MIT’s Starr Forum Needs to Turn Over a New Leaf Post COVID-19

Someday, when the world returns to normal and the worst of the COVID-19 crisis is in our collective rear-view mirror, students will return to classes at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

If history is any predictor, the Center for International Studies (CIS) will host a lecture about the Arab-Israeli conflict. To give the lecture an air of relevance, the title will be something like, “The Israel-Palestine Conflict in a Post-COVID-19 Era.” Of course, it won’t be the first lecture CIS executive director and “chief scientist” John Tirman organizes for the upcoming academic year. There will be, or at least should be, at least a couple of lectures about the impact of China’s mishandling of the COVID-19 on the international order and America’s national security.

When Tirman gets around to hosting a lecture on Israel, he’ll do it with the support of the Starr Foundation, an American nonprofit that, according to its website, “has concentrated its giving in the area of public policy on international relations and the promotion of the rule of law and democratic institutions around the world.”

The speakers will probably include Anat Biletzky, a regular speaker at the Starr Forum lectures. Bitletzki, an Israeli who teaches philosophy at Quinnipiac College in Connecticut will be brought in to provide the “Israeli” point of view because she used to teach at Tel Aviv University. She doesn’t like Israel very much and wants to see it turned into a “pariah state.” She’s glad that Israelis are terrified of the BDS movement. “The point is to make Israel a pariah state. And that’s what BDS is going to do she said at a 2018 talk in Cambridge.

Another likely speaker is Husam Zomlot. Zomlot who has spoken at two Starr Forum lectures over the past decade, is a surrogate for the Palestinian Authority who portrays the Palestinian nationalism as a secular movement and Israel as the obstacle to peace in the Holy Land, as if his bosses in the Palestinian Authority haven’t used Islamic Jew- and Israel- hatred as a tool of state craft for the past several decades and in so doing, have made peace more difficult to achieve.

Zomlot had a tough time at one of his lectures. When one questioner got tough with him and said that it was Palestinian and not Israeli society that needed to transform itself for there to be peace, Zomlot wasn’t having any of it.

“This is not a dialogue. This is not a dialogue. This is not a dialogue,” he said, unintentionally embodying the authoritarianism that has afflicted the PA for so long. (At this point, Tirman stepped in and ended the program which had gone on for more than 90 minutes.)

Tirman might also invite previous Starr Forum lecturer Miko Peled, an Israeli Jew who apparently doesn’t like the country very much. He has described security officials at Ben Gurion Airport as “smiling Gestapo” and has assailed the notion of Jewish self-determination in Israel. CIS might also invite Eve Spengler, a professor at Boston College who has called on Trader Joe’s to stop selling Israeli goods in its stores and has accused Israeli leaders of pursuing “an Arab-free greater Israel.”

Maybe Tirman will invite Hillary Rantisi, a former employee of Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Center in Jerusalem, one of the pillars of the BDS movement. Rantisi appeared on a Starr Forum Panel on violence in the Gaza Strip in 2009, which also included well-known anti-Israel commentators, Rami Khouri who has falsely claimed that a majority of Israelis support the lynchings of Palestinians and  Leila Farsakh, a professor at UMASS Boston who has accused Israel of ethnic cleansing and supports BDS.

Tirman might invite them too!

To be fair, lecture organizers did, in 2015, bring in Ayaan Hirsi Ali to speak about the need for a reformation within Islam. Tirman was polite in his questioning even as he tried to suggest that the problems in the Middle East didn’t have as much to do with traditional Islam than with American foreign policy, but things got pretty crazy when it was opened up for Q and A.

Questioner after questioner harangued Ali and she dealt with their objections like a lion tamer. One brilliant moment came when Ali exposed the cognitive dissonance of one young Muslim from the Boston area who, in dialogue with Ali, falsely claimed that Mohammed never called on his followers to smite the necks of the infidels. (It’s in the Koran). It was, if you pardon the expression, epic.

But overall, the record is pretty clear. When MIT’s Center for International Studies hosts a Starr Forum Lecture on anything that has to do with Israel or the Middle East, it rolls out the welcome mat for people who have it in for the Jewish state. The only people who are clearly willing and able to offer a robust defense of Israel (and critique of its adversaries) are audience members who come to challenge speakers like Zumlot from the floor. Clearly, somebody needs to tell the folks at CIS that maybe they ought to bring in some other perspectives. (The phrase of the day is “viewpoint diversity!”)

The insanity of CIS’s Starr Forum Agenda has become evident in the past few weeks as Israel has proven to be a much more responsible global citizen than its adversaries in the Middle East. It has worked with the Palestinians to combat COVID-19 even as PA leaders use the virus to incite against Israel. Moreover, Israel’s most deadly adversary in the region, Iran, has allowed itself to become a hub of transmission of the virus to other countries in the Middle East. People who rely on CIS’s Starr Forum Lecture Series for information about the region would not have been able to predict any of this. But the man on the street would know it right away.

It’s an odd phenomenon to see at CIS, which was founded to promote an understanding of the threats facing the United States during the Cold War. What’s going on?

Most of the responsibility for this phenomenon seems to lie with CIS’s executive director John Tirman. He is after all author of the 2006 book, 100 Ways the United States is Screwing Up the World, which includes a forward by Tirman’s mentor, historian Howard Zinn. The text is a manic screed that blames the U.S. for “nourishing the seeds of Islamic Militancy (#12), the existence of Wal-Mart (#10), and AIPAC (#59). To temper his obvious contempt for the country of his birth, Tirman writes that he’s just holding the U.S. to a higher standard and that of course, other countries cause big problems in the world. But after perusing the text, it becomes apparent that Tirman is profoundly disenchanted with his fellow Americans who keep making such stupid decisions.

The problem is that his book is the type of text Osama Bin Laden would have given his followers in Al Qaeda to incite them into committing acts of terror against Americans and yet the text was written five years after 9/11. It’s simply astonishing.

It leaves us with a question. Exactly what do Tirman and the other organizers of the Starr Forum Lecture series expect to accomplish by bringing in so many anti-Israel speakers? Are they intent on educating their audiences about what’s actually going on in the Middle East or are they just using the Starr Foundation’s assets to promote their own personal vendettas against Israel?

About the Author
Dexter Van Zile is Shillman Research Fellow at the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting and Analysis.
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