On April 24, 2006 thirty professors at Tel Aviv University wrote a scathing letter of protest to the deans of the school, decrying the choice of speaker at the opening of its new Center for Iran Studies.
Of the appearance of Shaul Mofaz, Israel’s former minister of defense, the professors frothed, in part, “In a more enlightened university, the members of the faculty would be ashamed to host him”; “the least that an Israeli academic institution can do today…is not to invite people that are identified with (Israel’s supposedly criminal) behavior,” because an “invitation provides a seal of approval.”
These professors have the right to be extremists, but they do not have the right to be hypocrites.
Shortly after the end of the 1991 Gulf War, many of these same professors invited Faisal al-Husseini to address a Tel Aviv University conference called “Is There Anything Left to Speak About?”
Husseini was a founding member of the PLO in 1964 and, as such, had the blood of hundreds of civilians on his hands. During the first intifada he was appointed the PLO’s first Minister for Jerusalem Affairs, in which role he became the darling of the international media, and chief apologist for the murders of 160 Israelis during that terror wave.
He was also in charge of PLO spin during the first Gulf War when that organization declared its support for Saddam Hussein. His invitation to the conference was an attempt by these professors to rehabilitate the PLO, precisely at the peak of its malevolence.
In April, 2001, shortly before his death, Mr. Husseini described the Oslo Accords as a "Trojan Horse," and said that he told PLO leaders in the early 1990s, “‘climb into the horse and don't question what type of material the horse is made of.’”
Ten years later, after Ehud Barak’s capitulations at Camp David and the outbreak of the second intifada, Husseini said, “everyone entered into the horse and the horse entered into the walled-in city. Now, the time has come for us to say: ‘Come out of the horse.’”
Freedom of speech
Because the cynicism in Husseini’s posturing as a moderate was transparent in 1991 to anyone familiar with his background, a large protest against his appearance on campus was planned. I was a student at Tel Aviv University’s Dayan Center for Middle East Studies at the time, and planned to join the demonstration.
One of my professors, Yisrael Gershoni, was among those who had extended the invitation to Husseini, and he orated at passionate length to me about the sanctity of free speech in the academy, the one space where dialogue should never be censored.
Gershoni then challenged me. It is not enough, he said, that I agree in principle that communication should be unimpeded on campus. I must service this belief myself, he said, by ensuring that protestors, even if I sympathize with them, do not succeed in thwarting the conference.
I assented to his request that I serve as a security guard to prevent protestors from gaining entrance to the auditorium where they might seriously disrupt Husseini’s presentation.
The night of the conference, I positioned myself, with the rest of the security detail, between attendees and protestors. I believed in their right to protest, and I agreed with the substance of their complaint, but I also believed in the right of even our enemies to free expression in the academy.
This week, scanning the list of the thirty Tel Aviv University professors whose letter excoriated the school for allowing Mofaz to speak, one of whom actually became violent in the auditorium, I recognized the names of professors who had organized the Husseini appearance.
I was shocked when I saw the name Yisrael Gershoni, the same professor who convinced me that the right to free speech on campus – even for one's opponents – was a supreme value, and should not just be acknowledged but actually defended by placing one’s own body in harm’s way.
Now, with the shoe on the other foot, he has signed a letter stating that “the participation of the minister of defense as the keynote speaker at the opening of this conference…must not be permitted.”
Professor Gershoni: I still believe in the principle that you taught me in 1991. I am saddened that you no longer do.
Robert Jancu, the former National Executive Director of the Zionist Organization of America, is an attorney in private practice in New York