It’s a story that is depressingly familiar. A pro-Palestinian speaker is invited to a university. The local Jewish community gets wind of it and protests the speaker as extreme and anti-Semitic. The protest then becomes the story and the pro-Israel community is forced to fend off charges of "stifling" free expression.
So it went this week at the University of New Mexico. Ali Abunimah, a co-founder of the Electronic Intifada blog and a mainstay of the campus speakers circuit, was invited to the University of New Mexico. Abunimah is a supporter of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement as well as the author of "One State."
In a letter, the head of the local Federation and the Hillel director at UNM wrote to the two faculty members whose departments had signed on to the event asking not that Aubinimah be uninvited, but that they withdraw their "sponsorship," which lends a "patina of respectability" to Abunimah’s views. Predictably, the letter leaked, the local paper ran a story (registration required), and Abunimah devoted several posts on his blog to the attempt by the "Israel Lobby" to stifle his freedom of expression.
I arrived at the university an hour before the talk was due to start, identified myself, and within minutes found myself in an empty ballroom with Abunimah. So I asked him: How was it possible to claim the Federation had tried to stifle him when they had never sought to have him disinvited?
He began by rejecting the complaints against him, which he described as "vilification and defamation." Which is all well and good, but immaterial to the question of whether there was an attempted stifling. Remarkably, he gave a little.
"That’s not stifling," he acknowledged. But it was, he maintained, an attempt to secretly pressure the departments, to lower the event’s profile, delegitimize the speaker, and change the subject.
In his lecture, which went on for more than an hour, and in the course of which he abandoned the podium several times to attend to a recalcitrant cellphone which was streaming his remarks over the Internet, Abunimah spent the bulk of his time undermining Israel’s legitimacy. Israeli apartheid, he claimed, was a three-tiered system that systematically discriminates against three classes of Palestinians: Arab citizens of Israel, Palestinian residents of the West Bank and Gaza, and the refugees scattered in camps around the region.
He cited numerous examples of Israel’s supposed war crimes and crimes against humanity which needn’t be rehearsed here. He had an interesting exchange with a courageous Israeli student who struggled with his English against Abunimah, a more than capable speaker who, while born in Washington and educated at Princeton, speaks with a gentle English lilt. He mocked Israel’s banning of chocolate and cumin from Gaza, prompting a woman sitting near me to shake her head in dismay and mutter, "That’s just outrageous." Incredibly, he attacked European Union humanitarian aid to the Palestinians as complicit in the occupation by ameliorating its worst effects. Far better, he implied, that the Palestinians suffer so as to accelerate international outrage.
(UPDATE: Abunimah emailed me to clarify that, in fact, he does NOT support a cutoff of aid to the Palestinians even though he does believe it is prolonging the very thing he wants to end: the occupation. You can see why that might be a little confusing.)
But by far his most savvy rhetorical move was in casting himself as the defender of universal human rights. Israelis oppress the Palestinians, they deny their right to return to their homes in pre-1948 Palestine, they make the residents of Gaza suffer — all this because Palestinians are the wrong color. "For me there is no wrong type of human being," Abunimah said, taking the moral high ground. "There is only one type of human being. And that is the vision we have to work towards."
And the pro-Israel community wonders why it’s getting crushed on campus.
One more thing: Towards the end of his speech, Abunimah held up a copy of the October issue of the New Mexico Jewish Link, the local Federation paper. Inside was a cartoon from the Israeli strip Dry Bones in which Hitler asks Satan if he believes that BDS is a replay of the Nazi program to economically strange the Jews. "Yup," Satan replies. "It has everything but the swastikas."
"This ugly defamation is an insult to those who died in the Holocaust," Abunimah said. "It cheapens their memory. It cheapens their suffering. i would call here tonight on the Jewish Federation of New Mexico to apologize for this despicable defamation against people who are working for peace and justice."
The audience roared its approval.
I happen to know that the two signatories of the letter weren’t in attendance that night, so here’s doing my part for intercultural dialogue. Over to you, Federation.