You shall stand idly by: Goucher caves in to Fear
Posted by rabbibrian on November 23, 2009
Several weeks ago students at Goucher College invited me, Josh Ruebner of the U.S. Campaign to the End the Occupation, and Zahi Khamis, a Palestinian faculty member at the university to speak on a panel on “Palestinian Human Rights: Your Involvement” at the college. A few days before the event, scheduled for Wednesday last week, Sandy Ungar, President of Goucher, told the students that the event could not be held as a public event at the college.
Ungar argued that the panel was biased and would endanger Goucher college. He gave them two options. Either they could invite a “pro-Israel speaker” or they could hold it as part of their class, during the time of the class, with no publicity. The students had organized the event as the final assignment in their Peace Studies class to create a public dialogue at the college on any issue. The students rejected the demand to add a “pro-Israel” speaker and decided after some discussion not to cancel the event, but to proceed under the terms of the Administration. The dialogue would take place in a classroom with space for about 30 people, within the time period assigned to the class and it would not be a public event. Within this context, the panelists would have time for a short presentation and the rest of the “class time” would be devoted to a discussion of the issues raised by the event and possible actions in response.
The students in were understandably irate about two issues:
1. The censorship and silencing of a public discussion on Palestinian human rights
2. The issue of student rights.
There is a Student Bill of Rights at Goucher that protects the right of students to invite speakers of their choice to speak on the college and that these speakers do not represent the view of the college.
About 50 students, all of whom heard about the event by word of mouth and through an article in the student newspaper, packed into a classroom. Following short presentations by the three panelists the students shared their feelings about the action of the Administration and many ideas for actions in response to the censorship. The students and some faculty expressed their dismay that Goucher had sacrificed it’s principles under pressure. The students skillfully led a respectful and profound sharing of ideas.
Although the action of President of Goucher is outrageous, this is not an exceptional case, it is only one example of a the many ways in which public discussion of Palestinian rights and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are censored in America. It is just another indication how many liberals and Free Speech advocates, such as Sandy Ungar, end up caving in to fear and pressure, perceived and actual. Jewish organizations, donors, and leaders exert overwhelming pressure that prevents open debate in communities across America. In this case President Ungar had to choose between his commitment to free speech and his fear that holding this event would lead Jews to see Goucher as a college that is “pro-Palestinian” or inhospitable to Jews. He also feared a loss of revenue, potential action by Jewish donors.
“We don’t want Goucher to end up on a list of schools with a reputation of bringing vehemently pro-Palestinian and anti-Israeli speakers to campus”
“I don’t think it would be good for enrollment.”
“For something to be a Goucher public program, it needs to meet a set of requirements, one of which is balance.”
You can read the full history of this issue at Goucher in the student newspaper.
I am not sure who decides which speaker is “vehemently pro-Palestinian” and “anti-Israel” but I fear that Ungar has left that in the hands of the mainstream Jewish community.
It was interesting that in the discussion a participant who had hosted a prospective student on a tour of Goucher last week reported that the student and her father knew me as a rabbi and were stunned that Goucher had decided not to allow me to speak publicly! The same was true in Mishkan Shalom, the congregation that I founded in Philadelphia where several of my congregants and their children are alumni of Goucher college.
Understandably Zahi Khamis, a Paletinian who teaches at Goucher was deeply offended by the action of the administration. I was so pleased to support him and to express my solidarity with Palestinians who are denied the right to share their reality and perspective. Josh Ruebner, the third panelist, shared briefly the ways in which the Congress is silenced on this issue and the ways in which the U. S. Campaign acts to effect a change in U.S. policy.
In my short presentation to the students I placed the event in the context of the pressure exerted on journalists, academics, churches and religious institutions restricting discussion of Palestinian rights. I shared some of my own experience as a rabbi and that of my rabbinic colleagues. In 1988 I lost my first post as a congregational rabbi because I dared to challenge Israeli policy. I was blacklisted by the Jewish Exponent and immediately disinvited from several previously scheduled speaking engagements. For the past six years as Executive Director of Rabbis for Human Rights –North America, it was my task to arrange public talks by my Israeli colleagues in Jewish settings. There were only a limited number of Jewish communities that were willing to host talks by the Rabbi Arik Ascherman, the executive director of Rabbis for Human Rights in Israel. Several times a week I dealt with situations where rabbis or Jewish communities were wrestling with attempts to prevent or restrict the discussion of the human rights of Palestinians. I personally know of countless situations where presentations on this issue have been shut down in Jewish settings. Often even when we were able to find a Jewish venue for a talk, it was only on condition that it be a debate with a “pro – Israel” speaker. Sandy Ungar’s demand for another pro – Israel speaker and for “balance” was a demand I heard all too frequently and this was often in the context of a talk by an Israeli rabbi. Needless to say, the idea that Palestinians themselves should be invited to speak of their reality was not even in the realm of possibility!
The charge of “bias” is so ironic given that open discussion of Palestinian rights and of a Palestinian perspectives is so overwhelmingly censored in America. There are literally thousands of presentations by “pro-Israel” speakers when it never occurs to anyone to invite a Palestinian for “balance.”
This censorship is not limited to Jewish institutions, it is true in universities, the media, the churches and, of course, in Congress. There is no political issue that is so censored in American public life. Thankfully, Muzzlewatch, a wonderful program of Jewish Voice for Peace documents many instances this censorship. They and Phillip Weiss have written about the incident at Goucher.
As a rabbi, I was struck that two of the organizers of the panel at Goucher were committed Jewish students. One of them was involved in Hillel and hoped to go to Israel for a second time. This was similar to my experience when I spoke at Hampshire college earlier in the year, where several of the leaders of the divestment initiative were committed and knowledgeable Jewish students. It is clear that there is a new generation of Jews who are involved in Jewish life and understand support for human rights for all, including Palestinians as a core part of their Jewish identity and commitment. I was deeply moved by the integrity and commitment of all five students at Goucher who organized the program. They are a source of hope for the future.
Many Jews who work to shut down debate on this issue believe that open debate will threaten Israel and Jews. It is the ignorance of the reality of Palestinian life and lack of open discussion that threatens the American Jewish community. Such discussion is essential to restoring integrity to our synagogues and Jewish institutions. I told the students that the reason for my involvement as an advocate for Palestinian human rights was because I see the issue of the treatment of Palestinians by Israel as the most critical spiritual and moral issue facing Jews in our time. The future of Judaism itself will be determined by whether Jews will live up to the values that lie at the heart of our tradition.
Open discussion is also essential to the resolution of the conflict and to developing an American policy that will promote such a resolution. Open discussion is also essential in ending the gross violations of the human rights of Palestinians by the Israeli authorities. The silencing is part of an effort to cover up the reality of these violations and is one of the factors that allows them to continue without any accountability by Israel.
The event at Goucher is a reminder of how difficult it is to have this conversation in America and how so many people deeply committed to free speech and open debate on all other issues make an exception when it comes to Palestinians. I am sad that another liberal institution had caved in to fear and pressure.
Postscript: To his credit, Ungar had defended the talk by Anna Balzer at Goucher several years ago when the university was attacked in a full page ad in the Baltimore Jewish newspaper. I guess at that time the president was less fearful of negative consequences for Goucher or…? .