viral.
Although the Jewish Journal corrected its story within 24 hours to report that the 200 eviction notices were distributed randomly, not just on the doors of Jewish students, it was too late. Jewish publications throughout the world picked up on the inaccurate story: Ynet, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, the Times of Israel.
FAU's campus is in Boca Raton, a city nationally known for its Jewish population; in 2005, there were roughly 131, 000 Jews in southern Palm Beach County. Within weeks of the eviction notices' being posted, 500 people gathered at Boca Raton Synagogue to discuss the scandal.
Politicians saw opportunity. U.S. Rep. Ted Deutch, a Democrat who represents Boca, said he supported "calling out SJP's vitriolic lies and standing together to fight any group that tries to delegitimize Israel," according to the Jewish Journal.
Adam Hasner, former state House speaker and current Republican congressional candidate, joined in: "The concern is that FAU has failed to live up to its responsibility and exercise the moral clarity to call this message what it was: anti-Semitism."
FAU officials said the eviction notices violated school policy regarding "the distribution of printed material" and promised to investigate.
Rabbi Bruce Warshal, who grew up as one of few Jews in a small Pennsylvania coal-mining town and spent 13 years as founding director of the Jewish Federation of South Palm Beach County, was a lone voice calling for calm. Now 75 and a liberal voice among the more conservative Jewish organizations in Palm Beach County, he wrote a Jewish Journal editorial chastising local Jewish leaders for blowing the scandal out of proportion. "These people are crazy," he said later. "The students had a legitimate statement to make. They did it in a responsible way."
Warshal said some pro-Israel groups raise money by inflaming such controversies with allegations of anti-Semitism. He feels it's his civic duty to criticize Israeli policies with which he disagrees. "I'm glad we have a country of our own," he says. But "the Palestinians have a perfectly legitimate narrative. We came and screwed up their lives."
"HaShem [a Hebrew term religious Jews use for God] will avenge your attack on his people you miserable Arab whore. He will see that you die a torturous death, choking on the smoldering pages of a Koran. Watch your back, you filthy pig. The next note that goes up on a Jewish student's door will be met with extreme violence against you & your whore mother. Don't fuck with HaShem, you vile, ugly bitch."
That death threat, along with other hate mail sent to the club email for Students for Justice in Palestine, was emailed to Fawzy days after the Jewish Journal story appeared.
Fawzy's mother was frightened. So was Schneider's. He wrote an editorial for the Huffington Post explaining why, as a Jewish student, he had become vice president of the board of Students for Justice in Palestine. His mother feared his views made him a target. "You have to think about your future," Schneider remembers his mom saying.
"My parents were scared — pardon my French — shitless," Aleksinko adds.
Fawzy reported the death threats to the FAU police department. The investigation is still open, and case records cannot yet be released to the public, a police official said.
Meanwhile, Dr. Charles Brown, senior vice president for student affairs at FAU, issued a public statement saying officials had found no evidence that Jewish students were targeted by the fliers. "We have spent the last several days meeting with students, staff, and concerned members of our community regarding this incident," he said. "All available evidence indicates that the postings were distributed randomly, without regard to the identity of any person who may have received or viewed them."
On April 23, FAU officials and Hillel leaders held a closed-door meeting. Then they put out another news release saying the eviction notices violated school policy and should not have been approved, but when pressed by New Times, FAU officials did not further specify what school rules were broken. "FAU and Hillel agree that university residence halls must be safe and welcoming environments for students from all walks of life to live, learn, and grow," the statement said. "Part of that environment includes providing students a place of repose, free from unwelcome intrusions. The inappropriate postings conflicted with this mission."
Aleksinko remembers Exelbierd's coming up to members of Students for Justice in Palestine who were sitting outside at a table on campus after the story broke. "I just want you to know, what you did the other day, it really hurt my feelings," Aleksinko remembers her saying.
Aleksinko told Exelbierd she had not been singled out for the fake eviction notice — they fliered randomly in three dorms — and "there is no way in hell we would know where she lived."
Although angered and upset by the allegations of anti-Semitism, the members of Students for Justice in Palestine were happy with the attention the controversy brought to their cause. "It made us famous," Fawzy says. "Now everyone loves us."
Schneider says that school officials "took down our fliers and told us that what we did was wrong." Aleksinko playfully slaps her wrists.
The group members have already printed up new eviction notices and intend to post them this fall.
On the evening of May 22, Rayna Exelbierd squints into the light of an overhead projector in the sanctuary of the Beth Ami synagogue. She's wearing a blue and white dress, a knit sweater, and bright-red lipstick. The projection screen behind her displays a larger-than-life image of the mock eviction notice. She shields her eyes and shifts her feet, smiling at the crowd that fills the pews.
Two months after the protest, some Jewish leaders are not ready to forget. They organized this meeting, around the corner from the FAU campus, to sound an alarm about what they consider a broader campus campaign to destroy Israel.
"This is about the establishment of Israel in the first place," says Rabbi Eli Kavon. "It's about the demonization of Jews."
"This flier included a modern-day blood libel," adds Joseph Sabag, executive director of the Boca chapter of the Zionist Organization of America, referring to the mention of Rachel Corrie. His group drafted letters for audience members to sign, asking FAU officials to "speak out publicly and specifically condemn the anti-Semitic messages of FAU's Students for Justice in Palestine chapter."
On the projection screen, Sabag shows images of FAU protesters holding signs that say, "Israel Breeds Hate" and "Jews Against Apartheid." He includes screen shots of Fawzy's protest activities on Facebook. But the main event of the evening is a film called Crossing the Line: The Intifada Comes to Campus. Ominous music accompanies clips of disturbing images from across the country: a spray-painted swastika on a Jewish fraternity building, protesters holding signs that call Israel a fascist state, anti-Israel crowds shouting "I love Hitler."
Exelbierd believes the film's message. She says Students for Justice in Palestine is a "cover" for other groups that work against Israel. She says no protest like the eviction notices will ever go "under the radar" on her watch.
When she is done, the audience gives her a standing ovation.
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