Hard questions were asked about speaker’s views toward Israel
Bill Lueders, Isthmus, May 6, 2010
Steve Horn admits he was drawn to bringing in a Palestinian speaker to a campus-based celebration of Israel in part because he “didn’t want to be part of propaganda.”
Horn, a UW-Madison junior majoring in political science and legal studies, is a member of Kavanah, a liberal-leaning student group that operates under the auspices of the UW’s Hillel Foundation. Hillel, serving the campus Jewish community, sponsored a weeklong series of events in mid-April to celebrate Israel’s independence; Horn was a member of the event’s planning committee.
In late March, Horn was approached about sponsoring an appearance by Jad Isaac, a Palestinian academic from Bethlehem. Isaac, whom the Quakers were bringing to Chicago for other events, agreed to come to Madison on April 21 to give a talk at the UW about water rights in the West Bank.
“He’s a well-known scholar on environmental issues in Israel and Palestine,” says Horn. “I was pretty excited.”
Horn approached Hillel about providing a room for the event and using money earmarked for Kavanah to cover some costs. An April 8 email from a Hillel staffer to Horn suggests it’s a done deal, asking what equipment is needed and mentioning an agreement to pay for Isaac’s hotel room.
On April 12, Horn was summoned by Hillel to a “crucial meeting,” where he says he was peppered with questions about Isaac’s views. The next morning, Horn got an email from Inbal Unger, Hillel’s director of Jewish student life, itemizing “the details I would need to know in order to proceed with this program.”
Among these was whether Isaac’s talk would include “any pro-Israel points” and “positive” things about Israel. The email asked: “Does he support Israel’s right to exist?” and “Does he believe in a two-state solution?” It also wondered whether Isaac might feel “unease” to appear as part of a celebration of Israel’s independence.
Horn emailed these questions to his contact with the Quakers in Chicago. “Hillel is freaking out a bit about Jad coming,” he related. “I apologize for their paranoia.” He says the contact tried talking to Hillel, to no avail.
Greg Steinberger, Hillel’s executive director, agrees some “hard questions” were asked about Isaac’s visit but says the main concerns came from other members of Kavanah, who in the end “stepped away from the program Steve planned in their name.”
David Meshoulam, a board member at Kavanah, and group president Eric Salitsky confirm this. “This event was handled poorly from the beginning,” says Meshoulam. “There was a lot of miscommunication.”
In the end, a compromise was struck to have the Quakers sponsor Isaac’s speech and for Kavanah to book a room in the Humanities Building, where he spoke to about 20 people. Hillel also let the group use some of its funds to take Isaac to dinner, but did not pay for his hotel or other event costs.
“I didn’t hear that anyone’s voice was stifled,” says Meshoulam, adding that Kavanah members “feel comfortable in openly criticizing Israel. It’s how we position ourselves within Hillel.” The real concern was whether the speech should be part of the larger celebration: “If Jad had come on a different week, none of this would have happened.”
But Horn, an opinion writer at the Badger Herald, says this and similar dustups show that Hillel “doesn’t allow open and honest dialogue on the Israel-Palestine issue to take place within its walls. Every time a proposal is brought forth that involves a critique of Israeli policies, hysteria unfolds.” He says such concerns don’t arise when speakers are aggressively pro-Israel.
Jennifer Loewenstein, a local activist and faculty associate in the UW’s Middle East Studies Program, agrees, calling Hillel’s list of questions akin to a “loyalty oath.” She finds it quite distasteful: “Here we are on a university campus and academic freedom is bypassed when it comes to this organization [Hillel].”
Steinberger rebuts this, saying Hillel has sponsored speakers critical of Israel. “There’s a very pluralistic debate that happens here,” he says. “We’re wide open to a whole variety of opinions, including critics of Israel.”