A controversy over free-speech restrictions on college campuses continues to grow after Jewish student leaders at Brown University canceled an appearance by a pro-Israel speaker because a Muslim chaplain called her controversial. Jewish students had asked the student board of Brown’s chapter of Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life to co-sponsor a Nov. 30 speech by Nonie Darwish, an Arab who had become pro-Israel and author of “Now They Call Me Infidel: Why I Renounced Jihad for America, Israel, and the War on Terror.”
Earlier this month, however, after tentatively agreeing to sponsor the event, the board nixed the event after Brown’s Muslim chaplain, Rumee Ahmed, raised objections.
Born in Cairo and raised in Gaza, Darwish is the daughter of an Egyptian intelligence officer killed by Israeli soldiers. She says she was indoctrinated from childhood to hate Israel but changed her views after befriending Jews who yearned for peace and after her brother’s life was saved by Jewish doctors at Jerusalem’s Hadassah Hospital. She since has rejected Islam and today attends an evangelical church.
The California-based Darwish now speaks around the United States on the difficulties women face under Islam and on the Muslim jihad against Israel.
According to Serena Eisenberg, director of Brown’s Hillel, Jewish students wanted to bring Darwish to speak about rights in the Middle East, and by default in Israel. They enlisted Hillel and Brown’s Sarah Doyle Women’s Center as sponsors.
But Ahmed reportedly said Darwish’s views were offensive to Muslims, who Ahmed claims live in fear at the university. Then “the Muslim Students Association and the Muslim chaplain and the Chaplain’s Office expressed concern about bringing Nonie to campus, so the women’s group withdrew their sponsorship,” Eisenberg told JTA on Monday.
Neither Ahmed nor Gail Cohee, director of the Women’s Center, would return phone calls from JTA.
Once the Women’s Center withdrew its sponsorship, the Hillel students considered whether they wanted to be the lone sponsors of an event that could prove controversial, Eisenberg said.
According to Yael Richardson, the Hillel chapter’s student president, the board was lobbied by Ahmed and via e-mail by Brown’s head chaplain, the Rev. Janet Cooper Nelson.
Cooper Nelson “told us to think about the implications of what this would do with our religious communities on campus,” Richardson said. “She encouraged us to think carefully about whether we wanted to fund the event.”
After researching Darwish’s writings and past statements, the five members of the board decided against bringing her to campus so as not to jeopardize their “lovely” relationship with Muslim counterparts, Richardson said. Eisenberg said there also were scheduling issues.
Richardson said she’s proud of the decision, which earned Hillel a scathing rebuke from the New York Post and led to the resignation of one student Hillel official.
In an e-mail message to Jewish student leaders obtained by JTA, Eisenberg urged students to consider whether the event was “of such benefit as to outweigh the rifts we are certain to cause in the Muslim community and perhaps among Jewish students and others on campus who question whether Hillel should be bring [sic] Arab speakers to campus who speak poorly of Islam.”
But she says she wanted the decision to come directly from the students.
“Did the Muslim Students Association and the administration exert some influence? Yes,” Eisenberg said. “Did our board cave? No. They made a thoughtful decision about constructive dialogue and about moving forward.”
However, the cancellation comes after Brown’s Office of the Chaplains and Religious Life supported Palestinian Solidarity Week earlier this month “over my objections,” Eisenberg said.
That event was sponsored by the parents of Rachel Corrie, an American student and pro-Palestinian volunteer who was run over and killed as she tried to stop an Israeli bulldozer from searching for arms-smuggling tunnels in the Gaza Strip. Since her death in 2003, Corrie has become an icon for pro-Palestinian groups on college campuses such as the International Solidarity Movement.
Cooper Nelson, the head chaplain, did not return repeated calls from JTA.
Brown officials did offer a response, and suggested that Darwish may speak at the university at some point. “The Brown University community values the contributions of affiliated student religious groups and supports open discussion among people of all faiths and religious beliefs. Administrative officials at Brown are working with student groups to discuss alternative ideas for sponsoring a Nonie Darwish presentation on campus,” Brown’s vice president for public affairs and university relations, Michael Chapman, said in a release.
The decision to cancel the Darwish event angered several pro-Israel students involved in planning it and prompted Yoni Bedine, a Brown student and Hillel staff member responsible for Israel programming, to resign.
“I think the failure here was a failure of Jewish leadership,” he told JTA. “I think it sends a really bad message to potential future Jewish leaders. I think it was a catastrophic decision in terms of the precedents that it sets.”
Darwish is the latest in a series of controversial speakers on the Middle East who have had their appearances canceled amid complaints from opposition groups.
Recently Columbia University’s 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.”
Last month, Tony Judt, a New York University academic who advocates replacing Israel with a binational state of Arabs and Jews, had an appearance canceled at the Polish Consulate in New York following phone calls from two prominent Jewish leaders.
The following week, a French Embassy office in New York scrapped a party in honor of author Carmen Callil after complaints that she equated Jewish suffering under France’s Vichy government with Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians.
In those cases, questions raised by Jewish opponents led the hosts to cancel the events. But at Brown, the decision was taken by Jewish students themselves, apparently out of concern that the speaker could harm Muslim-Jewish dialogue.
Darwish denied that she was controversial, and her Brown supporters say they carefully vetted her writings to ensure there was nothing inflammatory.
“I never speak against the Koran, I speak against terrorism,” Darwish said. “Books don’t commit terrorism, people do.”
She has had only one other speaking engagement canceled because of fears of controversy, said Darwish, who claims there’s a concerted campaign of intimidation aimed at Muslims who speak out about their own culture.
“Any Arab who speaks differently from the status quo is immediately just branded as traitor, and they want to shut us up,” she told JTA. “We left the Middle East thinking we’re coming to America, our freedom of speech is protected. And then the radicals follow us here and shut us up.”
Bedine insists he wanted Darwish’s talk to be constructive. But others say the sensitivity argument is being carried too far — and often is applied in only one direction. Bedine says he wouldn’t have dreamed of asking Muslim students to cancel speakers at Palestinian Solidarity Week, though Jewish students found some of them controversial.
“We’re here to be challenged and hear the full spectrum of views,” Bedine said. “In free speech, toes get stepped on.”
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.