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Storms Brew at Georgetown As Jews Complain of ‘intimidation’

November 27, 2002
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Will vitriol or dialogue win out at Georgetown University?

The Washington campus has seen a recent spate of incidents, both polarizing and positive, involving Jewish, Muslim and Arab students and faculty.

Groups representing some of these constituencies — the Jewish Student Association, the Georgetown Israel Alliance, the Muslim Student Association, Students for Middle East Peace and the Young Arab Leadership Alliance — huddled with administration officials Nov. 22 to discuss their differences.

On Monday evening, a Jewish Solidarity Rally was held at the university’s free speech area, Red Square, after a series of incidents put campus Jews on edge.

The event capped eight days that began with a university-sponsored lecture on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by author Norman Finkelstein, who has been criticized as a Holocaust revisionist.

“These, my friends, are the ugly faces of hate and ignorance and they have succeeded in painting themselves blue and gray,” the school’s colors, Dan Spector, president of the school’s Jewish Student Alliance, said at the rally.

Finkelstein’s Nov. 18 talk drew a letter of protest from the Anti-Defamation League.

“Mr. Finkelstein’s lecture was a one-sided program, intended to promote hatred of Israel and perpetuate anti-Semitic stereotypes,” the ADL’s regional director, David Friedman, wrote to the university’s president John DeGoia.

Finkelstein’s appearance was co-sponsored by two university departments — the Georgetown University Program on Justice and Peace and the Center for Contemporary Arab Studies — and a student group, the Young Arab Leadership Alliance.

Finkelstein, the author of books such as “The Holocaust Industry: Reflections on the Exploitation of Jewish Suffering” and “The Rise and Fall of Palestine,” has a history of incendiary statements about Jews, the Holocaust and Israel.

In “The Holocaust Industry,” he argues that Jews have used the murder of millions of Jews in the Holocaust to extort money. Finkelstein also has compared Israel to the Gestapo and has praised the Lebanese terrorist group Hezbollah.

“One can find online similar views of the evil intentions of Israel and the use of the Holocaust as exploitation from Hamas and Islamic Jihad or the National Alliance and the World Church of the Creator,” ADL’s Friedman noted as he was drafting the letter last week. “One is left wondering if it’s the intent of the university to promote views associated with recognized hate groups.”

On Nov. 22, a six-sentence statement issued by DeGoia’s office mentioned campus appearances this year by author Elie Wiesel and philosopher Michael Walzer, but did not address Finkelstein or ADL’s concerns about him.

The statement defended Georgetown’s “strong commitment to inquiry into Jewish civilization and culture” and broached the possibility of a future Center for the Study of Jewish Civilization on campus.

Meanwhile, the American Jewish Committee sent a letter to DeGoia on Nov. 21, denouncing comments made by Georgetown professor Hisham Sharabi while in Lebanon.

“Jews are getting ready to take control of us and the Americans have entered the region to possess the oil resources and redraw the geopolitical map of the Arab world,” Sharabi told students and faculty at Balamand University, according to the Lebanon Daily Star.

“While professor Sharabi is free to say anything he wants, no matter how repugnant and outrageous, Georgetown University is also free and even obliged to make clear that his remarks are viewed as highly offensive to the university community and its leadership,” David Bernstein, the AJCommittee’s Washington area director, wrote to DeGoia.

In a statement released the next day, a university spokeswoman noted the report of Sharabi’s remarks, but said the university had no independent confirmation of his words. The four-sentence statement said the professor did not speak for Georgetown University.

“It’s important that the university realize that its reputation is at stake,” Bernstein said. “We would have liked to have seen a stronger statement condemning the anti-Semitic remarks of Sharabi.”

The protest letters came amid an event typifying the harmonious side of interfaith relations on campus. More than 50 people, including Jews, Muslims, Christians and one Jain, took part in a spirited dinner table discussion of the biblical figure Abraham on Nov. 21.

“People said, ‘When do we do this again?’ ” said Rabbi Harold White, who spoke at the event along with Imam Yahya Hendi and Rev. Chris Steck. “It ended on a positive note.”

White praised the Georgetown community as a “model of interfaith dialogue,” but noted that Mideast politics roil the campus.

In early October, a dialogue between Jews, Muslims and Arab hosted by several campus groups seemed also to ease tensions. Roughly 50 students took part in that activity.

Finkelstein’s two-hour talk last week drew a packed house, according to observers.

“If Israel could do what it wanted, it would have expelled the Palestinians a long time ago,” The Hoya, Georgetown’s campus newspaper, quoted Finkelstein as telling the crowd.

Finkelstein depicted Israel as an evil military regime bent on expelling the largely innocent Palestinian population from the area, The Hoya reported.

“The only crime the Palestinians committed was being born in Palestine,” he was quoted as saying.

Spector of the Jewish Student Alliance spent most of the evening distributing protest leaflets outside, but came inside to listen to a portion of the talk, he said. What he heard left him dismayed.

“Finkelstein asserted that Israel is faced with two options alone: transfer of the Palestinians out of Israeli territory or apartheid,” said Spector, a junior who is studying international policy and security studies. “As you can imagine, supporters of Israel in the audience were revolted because it paints Israel as a monster, a state founded on ignoble principles.”

Samer Oweida, an executive board member for the Young Arab Leadership Alliance, acknowledged Jewish concerns about Finkelstein’s Holocaust views, but said his group co-sponsored the lecture to offer a “non-mainstream, fresh look at the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.”

“While some of what he said was inflammatory, it was not intended to project hatred; it was intended to elucidate facts that are all too often brushed under the rug,” Oweida said, noting the speaker’s charges that Israeli soldiers have targeted Red Crescent ambulances.

Israel Defense Force videos have shown ambulances being used to transport bombs and suspected terrorists.

After the Nov. 22 meeting, Spector said he was “confident the university president supports our efforts to create a peaceful, tolerant campus environment.”

But nothing concrete emerged from the one-and-a-half-hour session, he reported.

At Monday’s rally, one student spoke of being harassed while handing out leaflets during Finkelstein’s speech, being called a “Zionist propagandist” and accused of being “brainwashed by a Holocaust mentality.”

“To them, I was not a person, I was a Jew,” senior Scott Miller said.

Deidre Moskowitz, who participated in a lengthy sing-along after the rally, said recent events had galvanized the school’s Jewish community.

“This is a start,” she said of the rally. It’s “a good beginning to the get the Jewish population aroused and ready to work together for the next semester.

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