Commentary Magazine


Israel's “Open-Minded” Critics

Anti-Zionist sentiment on college campuses is widespread—and in some of the most unlikely places.

In October 2007, Middle East scholar Daniel Pipes spoke at my school, Tufts University in Medford, Massachusetts. A strong supporter of Israel and an equally strong opponent of radical Islam, Pipes has a Ph.D. in Islamic Studies from Harvard and was a former professor at that institution. He is one of the few people in the United States academically qualified to speak about the rise of radical Islam and certainly well worth listening to whether or not one agrees with his conclusions. I assumed students would protest, and they did. But it was disturbing, indeed shocking, to discover that the protest against Pipes was cosponsored by Tufts Hillel, my school’s branch of the nation’s largest Jewish campus organization. Why did Hillel join in a protest against a speaker who came to talk about the dangers of radical Islam and the threat it poses to Israel and other nations? Hillel’s statement of purpose proclaims the certainty of “support [for] Israel and global Jewish peoplehood.” How could Tufts Hillel try to stifle Pipes’s message?

Tufts Hillel was protesting Pipes in large measure as a result of its participation in a program called “Pathways.” Funded by a $1.6 million dollar grant from the Department of Homeland Security, “Pathways” is intended to be fostering interfaith dialogue at Tufts. The presumption is that dialogue will increase mutual understanding, and that mutual understanding will help students respect each other and reduce the likelihood of violence. A noble goal, to be sure. So, in order to maintain the relationship Hillel thought it had established with Muslims on campus through Pathways, the Hillel students joined in the condemnation and protest of Pipes. Ironically, Pipes came to Tufts to ask moderate Muslims to distance themselves from the radical Islamists. Ironically, too, the radicals were able to co-opt Jewish students to their view.

Alas, this would not be the only time “Pathways” advanced an Islamist agenda. The next month, Pathways organized a forum about women’s roles in religion, and its leaders brought in Edina Lekovic to represent the Muslim view. Lekovic, currently the Communications Director for the Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC), is a former managing editor of Al-Talib, a Muslim student publication at UCLA. And she was on the masthead when it published an editorial—signed by the Al-Talib staff—praising and defending Osama bin Laden. The editorial stated, “When we hear someone refer to the great Mujahid, Osama bin Laden, as a ‘terrorist,’ we should defend our brother and refer to him as a freedom fighter; someone who has forsaken wealth and power to fight in Allah’s cause and speak out against oppressors. We take these stances only to please Allah.” Lekovic initially denied any participating in Al-Talib when she was asked about this editorial on national television. But she has more recently admitted her involvement—claiming, however, that her position was insignificant, even though it was listed as second highest on the masthead and it remained on the masthead for the next three years.

When I asked Rabbi Jeffrey Summit, Tufts Hillel’s Rabbi and Executive Director, why his Pathways program co-sponsored someone like Lekovic, I was first told that he had no knowledge of her previous activities, and I was later told that she has changed her views and now even endorses a two state solution for Israel, as the web site of the Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC) would show me.

Here is what the website shows me: MPAC does favor a two state solution—one totally Palestinian state on the West Bank, and a second state in what is now Israel whose current population would become a minority in a sea of millions of “returning” Palestinians. An MPAC policy paper on its website states, “MPAC recognizes, based on the Geneva Convention, the right of occupied people to resist occupation and applies this same principle to the Palestinians. In short, the Palestinians have the moral and legal right to resist the Israeli occupation and MPAC supports that right.” It’s clear that neither Lekovic nor the organization she represents could be a party to the sort of dialogue envisioned in the founding of Pathways. Sadly, Tufts Hillel remains under the illusion that it is engaged in real dialogue.

It is considered both a Jewish and an academic virtue that persons should be “open-minded.” I agree that open-mindedness is a sign of a thinking human being—an age-old aspiration held by many universities, Tufts among them. The problem is, many Jews and academics alike are failing to live up to this virtue.

I am loosely defining “open-mindedness” as the ability to entertain seriously a spectrum of ideas. “Open-mindedness” on college campuses today, specifically in relation to Jewish college students, often means something quite different: The ability to speak out against one’s own upbringing or to speak out against the beliefs that a stranger might expect one to hold. The Jewish student assumes that others think he heartily, perhaps even blindly, accepts the state of Israel, and all of her actions. In order to combat this supposed expectation, a Jew cannot be a staunch supporter of the “Jewish state” and an open-minded person as the term is currently defined. For most, this leads to a particular distance from Judaism, in general, and the State of Israel, in particular. Others go even further: They think they must do what they can not only to praise the side in opposition to Israel, but must go out of their way to criticize Israel. This is the only way, I believe, many think they can be viewed as fair-minded and independent thinkers.

All the while, this “open-minded” Jew fails to hold others to the same standard that he holds himself. He does not demand that the Muslim Student Association, a notoriously anti-Zionist organization (and an organization that famously has strong ties to terrorists), criticize Arab and Muslim states for their transgressions. Instead, he is “open-minded” enough to acknowledge the validity of their viewpoints.

Take for instance the tale of a recent graduate of Tufts by the name of Ali Omar, a member of Fatah, who proudly displays pictures of himself carrying an AK-47 and wearing a Fatah uniform on his facebook.com page. Omar was said to be very close to Yassir Arafat. Obviously Tufts didn’t find it problematic for him to pursue a graduate degree from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy in Security Studies, but I heard not a peep from anybody in the student body—some students even praised the university’s diversity, citing his attendance as an example.

And when Stephen Walt came to Tufts to speak about his then-recently published book, The Israel Lobby, the same people who actively protested Daniel Pipes’s visit to campus (and who additionally sat silent through the Ali Omar scandal) quietly sat through his lecture without implying with bright pink signs—the kind of signs they used to protest Pipes’s lecture—that the lecturer was a hate-monger. To be fair, two students (one, the then-student president of Hillel) did write an op-ed in opposition to Walt’s position. It was the most polite rebuttal imaginable. They first stated that “we have a great deal of respect for Walt as a preeminent scholar of international relations” and they went to say that “the implications of [his] opinion are valuable to the American political conversation.” In fact, their biggest contention was that Walt didn’t define his terms properly in his book.

Complacency and moral equivocation are the best terms to describe many if not most Jewish students on campus these days. What allows a Jew not to stand behind the state of Israel—this so called “open-mindedness”—translates to nothing more than an oversight of, or lack of concern for, justice. These who indulge in this self-satisfying attitude are not rejecting Israel on moral grounds. They are not concerned with assessing topics based on what is wrong and what is right; their foremost concern is to appear “open-minded.” This is what allows them to ignore not only Zionist principles but elementary principles of human rights. After all, to follow their own logic, if Palestinians have a right to a state, then do not Jews also have a right to a state? Do we really need to insist to Jews that Jews, too, have a right to live and a right to live freely?

To judge by the infuriating state of play at Tufts, the answer is “yes”—and that is a fact frightening in its implication.

About the Author

Daniel Halper is an intern at COMMENTARY.




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