OP-EDS

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October 20, 2009

The importance of open dialogue

Olmert was denied respect afforded to other controversial speakers.

Ali Abunimah, the founder of electronicintifada.net, is a prominent pro-Palestine media activist and lecturer in the Chicago area. He has been invited to speak at the University of Chicago a number of times, as recently as this past January in a now infamous panel criticizing Israel’s Operation Cast Lead against Hamas, along with professors John Mearsheimer and Norman Finkelstein.

At that time, many Israel supporters sat quietly and respectfully in the audience and prepared tough questions for the speakers when the question-and-answer session of the forum began. Emotions ran high on both sides, but Israel supporters chose not to create a spectacle.

It came to us as a great surprise that Abunimah was none other than the first heckler to be removed for disrupting former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert at the lecture in Mandel Hall sponsored by the Harris School last Thursday. It is so unfortunate that Abunimah, a U of C graduate himself, could not afford others the same respect given to him.

We believe that making progress on an issue as tough and thorny as the Israeli–Palestinian conflict often means listening to people we find factually wrong or morally despicable. Congregants at KAM Isaiah Israel, an avowedly pro-Israel reform Jewish synagogue in Hyde Park, invited Abunimah to speak to them earlier this month on October 4. Police weren’t needed to remove disruptive audience members.

The truth is that Olmert was not greeted with any great fanfare or enthusiasm from Israel supporters, despite being a former head of state, namely because he was unpopular during his tenure and is being tried for corruption. Many in the audience, however, still wished he had been given the opportunity to be heard out so that his legacy could be debated, whether good or bad.

But at least 25 audience members had no interest in hearing Olmert out, or affording him any degree of civility. Instead, it became clear to the audience that these 25 protestors had embarked upon a strategy of disrupting the speaker and stealing the spotlight for the Free Palestine movement. It took Olmert 90 minutes to finish a 20-minute set of remarks, as one by one each of these audience members stood up to make a personal declaration before police officers removed them from the audience.

It may bring some consolation to those upset by this egregious violation of the marketplace of ideas that only some of the protestors were U of C students. But this begs the University administration to revisit its policy on open lecture events.

The University of Chicago should be a great place to be Jewish and a great place to be Muslim. It should be a great place to advocate for Israel’s security and a great place to promote awareness of Palestinian suffering. But this great place only exists if we build a marketplace that affords respect and civility for all views and elevates the better ones through superior reasoning instead of the loudest megaphone.

Noah Moskowitz is a second-year in the College majoring in music. Meredyth Richards graduated from the College in 2008 with a degree in history and religious studies and is currently a graduate student–at–large in the Graham School. Lee Solomon graduated from the College in 2008 with a degree in political science.