NEW YORK, Oct. 17 (JTA) — Columbia University’s recent decision to limit attendance at a controversial lecture on the Arab-Israeli conflict is the latest in a string of flaps concerning free speech and the Middle East that have led to claims that debate is being stifled. The university chaplain’s office revoked as many as 115 invitations hours before a speech by Walid Shoebat, a former PLO terrorist turned evangelical Christian and author of the book, “Why I Left Jihad.” Shoebat went on to address a group of some 150 students and 20 outside guests selected by the Columbia University College Republicans, the student group that organized the event. The university says Shoebat’s appearance was not scheduled as a public event. The Columbia incident comes on the heels of the Polish Consulate in New York’s cancellation of an Oct. 3 speech by Tony Judt, a New York University historian and frequent critic of Israel, following phone calls from two prominent Jewish groups. The following week, a French Embassy office in New York scrapped a party in honor of Australian author Carmen Callil after complaints that she equated Jewish suffering under the Vichy government with Israel’s alleged oppression of Palestinians. These latest controversies may quickly fade, but the questions they raise will not. Coming months after the publication of a paper alleging that a vast “Israel lobby” methodically stifles debate on the Middle East, claims that certain views aren’t getting a fair hearing have taken on a more sinister hue. Israel supporters now are wary of appearing to act in precisely the manner the paper’s authors, scholars Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer, have said they do. “This is the classical conundrum of the Jews when they face defamation,” said Charles Jacobs, president of the pro-Israel David Project Center for Jewish Leadership and a veteran of the Israel-free speech conflict on campus. “If there’s a radical anti Jewish, anti-Israel event, if I take strong action to oppose it, I give them a platform they might not have had. And if I don’t, I allow them to build up their base drop by drop so they will become a major threat.” Judt, who appeared last month on a panel with Mearsheimer to defend the lobby thesis, has wrapped his cause in the banner of free speech, claiming that Jewish groups exerted pressure on the Polish consulate to cancel his appearance. “I think there is a concerted effort to prevent certain kinds of discussion,” Judt said. For Jacobs, the notion that it’s about free speech is a sham. The question isn’t whether one or another speaker can find a venue, he says, but which questions are considered worthy of being debated at the nation’s universities. “The whole thing is agenda-setting,” Jacobs said. “Why are we not talking about whether Islamic fundamentalism is religious apartheid?” In fact, Shoebat, whose talks do focus on the anti-Israel and anti-Semitic indoctrination he received as a youth in Palestinian society, says equally powerful forces are interfering with his ability to be heard. “People with different views than what this school stands for are not allowed at this school,” he told JTA, referring to Columbia. Still, for all the claims of being silenced, neither side really has much trouble getting its argument out: Shoebat’s lecture went on for a slightly smaller audience, while Judt is a published author whose views on Israel have been widely known since a 2003 essay in the New York Review of Books in which he argued for a binational state of Israelis and Palestinians. Callil’s comments were made in a book, “Bad Faith,” which arrived in bookstores last month. Still, all three see themselves as victims of a concerted campaign to suppress unpopular views. Judt lashed out at the Anti-Defamation League and the American Jewish Committee, which placed phone calls to the Polish Consulate before the lecture was canceled; Callil blamed “fundamentalist Jews” for her event being canceled. Both those claims appear overblown. Representatives of the ADL, AJCommittee and the Polish Consulate all agree that no one asked the consulate to cancel the event. Marek Skulimowski, Poland’s deputy consul general, told JTA that the consulate is “not an appropriate place for expressing controversial views, because it means that the Polish government is supporting that. “We would like to avoid uncomfortable situations for Poland,” he said. Shoebat also acknowledges that the Columbia situation was unusual: With the exception of an event at Princeton University that was canceled last December, Shoebat has spoken at numerous U.S. universities without incident. Both Israel’s supporters and critics agree implicitly that part of the issue is venue. Shoebat has been warmly welcomed at synagogues and churches, while Judt acknowledges that there is considerably more sympathy for the Palestinian position in academia than among the broader American public, something he’d like to change. In that, he’s hardly alone: Many agree that for all the bluster about freedom of speech, there’s remarkably little constructive dialogue taking place. “For purposes of Israel education, we need in fact more exposure in the Jewish community to views which challenge our own,” said Steven Cohen, a professor of Jewish social policy at Hebrew Union College in New York. “We need more opportunities for people, especially young people, to explore their views on Israel, some of which many of us may find uncomfortable.”
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Ben Harris is JTA's former associate editor.