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Al-Arian, Loftus a microcosm of world troubles

Sami Al-Arian came to visit.

John Loftus, not unexpectedly, arrived shortly thereafter, proclaiming, as usual, that the suspended USF professor is a terrorist.

Before Al-Arian even arrived in Michigan, there was a lawsuit filed to keep him away.

Protests erupted, and Al-Arian and Loftus found themselves surrounded by both supporters and detractors.

And as the weekend ended with repeated allegations and promises of continued lawsuits, it appeared as though the University of Michigan and the town of Ann Arbor had, at least for a few days, became home to USF and Tampa news-makers.

But while the visits of Al-Arian and Loftus may have spawned a version of a USF problem a thousand miles away, the events that took place at the University of Michigan are a microcosm of a far greater problem that has been a contributor to world politics for years.

The weekend’s real issue was the debate between Israeli and Palestinian supporters. It is that same issue that has led to Al-Arian’s infamous “death to Israel” comment more than a decade ago. It is that same issue that’s led to more than half a century of Middle Eastern conflict and contributed to the Sept. 11 attackers’ hatred of the United States.

Al-Arian traveled to Michigan to speak at a conference about non-violent resistance against Israel. Those who sued to keep Al-Arian and others off campus said the professor encourages violence against Israel.

But could the real reason for the suit, as Al-Arian and others suggested, be that the plaintiffs, members of a Zionist group, wanted to stifle debate on campus?

It seems that was at least part of the reason. Al-Arian is widely regarded as a strong speaker on the subject.

Because, in this case, the debate is like the Super Bowl. While Al-Arian doesn’t make up the whole team, it never hurts to force the best player off the field.

Split almost evenly, almost 1,500 people participated in various conferences, protests and counter-conferences during the weekend. They bussed in from all over Michigan and as far away as New York. Most Israeli supporters came to protest not just Al-Arian, but the conference itself.

And, like the worldwide version of this debate, there were the moderate supporters of one side or the other, and there were the extremists for both, as well as some animosity between the two.

While pro-Palestinian conference-goers condemned those Palestinians promoting violent resistance, the point was driven home on the pro-Israeli side even as the debate heated up.

On Sunday, The Jerusalem Post reported that the Michigan Campus Hillel, a Jewish student group, urged students to stay away from the Zionists’ protest. The group, which held its own conference last Thursday, asked students to engage in “non-confrontational opposition,” rather than protesting.

In addition, Hillel opposed the lawsuit to keep Al-Arian and the other speakers off the campus. According to a group spokesman, Hillel did not want the weekend to become a free speech debate, but to remain focused on the issues.

But probably the largest comparison to the worldwide debate came from the words of the protesters and counter-protesters. Both sides said they merely want peace in the region. Yet, both sides accuse the other of violence.

The reason for the lawsuit against Al-Arian was that he allegedly incited violence during a speech at the University of California-Berkeley. Officials at that university said those allegations are false.

But it is violence in the Israel/Palestine region that has kept the peace process from reaching its conclusion. In 1995, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, long regarded as the Israeli politician most interested in peace, was assassinated. Since that time, violence in the region has been a constant problem.

Tensions have escalated, and both sides have committed violent acts. Because of that, the gap has widened, and protests around the world are more and more common.

The events in Michigan were not unique. They might not have even been memorable if it were not for the participation of Al-Arian. But while Al-Arian’s case with USF is unusual, the events surrounding his visit to Ann Arbor were not.

Neither side wanted violence. Both sides blamed the other for being violent. Both said the other was misinformed. And, while Al-Arian said he had an academic discussion with Jewish students, for the most part, there was very little interaction between the groups.For the weekend past, Michigan may not have resembled Tampa quite as much as it represented the Middle East.