Featured Post

SU and Al-Quds’ free speech farce

Protesting the killing of an Islamic Jihad terrorist is one thing, a Nazi-style demonstration is another

Never have I been more proud of my university! Today, I found out that my school, Syracuse University (SU), became the second U.S. institution of higher learning to sever its ties with Al-Quds University over a Nazi-glorifying rally held on the university’s campus on November 5.

SU’s decision came three days after Brandeis suspended its own partnership with Al-Quds, but I had no idea that my university was keeping track of the recent events in East Jerusalem, let alone that the administration was also considering a suspension of our ties with Al-Quds. I learned about it only after a posting to SU’s Middle Eastern Studies Program’s listserv, which copied a Jerusalem Post report by Henry Rome, “Syracuse Follows Brandeis in Halting Ties with Al-Quds”.

So far, there has been no official statement from the SU administration. Granted, the university is now virtually shut down for Thanksgiving, but we were all around last week when we could have been invited to take part in these significant deliberations. Certainly faculty like me, who spearheaded the effort to solidify my campus’ connection with Al-Quds four years ago.

In 2008, when I arrived at Syracuse University’s Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs, one of the premier public policy schools in the United States, I was delighted to find an active and growing partnership between my university and the Interdisciplinary Center (IDC) in Herzliya. SU had been sending students to the IDC’s Institute for Counterterrorism (ICT) for some years and in exchange we were hosting a group of IDC students every September. Their students were learning a lot about the makings of good democratic governance; our students were learning a lot about Islamic radicalism in the Middle East.

I thought a corrective was in order. I wanted SU students to meet Palestinian academics and I recommended reaching out to Al-Quds. While living in Israel in the 1980s, I had heard Sari Nusseibeh speak and was impressed then by his public support of peace and dialogue. I knew about the Al-Quds-Brandeis connection too and that Al-Quds was about the only Palestinian university that was still involved in cooperative programming with Israeli universities. I thought SU should be supporting Nusseibeh and I was delighted to make the shiduch.

Since then, we have had four groups of graduate students—mostly Law School students and public policy majors—participate in summer programs at the IDC and Al-Quds. Our students love the experience and the Al-Quds faculty have been terrific—warm and gracious hosts to our students. To be sure, they are all critical of Israel and its policies, yet strongly advocate for Israeli-Palestinian reconciliation. They have presented another face of the Palestinians, one that complements, albeit not one that completely negates, the viewpoint offered at the IDC.

After being the match-maker for my university and Al-Quds, I was shocked to learn about the November 5 Islamic Jihad-sponsored demonstration on the Palestinian campus. Protesting the extra-judicial killing of a terrorist is one thing and is certainly protected free speech. I have no problem with Al-Quds students opposing the killing of Islamic Jihad’s Muhammed Aazi (Aazi was among the planners of last year’s Tel Aviv bus bombing; he was killed by the IDF in a shoot-out in late October and the November 5 event was apparently meant to both commemorate Aazi, whose parents had been invited, and condemn the manner in which he was killed).

On the SU campus we have had students and faculty publically condemn extra-judicial killings, including the use of drones. Faculty and students even publically voiced dissent to the assassination of Osama bin Laden. Ours is a campus where nonviolent conflict resolution has deep roots. But it’s quite another thing for Al-Quds students to dress up like the SS and raise their arms in Nazi-style salutes. That is when free speech crosses the line into hate speech.

Kudos to Brandeis President Frederick Lawrence for insisting that Nusseibeh issue an Arabic and English condemnation of the event. Lawrence made the right call. While promoting academic freedom and free speech, university professors—and especially university presidents—need to also exercise their own free speech by denouncing stunts like the November 5 rally for what they are: hate-driven, ugly and unacceptable attacks on the university’s values.

It is hard to fathom Nusseibeh’s first public statement on the matter—a speech that Brandeis found unacceptable. Rather than publically declaring the event unconscionable and suspending the students involved, Nusseibeh turned his ire on the Israeli reporters who broke the story. Calling them “Jewish extremists” who were “vilifying” his campus (they are actually self-identified Leftists), Nusseibeh claimed that condemning this Nazi-glorifying event would merely strengthen the BDS campaign and embolden the Palestinian anti-normalizers. Nusseibeh has tried to walk all this back in subsequent statements, but the damage has already been done.

He could have used the Nazi-style demonstration on his campus as a teachable moment—an opportunity to tell his students that the worst forms of anti-Israelism, like those that involve equating Israelis with Nazis, are the types of bigotry that are beyond the limits of a legitimate debate. Instead, Nusseibeh managed to trivialize the 3000 year-old Jewish attachment to the Land of Israel by saying that without Nazi ideology “there would not have been the massacre of the Jewish people in Europe; without the massacre, there would not have been the enduring Palestinian catastrophe”.

Here Nusseibeh gives voice to the ultimate problem and the reason that peace remains elusive: the Palestinians still think that Israel is an unfair ‘price’ that they alone paid for the Holocaust. There remains a weird inability for the Palestinians, even someone as thoughtful and ‘moderate’ as Nusseibeh, to acknowledge that Israel is the legitimate homeland of the Jewish people.

At Syracuse University, our goal is to provide a balanced discussion on Israel and the Middle East. Even as we support a multi-faceted examination of Israel and critically engage Israeli policies, there are no apartheid weeks or staging of mock checkpoints; no attempts to boycott Israeli speakers; no move to divest. Instead, we foster such a positive atmosphere that recently two SU undergrads, a Jewish-American and an American-Palestinian, co-founded an Israeli-Palestinian student dialogue group. Given our mission to offer a rich educational experience that exposes students to multiple perspectives about Israel and to protect all our students from harassment, there is no way we could maintain our relationship with Al-Quds under the current circumstances.

I would have liked to have known about my university’s plans to suspend its ties with Al-Quds University before the decision was made. It would have been nice to learn about it from my fellow colleagues and not from a Jerusalem Post article. And a wider group of SU faculty, including some who would have no doubt advocated for a longer wait-and-see period before severing the relationship, should have been consulted. But while the decision-making process was less than ideal, I believe that Syracuse University made the right move. In refusing to stand up to bigotry and anti-Semitism, from the get-go and in no uncertain terms, Mr. Nusseibeh forfeited, at least for the time being, the right of his university to interact with mine.

About the Author
Miriam F. Elman teaches and writes on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict from her hometown in New York. She is a political scientist and security studies specialist at the Maxwell School of Syracuse University.