Amid an outburst of heckling, the Palestinian Authority’s planning minister, Nabil Sha’ath, received an honorary doctor of law degree from the University of Pennsylvania at the school’s commencement this week.
The university referred to Sha’ath, an alumnus, as a “peacemaker” and a architect of the peace accords.
But a group of about 35 Jewish protesters, led by Zionist Organization of America President Morton Klein and activist Rabbi Avi Weiss, charged that Sha’ath had supported terrorism and is undeserving of the honor.
“I think this is a terrible affront to the Jewish community,” Weiss said.
“Could you imagine if the university decided to honor an apartheid leader with an honorary degree?” he said outside the commencement.
“When you grant an honorary degree to a man like Sha’ath, who was human blood dripping from hi hands, you are sending a message that encourages and emboldens terrorism around the world.”
Weiss is president of the Riverdale, N.Y.-based Coalition for Jewish Concerns- AMCHA. His group handed our pamphlets and bore placards outside Franklin field, site of Tuesday’s commencement ceremonies.
Penn freshman David crystal, 18, of New York, said he came to the commencement to register his protest.
“I have a lot of pride in being Jewish,” said Crystal, explaining why he carried aloft an anti-Sha’ath sign.
During Sha’ath’s introduction by university President Judith Rodin, small pockets of hecklers broke out with cries condemning Sha’ath.
“Sha’ath is a terrorist,” screamed some, while others shouted, “Shame on Penn – Sha’ath advocates terrorism.”
Sha’ath did not speak at the program, but the university students, including several thousand degree recipients, faculty and parents erupted into loud applause after the honorary degree citation was read.
“It wasn’t the place or time” for heckling, said one graduating senior.
The university insists that Sha’ath is a moderate who advocates peace.
The citation, read aloud by Rodin, praises the Palestinian leader as “an architect of the Middle East peace accords” who “continues to wage the fight for peace in the Middle East with words, not weapons.
A week earlier, the ZOA took Penn to task for having called Sha’ath a planning minister for “Palestine.”
The university, through its spokesperson and its president, later said the reference to Palestine was a mistake.
While the citation read at commencement omitted the word “Palestine,” the printed program and the university’s site on the Internet’s World Wide Web used the phrase. The program and the site were prepared in advance and could not be readily corrected.
Barbara Stevens, the university’s vice president and secretary, wrote in a letter to Klein that “our error was in referring to Dr. Sha’ath as `the minister of planning and economic cooperation of Palestine.’ You are right. There is no such country as `Palestine.’ The university regrets its error and will immediately make the necessary correction.”
Stevens’ letter, and another from Rodin, argued that Sha’ath, who holds an master’s and a doctorate from the Wharton business school, has been a prime mover in the Mideast peace process.
Brandishing articles from The Jerusalem Post, Klein and other maintained that Sha’ath has threatened armed conflict with Israel if Jerusalem does not agree to his demands and has expressed solidarity with the Hamas movement.
Sha’ath could not be reached for comment.