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Swastika flag and name-calling mar Gaza panel

Gaza panel organizer: Altercation and offensive flag distract from the real political debate

Photo: Shahzad Ahsan/The Chicago Maroon
Iah Pillsbury, a third-year in the College, questions activist Richard Ledford about the meaning of the protest flag he displayed in Mandel Hall at last Friday’s “Crisis in Gaza” panel. Ledford was asked to remove the sign by Student Activities Director Sharlene Holly.

Some students were troubled by incidents that preceded a panel last Thursday on the Gaza conflict. The talk, entitled “Crisis in Gaza: the U.S., Israel, and Palestine,” featured former DePaul professor Norman Finkelstein; writer Ali Abunimah; and professor John Mearsheimer, co-author of The Israel Lobby, a controversial critique on Israeli–U.S. politics.

A middle-aged man not affiliated with the University hung a flag decorated with a Star of David, crosses, and a swastika on the balcony in Mandel Hall. The man was asked to remove it by Director of Student Activities Sharlene Holly, and he did so, carrying it away and leaving before the event began.

In an unrelated incident, a self-identified Israel supporter was called a Nazi by a man standing in line, prompting the supporter to knock the man’s glasses off, according to a University of Chicago Police Department (UCPD) report. UCPD officers escorted the supporter out of the Reynolds Club.

A member of the Muslim Student Association (MSA), a group that helped organize the panel event, who asked that his name be withheld, said that this incident was peripheral, was resolved swiftly and immediately, and did not detract from the tone of an event largely received as a successful informational forum for scholarly discourse.

Holly said the banner was not removed because of its message, but because its size presented a safety hazard.

“UCPD likes us not to allow large scale signage,” Holly said. “If there were to be any immediate crowd movement or there was a fire, they’re unsafe. It was brought to my attention because of its content, but that’s not why I asked him to take it down.”

The MSA, the Center for Middle Eastern Studies (CMES) and the student chapter of Amnesty International co-sponsored the event. It was primarily organized by Ali Al-Arian, a first-year in the college who said he is not affiliated with those organizations.

The event’s purpose was to “discuss the reasoning and ramifications of the Israeli bombardment and invasion of Gaza,” according to Al-Arian.

“The mainstream U.S. media hasn’t exactly been truthful in its reports, so I wanted to bring three distinguished scholars to speak about it,” he said. “Everything they presented was backed by facts.”

Although Al-Arian said he had heard rumors about the flag and name-calling, he did not observe either incident himself.

“The event was about so much more, and in my opinion these are distractions… from what the real issues are,” he said.

“I’m sure the students who are complaining about these issues didn’t really agree with the topic of the event,” he added. “And they’re just trying to find an excuse.”

Hila Mehr, president of Chicago Friends of Israel, said panel organizers told her “they would do a very good job [with] security and making sure that the event wouldn’t get out of hand. I think that a lot of students were concerned about the event and made that clear to officials,” she said.

Mehr said she thought the panel was unbalanced, but added, “I want to stress that I didn’t think the event was anti-Semitic itself. But I did think some of the incidents that occurred there were.”

A representative from CMES was not available to comment.

Students who attended found the events to be a minor distraction from an otherwise successful lecture.

“I personally found [the flag] offensive and inappropriate,” said Danya Lagos, a first-year in the college who attended the discussion. “I believe the University was correct in making him put it away.”

Fourth-year Justine Kentla also noticed the man with the American flag outlined in the shape of a swastika. “I thought that was a little bit strange, but other than that, I didn’t feel that the event was biased at all. Very informative,” he said. “I think I learned a lot more about the issue than just from watching CNN or reading the news.”

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