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.