Academic departments are known for their fractiousness, so I have never ceased to be amazed at how well my colleagues, despite our varied interests and backgrounds, get along with one another.
I have been especially appreciative of the respectful relationships that we have forged between Muslims and Jews in the Religion Department at Temple University that have made it possible for us not only to work together but to grieve together over the ongoing tragedy in Israel/Palestine.
To cite just one example: when Israel invaded Lebanon in 2006, the ancient family residence of one of my colleagues, Mahmoud Ayoub, was destroyed. His response? He invited my family for dinner at his home in Philadelphia for an evening of food, laughter, lament, and forgiveness.
A year later, the International Institute of Islamic Thought (IIIT) sought to honor Professor Ayoub upon his retirement with an endowed chair named in his honor. As department chair, I worked with the University’s development office to arrange the gift. We verified the group’s legitimacy, and their agreement that they would have no role in selecting the person we would hire. We planned a public event to announce the gift, to coincide with the Jewish celebration of Sukkot and the Muslim observance of Ramadan, in the Sukkah of one of our alumni where we would serve the traditional dates eaten at Iftar to break the daily fast.
But the event was canceled at the last minute, and the gift of the endowed chair was ultimately refused by the University. The ZOA (Zionist Organization of America) had alerted one of Temple’s Board members that IIIT was an organization with “terrorist” associations and our president was intimidated into refusing the gift. A bit of research revealed that the opposition was based on inaccurate information found on one website, discoverthenetworks.org, a product of the David Horowitz Freedom Center. The site is still in operation today.
This experience was my wake-up call that right-wing Jewish organizations are using our campuses to promote a specific political narrative about Israel and Palestine, using threats, intimidation and donor monies to further their goals.
At the beginning of this academic year I saw this network in action again on my campus.
At “Templefest,” (the yearly event that introduces the incoming class to various student groups) one student, Daniel Vessal, approached the Students for Justice in Palestine table several times, proclaiming them terrorists. They asked him to walk away but he persisted. One bystander over-reacted, and slapped Vessal. Campus police arrived, restored peace, and began an investigation. The student who had slapped Vessal issued a public apology, as did SJP.
Within hours, a media maelstrom ensued. Various organizations accused Temple of supporting anti-Semitism, claimed it was not a safe place for Jewish students, and demanded that the student who had hit Vassal be charged with a hate crime and that Students for Justice in Palestine be removed from campus.
It was easy the Jewish and Muslim faculty of the Religion Department to respond, given our ongoing relationships. We issued a statement which said in part,
The Temple Department of Religion has a long history of civil discourse and respect which we believe is the correct approach to working with others, even those with whom we disagree. We must learn to view each other as human beings, not as enemies, and to talk through our conflicts respectfully. We hope that our students, especially those with strong feelings on this topic, will follow that example.
The University’s response was also swift and thorough. The Office of Institutional Diversity stepped in, and is using this event as an opportunity to begin a conversation between the students who were involved.
I was glad to see this event become an opportunity for campus dialogue, but I was disturbed to learn that Daniel Vessal was not a first-year student, but a senior. He is the “campus fellow” for CAMERA (Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America). CAMERA fellows are paid to create pro-Israel activities on campuses, and to challenge “propagandistic assaults on Israel” from groups like Students for Justice in Palestine.
Vessal was just doing his job.
Organizations like CAMERA are part of a well-funded network that sees universities as battlegrounds to pursue the strategic initiative known in Hebrew as hasbara (propaganda or public relations, depending on your point of view).
If their efforts simply involved activities on behalf of Israel, I would have no problem with them; they are entitled to the same free speech rights I demand for myself. But their actions frequently go beyond public relations to campaigns to thwart the speech of those who oppose them.
What I have learned from these experiences is that we need to do our own “discovering of the networks” and expose those groups that want to shut down the kinds of fruitful conversations my department has sought to foster.
That is why I am proud to be part of the founding group of scholars launching the Jewish Voice for Peace Academic Advisory Council, which will bring together faculty and their students from all over the country to defend academic freedom and promote intellectual exploration without fear of punishment.
If open conversation and, ultimately, justice for Israel and Palestine are our goals, there really is no other choice.