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More on the “Open-Minded” Critics of Israel

Rabbi Jeffrey Summit and Amy Spitalnick have co-authored a response to my piece “The ‘Open-Minded’ Critics of Israel.” Here is their letter; my own response follows.

To the Editor:

Daniel Halper’s misrepresentations in “The ‘Open-Minded’ Critics of Israel” do a disservice to Tufts Hillel, our active Jewish community, and broad based pro-Israel advocacy and education. In the recent past, Tufts Hillel has sent hundreds of students on Birthright Israel programs and on our own Israel trip “Rebuilding the North,” initiated innovative Israel education series, sponsored iFest (Israel Fest) celebrations that regularly bring more than 700 students to learn about Israel as a vibrant democracy and technological innovator, and hosted scores of pro-Israel speakers on our campus. We wish to clarify three points that Mr. Halper misrepresents in his article.

First, Tufts Hillel never protested Daniel Pipes’s lecture at Tufts. Nearly all of Tufts campus religious groups, Hillel included, joined together to protest the “Islamo-Fascism Week” sponsored by “The Primary Source,” a conservative publication at Tufts. Pipes was the keynote speaker for the week. The peaceful, non-disruptive student-groups “protest” was against the term “Islamo-Fascism,” a term that alienated the moderate Muslim community. The students’ “protest” consisted of holding up signs at Pipes’s lecture, listening respectfully, and asking questions. After the lecture, Pipes was informed that the protest was not against him, and he commented that he too disliked the term “Islamo-Fascism.”

Second, when the Department of Political Science invited Stephen Walt to speak at Tufts, Hillel organized both pre- and post-lecture programming to educate students about the profound problems with his co-authored book The Israel Lobby. Hillel also distributed a range of mainstream critiques and reviews critical of his work, both in print and on our website.

Third, a key purpose of the Pathways program at Tufts has been to foster moderate voices in Muslim, Jewish, Christian dialogue–voices that condemn and decry violence in the name of religion. Mr. Halper criticizes the Pathways program because at one event, out of close to a hundred discussions, programs, and activities, a speaker was invited who in 1999 as an undergraduate was on the staff of a student newspaper in which an article was published that praised Osama bin Laden. While the organizers had no knowledge of Lekovic’s past association, they knew that the organization she works for, MPAC, had been invited to participate in programming by the U.S. government, including the Department of State, The Department of Justice, and the Department of Homeland Security. Lekovic, together with a Mormon woman and a Jewish woman, spoke to a small group of students on a panel on women and faith. After Mr. Halper raised these issues last year and the organizers checked deeper into Lekovic’s background, they found that she had publicly stated that she “abhors” the sentiments expressed in that article.

In dialogue projects, from time to time, we must speak with people with whom we profoundly disagree. Yet over the past two years, students engaged in dialogue have overwhelmingly come forward to condemn violence in the name of religion. We continue to believe that interfaith dialogue is an effective means to build responsible relationships among students on a university campus, an essential component in creating an atmosphere where Jewish students, and all students, can feel safe to express themselves on campus. At a time when anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism are growing threats on certain college campuses, this approach, coupled with strong Israel advocacy, education, student travel to Israel, and post trip programming, has created an atmosphere where Jewish students can express vibrant support for Israel on the Tufts campus. Misrepresentations such as Mr. Halper’s are not helpful as we advance our pro-Israel advocacy at Tufts.

Rabbi Jeffrey Summit, Executive Director, Tufts Hillel
Amy Spitalnick, Hillel Student President, academic year 2007-08

Rabbi Jeffrey Summit and Amy Spitalnick accuse me of misrepresenting the reception that Tufts Hillel accorded to three visiting speakers on campus. Thus, they assert that Hillel “never protested Daniel Pipes’s lecture at Tufts”; rather, Hillel’s objection was to the subject Pipes was invited to address–namely, “Islamo-Fascism.” As they see it, this term “alienated the moderate Muslim community.”

In fact, Hillel members and leaders (including Amy Spitalnick) organized a sit-in during Pipes’s talk and held signs proclaiming “This Is a Hate-Free Campus.” One could be forgiven for concluding that their protest was directed at Pipes. In any case, Rabbi Summit and Miss Spitalnick do not explain what is “alienating” about the term “Islamo-Fascism,” which unambiguously refers to extremists who justify terror in the name of Islam and distinguishes them from their moderate coreligionists. Nor do they explain why fear of alienation is grounds for protesting open inquiry concerning an important political phenomenon of our time.

It was in a much greater spirit of tolerance that Hillel approached the campus visit of Stephen Walt, co-author of the notorious book about the “Israel Lobby.” No Hillel-sponsored protest or placard-bearing students disturbed his talk. In an op-ed in the campus daily, Miss Spitalnick did criticize some of Walt’s arguments, but she also made it clear that “we have a great deal of respect for Walt as a preeminent scholar of international relations” and that “the implications of [his] opinion are valuable to the American political conversation.” No such expression of respect was extended to Pipes, a scholar of comparable if not greater stature.

A similarly respectful reception was given to Edina Lekovic. Even if the Hillel organizers of her talk were unaware of her past association with a journal professing admiration for Osama bin Laden, and even if she has repudiated any such sentiment, they must have known that the group she currently represents endorses violence against Israel. Yet here, too, the imperative of open dialogue evidently trumped any thought of protest.

I stand by my argument that Tufts Hillel has been drawn into embracing one standard for Israel’s critics and another for its supporters.

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