After inviting former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to speak about leadership and peace just months after authorizing a brutal invasion of the Gaza Strip, it comes as no surprise that the administration at the University of Chicago welcomes Israeli ambassador Michael Oren with open hands.
At this university in particular, discourse concerning Israel’s occupation of Palestine is typically circumvented or distastefully kept under the radar. Instead, campus administrators feign objective neutrality and, for once afraid to challenge the status quo, make it a point to “show both sides” by presenting students with state-sponsored propaganda that virtually absolves Israel of any regional responsibility.
We saw this firsthand in October 2009 when the University invited Olmert to speak about moral leadership even though he faced indictments for criminal corruption charges. Asked about his idea of a lasting peace, he failed to mention that he had recently called for “disproportionate” assaults against the Palestinian people.
We saw this again earlier in the week when the University invited Oren to solicit American support in his campaign to whitewash Israel’s abuse of Palestinian rights.
Oren is currently on an extended tour of college campuses. His purpose at each campus is to draw parallel’s between U.S. democracy and Israel’s Jewish democracy and to stress the importance of the U.S. as a staunch ally and military financer. Organized by Israel’s Consulate General, his talks are blatant attempts to put Israel in a favorable light without ever considering its policies towards Palestinians under its occupation.
But since the University so deceitfully seeks to promote “rigorous inquiry”, we will cite the U.S. State Department’s annual human rights report on Israel and we will ask questions that, we hope, the student body at least will consider.
“Palestinians were prohibited from driving on most roads in downtown Hebron and from walking on Shuhada Street and other roads in the Old City; however, Israeli settlers were permitted free access on these roads” (p. 96). Oren insists that the West Bank is disputed territory but is there anything to dispute when an entire people are denied of their right to free movement?
“In both the West Bank and Jerusalem, Israeli authorities placed often insurmountable hurdles on Palestinian applicants for construction permits” (p. 95). How can the University promote Oren’s message about democracy for all when housing rights are clearly limited to a select ethnicity?
“On June 13, a[n Israeli] court acquitted three border police officers of charges of aggravated assault for physically abusing Abd Tareq Ahrub, a West Bank resident detained for being in Jerusalem without a permit in 2006” (p. 4). Does this idea of justice resonate at all with the social responsibility the University of Chicago aims to instill in each one of its students?
These are just a few of the human rights violations spelled out quite vividly in the State Department’s report. To Oren, these abuses are nothing more than unavoidable consequences of the peace process. Similarly, by bringing him to campus, the administration at the University of Chicago is being surprisingly transparent in saying that Palestinian rights are, essentially, an afterthought.
How, then, can the University promote the spread of ideas if only one idea is ever presented? How can the University remain silent as Oren transforms the International House into a propaganda playground?
At the present moment, the administration is fixated on the idea that in order to secure a lasting peace, or at least to strive for one, it needs to bring both sides to the podium. This strategy mirrors the contradictory role played by the U.S. in the last dozen or so peace process attempts (the UNESCO fiasco being the most recent). In other words, this strategy fails—not because we shouldn’t believe in hearing both sides of a story, but because one side of this particular story represents justice while the other represents institutionalized racism, international law violations, and a complete abandonment of accountability.
Rejecting Oren’s request to speak at the University is not censorship. Telling Olmert he cannot talk to students about peace and justice while simultaneously advocating for the shelling of civilian zones in Gaza City does not mute the discourse. If anything, the discourse is already plagued by the administration’s inability to distinguish between the spread of ideas and the spread of unsubstantiated lies.
To say it bluntly, this is not an issue over whether or not Oren has a right to speak. This is an issue over whether or not the University will recognize that Oren’s message is more harmful to true justice than it is helpful.
We are living in very dark times when an elite academic institution finds it acceptable to promote the spread of blatant propaganda and to marginalize those with the facts.