Tuesday, November 02, 2010
UNM Jews Upset Over Palestinian Speaker
By James Monteleone
Journal Staff Writer
Local Jewish groups are asking two University of New Mexico departments to disassociate themselves from a speech by a Palestinian-American author who they say is anti-Semitic and who could have a "chilling" effect on Jewish students and faculty.
Heads of the American Studies and Peace Studies departments co-hosting the event, however, say that what is "chilling'" is the attempt to stifle academic debate at UNM by confusing criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism.
Ali Abunimah, an author and former University of Chicago researcher who believes in a single state for Israelis and Palestinians, is scheduled to address the Middle East conflict at UNM on Sunday.
In a private letter describing Abunimah as hateful and anti-Israel, the Jewish Federation of New Mexico and the Hillel at UNM asked the departments to "reconsider your ... presentation of Ali Abunimah."
Although no university money is paying for the talk, the American Studies and Peace Studies departments are presenting it. The event is sponsored by UNM student groups, including Coalition for Peace and Justice in the Middle East and Students Organizing Actions for Peace.
"The department's endorsement sends a chilling message to the Jewish students and faculty of this public institution that the legitimacy of Israel within your department is questioned," the letter states.
American Studies Head Alex Lubin, who is Jewish, said he was disappointed that the groups labeled a political conversation hosted on a university campus as anti-Semitism.
" I understood that it was a controversial topic, but it's particularly chilling, I think, when groups that publicly represent Jews accuse people of being anti-Semites merely for their critique of Israel," said Lubin.
Les Field, head of Peace Studies, said the presentation does not have the endorsement of either department.
"The fact that we want to hear what he (Abunimah) has to say doesn't mean we endorse his position or that we don't endorse his position," said Field, who also is Jewish. "...We want to hear what he has to say. We want to bring him here. I have read his material, his blogs, his book. I don't consider him an anti-Semite."
Sam Sokolove, executive director of the Jewish Federation who signed the letter, said Abunimah represents a hate movement that is not interested in dialogue. He compared a Jewish conversation with Abunimah to a debate between the NAACP and the Ku Klux Klan.
"We absolutely affirm his right to speak anywhere he chooses to speak. What we were concerned with was the idea that two departments within the university were offering their sanction to his presentation," he said Monday.
Abunimah, in an interview with the Journal, said the opposition isn't a surprise. The letter-writing campaign is an attempt to stop the conversation before it occurs because the debate is one critics don't win, he said.
"I'm against apartheid in Israel. I'm against discrimination. I'm for equal rights for everyone, I say that every time I speak. ... I believe Israeli Jews and Palestinians have a right to live in peace, tranquility and equality, just like Americans do," he said. "But that's a very threatening message for people who believe there should be a system where one group of people has more rights than another. I'm assuming that's why they don't want me to be there and speak."
Abunimah was invited by UNM Coalition for Peace and Justice in the Middle East using donated money to host his appearance. Co-founder Guida Leicester said the group sought to host Abunimah because of the open dialogue he allows when he speaks.