Being Selective When Lending our Microphone

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Rashid Khalidi, the Edward Said Professor of Modern Arab Studies at Columbia University, is well-known for his anti-Israel and anti-Zionist positions.  He has characterized Israel as a "racist" state and described it as "basically an apartheid system in creation." In an article in the Chicago Tribune, he wrote, “Israel is a state that has a powerful army with the awful weapons of mass destruction (many supplied by the U.S.) that it has used in cities, villages and refugee camps.”


Khalidi, who once served as a PLO spokesman, dedicated his 1986 book, Under Siege: P.L.O. Decision-Making During the 1982 War, to Yasser Arafat.  He begins the book with a glowing tribute to anti-Israel fighters, individuals whom we would label terrorists.  He has consistently shared anti-Israel vitriol and rhetoric, distorted facts, and even fabricated a quote to paint Israel in a negative light.  He praised a leader of the PLO group that slaughtered Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics, saying, “Abu Iyad will be sorely missed by the Palestinian people to whom he devoted his life.”


The fact that Rashid Khalidi, who has made a career out of passing off propaganda as scholarship, serves as a professor at Columbia University should not surprise you.  After all, Columbia’s commitment to academic freedom led them to host Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the former President of Iran who has publicly denied the Holocaust and called for genocide against Israel countless times.


What you should find incredibly surprising and disturbing is that more than 100 students at one of the most prestigious Modern Orthodox schools in the country have signed an online petition calling on their head of school to allow Rashid Khalidi to speak on their campus.


The petition reads:


“I, an open-minded, intellectually honest, and unprejudiced student of the Ramaz Upper School support The Ramaz Politics Society's (RamPo) event on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict headlined by Columbia Professor Rashid Khalidi. I believe it is critical that Ramaz students are exposed to different perspectives and that open dialogue be encouraged at Ramaz—not limited. I call upon Head of School Mr. Shaviv to realize how important academic equitability is to the Ramaz community and reverse his prohibition on Professor Khalidi's address to RamPo.”


I strongly applaud and congratulate Mr. Paul Shaviv and the leadership of Ramaz for denying the student’s request to invite Khalidi.  Their stand is courageous and commendable and they deserve our support and encouragement in the face of this public petition.


To be clear, I have no objection to inviting divergent voices on the Israeli Palestinian issue, including people advocating on behalf of the Palestinian narrative and perspective.  What I do object to is the foolishness of petitioning for an invitation to someone who praises terrorists who wantonly murder innocent people and supports those who seek the complete abolition of the State of Israel.


I have no doubt that the more than 140 signatories to the petition love Israel and care deeply for the security of the Jewish homeland.  They have an outstanding role model of Israel advocacy and support in their esteemed Principal, Rabbi Haskel Lookstein.  The students' effort is not a reflection on the school, the teachers, or the administration.


To me, it is a sad and sober reflection of how the pursuit of unbridled pluralism and uninhibited academic freedom has penetrated into our Orthodox educational system.  We all know that if our children choose a secular college they will likely engage a campus pregnant with these ideals.  This episode has exposed us to the sad fact that some of our children are already embracing this perspective even while they are yet under our roofs and influence.


What’s remarkable to me is that it isn’t just young, idealistic students whose commitment to diverse views stretches so far as to encourage an Orthodox high school to provide a venue for its students to be exposed to the outrageous arguments and positions of a blatantly anti-Israel personality.  Plenty of adults are egging them on.   For example, one commenter on the petition’s website states, “As a graduate of a modern orthodox high school, I strongly support exposing students to diverse points of view on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Failure to do so is academic malpractice.”


Addressing the petition, a blogging rabbi wrote:


If a high school student can learn Gemara and understand the difference between a Hava Amina and a Maskana or see machlokes among tanaim, amoraim, and rishonim then I see no reason they can't have a speaker present a side of an issue the school does not agree with. Let them rebut after he leaves.


He and these students are dangerously wrong.  Yes, Judaism endorses a level of pluralism.  Proudly, the motto of Boca Raton Synagogue is “Valuing Diversity, Celebrating Unity.”  As Torah Jews, we welcome, honor and respect rigorous debate.  The hallmark of our greatest sages was their willingness and desire to listen to and hear the opinions of one another.  The Talmud (Eruvin 13b) says that we follow the opinion of Beis Hillel over Beis Shammai because the students of Beis Hillel would first listen to and consider the opinion of the students of Beis Shammai before expressing arriving at their own conclusions.


Yes, there are seventy faces to Torah, and yes, the Beis Ha’Mikdash had many entrances corresponding with the diverse legitimate approaches to God.  But the pluralism of the Talmud and the academic freedom of our tradition has limits.  Our sages were eager to dialogue with and debate one another, but they didn’t invite heretical sects like the Sadducees or Karaites to participate.  The Talmud in Chagiga cautions us not to read literature that can persuade us negatively.  Put differently by British author Sir Tery Pratchett, “The trouble with having an open mind, of course, is that people will insist on coming along and trying to put things in it.”


Our great Rabbis certainly knew the difference between a hava amina, an initial thought, and a maskana, a compelling conclusion.  Nevertheless, they understood that pluralism has boundaries and limits and they taught that there are opinions and ideas that simply don’t belong in the conversations we host.   We exclude them not because we are threatened or scared of them or because we lack the confidence that we can provide a compelling rebuttal to them.  We exclude them because they simply don’t deserve the publicity or legitimacy that including them would provide.


Would these students or the rabbi quoted above apply their logic to an Orthodox school hosting a staunch spokesperson for Jews for Jesus?  Would they petition a platform for a vocal Christian missionary to articulate his arguments in favor of conversion of Jews to Christianity?  Would they invite a Holocaust denier to share his perspective or a white supremacist to promote his agenda all in the interest of "open-minded, intellectually honest, and unprejudiced" dialogue?  Clearly, there are voices, positions and arguments that are so outrageous and outside the bounds of reasonable discourse that they don’t deserve our recognition, consideration or audience.  Why are Rashid Khalidi’s views less dangerous, less outrageous or any more legitimate than these others?


Should our Modern Orthodox schools have lower standards than Hillel on college campuses?  After a recent controversy involving the Hillel at Swarthmore University, Eric Fingerhut, president of Hillel International, distributed a letter in which he wrote, “Let me be very clear — ‘anti-Zionists’ will not be permitted to speak using the Hillel name or under the Hillel roof, under any circumstances.”


My objection to Khalidi speaking has nothing to do with fear or hesitation to hear other opinions or perspectives and a lack of confidence in our own. As a person who celebrates terrorists such as the leader of the Munich massacre, to give him a platform undermines the most basic concepts of justice, mercy, fairness and the value of life that our Torah mandates we teach the world. We should no sooner give Khalidi a platform than Al Qaeda supporters, white supremacists, anti Semites, liars, cheaters, embezzlers, terrorists, murderers, pedophiles, etc.  Would anyone sign a petition calling for a vocal racist or anti-gay spokesperson to be invited to speak?


Imagine students at a Jewish high school in Shushan urging an invitation for Haman to speak because it is important to hear other perspectives.  We have nothing to apologize for when we exclude voices and opinions that are outrageously out of the bounds of moral discourse.


We must encourage our young people to study, debate and pursue the diverse pluralism of Torah truths.  We should applaud and support the goal of being an “open-minded, intellectually honest, and unprejudiced student.”


However, at the same time we must teach our students the risk they run if they are not careful; in the words of Arthur Hays Sulzberger, former publisher of the New York Times, “I certainly do not advocate that the mind should be so open that the brains fall out.”