September 27, 2005
The following articles contain background for the September/October 2005 articles below:
I am one of the three “controversial speakers” named in the article “Committee
to review at-issue speakers” [The Tartan, 9/26]. All across this country there
is an effort by pro–Israel organizations to shut down any discussion or debate
about the Palestine–Israel conflict and particularly any discussion that highlights
Israel’s gross and well-documented abuses of human rights and violations of
The Tartan reported, “DePaul University professor Norman Finkelstein and
Palestinian-cause speaker Ali Abunimah rounded out the list of three speakers
whose lectures allegedly included anti-Semitic material.” The article does
not say who made this allegation, nor what the content of my speech was that
could be in any way construed as “anti-Semitic.”
As your readers will be aware, there is little more damaging in our society
than to be tarred with the accusation of anti-Semitism. Those who wish to lay
such charges should have the courage of their convictions to do so openly.
Aaron Weil, the Director of the Edward and Rose Berman Hillel Jewish University
Center, is quoted saying “the speakers brought messages of hate” and “The position
of our students has been, and remains to be, that while the Constitution guarantees
the right of free speech, it does not guarantee right of venue, and that’s why we
believe those speakers were inappropriate.”
Anyone who attended my speech will know that I delivered a message of peace. This
ought to be no surprise because, although I am a critic of Israel’s policies, I
believe fervently in full peace, mutual recognition and equality between Israelis
and Palestinians, and have been advocating this for many years and have a long public
record of doing so.
Regretfully, while on the CMU campus, I was subjected to abuse and harassment
including being called a “cockroach” by one student who was carrying a pro-Israel
sign outside the lecture hall. Some students attempted to disrupt my lecture and
prevent others from hearing what I had to say, and when I invited those students
to come down to the podium to express whatever dissent they wished, they staged a
group walk-out. I wonder if these are the same students who are now claiming that
I somehow violated their rights by speaking at CMU!
I did not consider their atrocious behaviour to be in any way representative of
CMU, because the vast majority of the hundreds of students who attended my lecture
at [Carnegie Mellon] and another one the same day at the University of Pittsburgh
(some of whom were overflow from CMU because the hall was filled to capacity)
listened respectfully, accorded me the warmest and most gracious welcome, and
engaged with me in a free and unrestricted debate in which they challenged me
and held me to acount. I have to admit that this open, transparent engagement
with students is the part of public speaking which I enjoy the most.
In February, shortly after my visit to CMU, Mr. Weil was quoted in the Pitt News
making statements that I believed to be false and defamatory, and as a result, I
felt compelled to contact my attorney. Mr. Weil actually claimed that I had
advocated the use of terrorism. Mr. Weil acknowledged that this was untrue and
retracted his comments in a phone conversation with my attorney. The Pitt News
removed Mr. Weil’s comments from their website at that time and printed a letter
from me. (Please see http://www.pittnews.com)
I do find it incomprehensible that Mr. Weil should still be advocating that I and other
speakers should have been banned from the CMU campus. On what grounds? I have written to
the Committee charged by President Cohon with the task of reviewing University policy on
“controversial speakers,” to offer my full cooperation.
I would be pleased to travel to Pittsburgh to meet the committee so that they and the
University community can decide whether or not this censorship campaign is truly responding
to a genuine concern that my speaking at CMU somehow curtailed anyone else’s freedom,
promoted “hate” or “anti-Semitism” in any way whatsoever, or whether, as I suspect this
is simply a campaign to make it harder for those who disagree with Israeli policies to
air their views on the [Carnegie Mellon] campus.
Ali Abunimah University of Chicago Editorial Note: Typically, “Letter to the Editor”
submissions are to be no longer than 350 words in length. Although Mr. Abuminah’s letter
is over the 350-word limit, we feel it is necessary to publish it in full, as he was a
guest of the University and was named specifically in a number of pieces run in The
Tartan since the time of his lecture. The Tartan would like to make it clear that Mr.
Abunimah’s views and opinions do not represent those of The Tartan. Mr. Abunimah’s
letter was submitted of his own volition, and we welcome his comments and criticism.
Any questions or comments ion letters or articles are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org.
A tactic on a number of campuses in the United States where Israel is the
subject of critical debate is to infiltrate classes and meetings, create
a disturbance, then cite these disturbances as evidence of the inflammatory
nature of the events. Together with Daniel Pipes’ Campus Watch, in which
students are encouraged to report on the content of their teachers’ classes,
the clear intention is to limit the freedom of academic discourse.
Responding to the appointment of a committee to review CMU’s controversial
speaker policy, Aaron Weil, according to The Tartan Online (September 25,
2005), citing last semester’s events on campus, charged, “The speakers
brought messages of hate.” No one who attended the talks given by Ali
Abunimah and Norman Finkelstein could consider that charge honorably
sustained, nor that their talks “included anti-Semitic material.” The
only messages of hate were those delivered by the organized hecklers at
both meetings whose purpose was to prevent debate rather than engage in
The charge of anti-Semitism, increasingly trotted out in lieu of argument
to defame any criticism of Israel, also is a form of hate speech that can
prove damaging to its victim. Such an indiscriminate employment of the
term is in danger of discrediting its legitimate use.
Brian Johnston Professor College of Fine Arts School of Drama.
As you’ve probably already heard, the administration has once again gone committee-happy.
By creating the new committee to review the university policy on controversial speakers,
sparked by three such speakers last semester, University President Jared Cohon has created
little more than a time-sink for the committee members and a diversion that will keep our
community focused merely on symptoms of a deeper problem.
While it is disturbing that the administration took more than six months to respond to
these events, perhaps even more disturbing is that the only substantial response thus far
has been yet another committee. How will the campus community — and the student body in
particular — be helped by having a dozen “chosen ones” sit around and discuss the matter?
The formation and selection processes seem shrouded by bureaucracy, so how can the members
of the campus community have faith in the product of this relatively surrepititious committee?
Also unsettling is the makeup of this committee; it seems that this group was hastily selected without much regard to finding either sufficient student representation or a diverse group. How are the student body vice-president and treasurer considered to be varied enough as members of this new committee? Granted, Nicolette Louissaint and Nick Scocozzo are two very bright people whom we respect, but they’re both seniors, have the same major, and are connected to the same corner of the campus community.
Carnegie Mellon would benefit more from a strong endorsement of free speech than it would from this token effort at pandering to a specific group of people. The policy, as it stands is clear, strong, and honorable: “If men and women are to value freedom, they must experience it. If they are to learn to choose wisely, they must know what the choices are; and they must learn in an environment where no idea is unthinkable and where no alternative is withheld from their consideration.”
Even more threatening than some of the rhetoric put forth by these controversial speakers was the response generated by some parts of the campus community; need we remind you how Ali Abunimah’s lecture was continually interrupted by organized harassment from hecklers? Or how Norman Finkelstein was utterly disrespected by catcalls from a disruptive audience, a disgrace only to be capped off by a “rebuttal scholar” who just tried to discredit him?
Each of these three speakers came to campus so that students could learn new viewpoints and new opinions. The engaged discussion that followed the Malik Zulu Shabazz lecture, regarding free speech and the rights therein, did far more good for the students of this university than the questionable content of his lecture. All of the controversial speakers to have galvanized our community have brought the collegiate learning experience outside of the classroom.
However, let us not forget the fragility of this “intersection of freedom and responsibility,” as Cohon wrote back in February. Students were threatened, feelings were hurt, and hateful statements were made. The continued dignity and respect of every member of the campus community toward every other is absolutely vital to the success of free speech; it is impossible for people to grow in an environment that does not nurture them and allow for free discourse.
The current policy on controversial speakers does exactly what it should do. Creating this new committee seems like the first step toward keeping students from making their own opinions about controversial speakers and topics. Why are we not crediting intelligent students with being capable of making reasonable, rational decisions about tendentious material?
On September 14, Carnegie Mellon President Jared L. Cohon released a public statement announcing a new committee to review CMU’s controversial speaker policy. Cohon’s statement came nearly seven months after proposals of such a committee were originally brought to Student Senate.
The appointment was made in response to three guest lecturers who spoke on campus last semester. The committee will be charged with reviewing and possibly revising the current policy, which is presently a three-page document outlining CMU’s treatment of visiting controversial speakers.
According to Cohon’s statement, “As a campus community, we are committed to open engagement, even to the extent of allowing offensive or troubling speech. At the same time, we have a tradition of personal respect and decency that can be tested by such unrestricted discourse.”
It is that tradition that was tested earlier this year when the leader of the New Black Panther Party, Malik Zulu Shabazz, gave what was intended to be a lecture on African-American history that was met with protest from a number of campus groups and officials.
DePaul University professor Norman Finkelstein and Palestinian-cause speaker Ali Abunimah rounded out the list of three speakers whose lectures allegedly included anti-Semitic material.
It was this material that prompted Hillel, along with other campus organizations, to gather on the night of the Shabazz lecture. Though Aaron Weil, executive director of the Edward and Rose Berman Hillel Jewish University Center, would not make an official comment regarding the peace gathering, he did say in regard to the committee’s appointment that “we appreciate and respect the University’s decisions, and whatever decisions they’re coming to, they’re keeping the students’ best interests in mind.” Weil added, “While the speakers brought messages of hate, nobody should misconstrue that with the University’s true intention, which is to provide an open and safe forum for all thought.”
However, Weil also said, “The position of our students has been, and remains to be, that while the Constitution guarantees the right of free speech, it does not guarantee right of venue, and that’s why we believe those speakers were inappropriate.”
The committee now has the task of deciding whether or not the negative response to last semester’s speakers can be prevented from recurring with a revised policy.
“It’s not so much the type of speaker, it’s how each speaker will be handled,” commented Nicholas Scocozzo, the Student Body Vice-President for Finance and member of the new committee. “It’s not just about looking over the policy, but also how the policy will be enforced.”
With schools such as Shippensburg University (Pa.) and the University of Minnesota currently under pressure from federal courts to revise their free speech policies and further accommodate the First Amendment rights of college students, the committee intends to make sure free speech is not violated.
CMU professor of architecture and committee member Omer Akin insists, “We will make sure no freedoms are curtailed, but having unlimited freedom can be [problematic], for some may infringe on the freedoms of others.”
Akin stated, “The public should know that we are reviewing the policy, which is routine.” But he also acknowledged the role the three speakers had in the committee’s appointment. “If you don’t have fresh data to inform your policy,” he said, “you cannot make informed changes.”
One committee member claimed that he would need to check his First Amendment rights on the issue before commenting on any possible decisions the committee will be making.
Akin does not expect any changes in the policy, adding, “I wouldn’t necessarily say we have to change anything,” but referencing the circumstances surrounding the three speakers from last semester, “a three-page document won’t do everything.”
If any changes are made to the current policy, they will not take effect until spring, as Cohon gave the committee the entire semester to make corrections. “We’ll be getting different people’s input throughout the semester,” Scocozzo added. “We’re trying to please everyone as much as possible.”
According to the controversial speakers policy, if students “are to learn to choose wisely, they must know what the choices are; and they must learn in an environment where no idea is unthinkable and where no alternative is withheld from their consideration.” It should be noted that there are still some choices that we would not like others to make, including succumbing to racist or hateful ideologies. To implement this principle of openness in the University Lecture Series (ULS), no issue should be treated in a biased manner, so as to offer all of these choices to students. Why is it then, that the only two ULS speakers invited to talk about Israel were both vehemently anti-Israel, one representing an opinion bordering on racism? These problems could have been prevented through a more open and transparent selection process for ULS speakers.
The first speaker to talk about Israel was Ali Abunimah, a known Israel opponent. His speech was largely academic, though his picture of reality was focused on Palestinian suffering. He ignored Israeli suffering and acts of aggression by individual Palestinians and groups of Palestinians, as well as the lack of action by Palestinian authorities in preventing such acts. His biased perspective was not the final word on the topic.
The other lecture on Israel was Norman Finkelstein’s talk titled “Beyond Chutzpah: On the Misuse of Anti-Semitism and the Abuse of History.” For those unfamiliar, here are some highlights from his most famous book, The Holocaust Industry. In it, he writes, “The Holocaust has proven to be an indispensable ideological weapon. Through its deployment … the most successful ethnic group in the United States has likewise acquired victim status.” Referring to Jews as “the most successful ethnic group” is an unfair generalization, characteristic of Finkelstein’s method of persuasion. Finkelstein draws on people’s prejudices to color Jews and Israel negatively, while hiding behind his Jewish heritage to prevent criticism. He goes on to cite certain Holocaust revisionist literature as bringing “an ‘indispensable’ contribution to our knowledge of World War II,” and justifies anti-Semitism in Europe as a result of the extortion of Jewish organizations. Justifying racism is equivalent to encouraging it, which should not have a place in the ULS.
Though many would argue that Finkelstein’s rhetoric is not anti-Semitism, it is still hateful to a large portion of the Pittsburgh community and many CMU students. This brings its benign status into question. The ULS should not be a venue to test the boundaries of racism. What was the aim of bringing Finkelstein to campus? Was it meant to intimidate future victims of anti-Semitism from coming forward for fear of being accused of “misusing anti-Semitism”? At any rate, Finkelstein’s lecture deadened the sting of future racism that may occur on our campus. If lectures like Finkelstein’s were the norm, we would not have seen such an extreme outcry over Malik Zulu Shabazz last year. Giving the ULS organizers the benefit of the doubt, the unsuitable nature of Finkelstein’s message should have been apparent before he was invited.
The ULS organizers should have anticipated the effect of Finkelstein’s rhetoric, and noticed that all of the speakers on Israel held an anti-Israeli viewpoint. In the unlikely event that it was an accident, last year’s problems could have been prevented through a more transparent speaker selection process: The committee to review the controversial speakers policy should appoint a board to formally deliberate the ULS speaker selection, considering the effect speakers may have. Deliberations should be made public, and their minutes published on the web. As tuition-paying students, we deserve the respect of knowing why the administration selects their controversial speakers, as well as their anticipated effect on the campus community. This proposal will prevent a fiasco like last year’s, since reservations about speakers can be brought up during the selection process, instead of after.