by Katherine King
“Stand with Salaita. Stand with Hate,” read posters hung by anonymous students early last week. Talks given by Steven Salaita and Richard Baehr ’69 inspired heated dialogue among students and challenged Kenyon’s understanding of “respectful difference.” They also brought into focus the three different campus groups that focus on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict –– J Street U, Kenyon Students for Israel (KSFI) and Kenyon Students for Justice in Palestine (KSJP) — and these groups’ divergent goals and approaches.
This week, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has proved to be one of the campus’ most divisive issues. KSFI sponsored Baehr’s talk, entitled “Israel, the Middle East, and Media Bias,” which received mixed reviews. President of KSFI Adam Rubenstein ‘17 wrote in an email to the Collegian, “We hosted Baehr’s talk, and found that he eloquently, honestly, and courageously defended Israel and its right to exist as a Jewish and democratic state within safe and secure borders.” Professor of Political Science Fred Baumann wrote in an email, “I liked [Baehr’s talk] very much. He presented a great deal of powerful factual information that I think the Kenyon community badly needs to learn and think about.”
However, the co-chairs of J Street U were less enthusiastic. J Street U is a national organization that works towards a two state solution in Israel-Palestine. “The most problematic aspect of Richard Baehr’s speech [were] his harmful generalizations of Arabs, Muslims and Palestinians,” Samantha Shanker ‘17 wrote. Evie Kallenbach ‘17 agreed: “This narrative is not only incorrect, but it stymies open dialogue and long-term peace strategy,” she wrote. “J Street U deeply values nuance, and we felt Richard Baehr’s talk made blanket statements that were unfair, inaccurate and deeply offensive.”
JaeJune Lee ’17, a member of KSJP, wrote in an email to the Collegian: “Richard Baehr promotes a worldview where only Jews and radical Muslims exist, where Israel is an island of Western Democracy in a sea of hostile Arabs, where Palestine is but an unfortunate obstacle to obtaining peace in Israel. In his worldview, there is no occupation, there is no blockade, and there is no ‘good’ Arab except the westernized Arab. It is a worldview I find deeply problematic.”
Salaita’s talk, “Palestine, Civility and Academic Freedom,” was similarly controversial. Salaita, a Palestinian-American, drew national headlines after trustees at the University of Illinois voted to withdraw Salaita’s offer of employment to teach in the American Indian Studies Department purportedly because of his tweets about the Israeli presence in Palestine. During his talk at Kenyon, Salaita spoke about the differences between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism. He emphasized that he would never write or say anything anti-Semitic, but that he believed that anti-Semitism should not be used as an excuse to avoid questioning Israel’s human rights violations. His most controversial tweets, which attempted to point out that anti-Semitism should not be used as a blanket defense of everything that Israel does, were taken by critics as an endorsement of anti-Semitism. Some of the most quoted of these tweets were “The logic of ‘antisemitism’ deployed by Zionists, if applied in principle, would make pretty much everybody not a sociopath ‘antisemitic’” and “At this point, if Netanyahu appeared on TV with a necklace made from the teeth of Palestinian children, would anybody be surprised? #Gaza.” Higley Hall Auditorium was packed on Thursday, and students broke into applause several times during Salaita’s speech.“I thought it went wonderfully,” Jacober said. “Every member of KSJP that I talked to thought it went wonderfully.” He emphasized that the goal of KSJP in bringing Salaita to campus was to show the campus that not just Palestinians, but also people who speak out about Palestine, suffer oppression. Nathan Durham ’17, who attended the event, wrote in an email to the Collegian: “Professor Salaita’s speech was brilliant and very inspiring. He was eloquent and firm and he spoke truth to power in a way that Kenyon doesn’t get to see very often. I left Higley feeling brave.”
However, there was also much dissent over Salaita, both before and after his speech. The anonymous posters accused him of “unprofessionalism, sanctimony and moral relativism.” Kallenbach had mixed feelings about Salaita. “We appreciated the discussion Steven Salaita initiated, but disagreed with the rhetoric he used that grouped all pro-Israel students into a singular category with uniform views,” Kallenbach wrote. “However, we had a chance to speak with Mr. Salaita after the talk, and he apologized for his oversight, which we appreciated,” she wrote.
Rubenstein was more displeased with the talk: “I think if you must begin your speech saying that you’re not an anti-Semite, chances are that you are one,” he wrote. “Salaita’s description of Israel as a colonial, imperial country is completely false; he really discussed nothing of any historical value. After going to his talk, one who knew nothing about Israel would think their conflict with the Palestinians started in 2005.” After the talk, Professor of Religious Studies Vernon Schubel sent an email to the Kenyon community thanking them for listening respectfully to Salaita’s talk. “Last night many people in our community who only knew the stereotype of Steven Salaita generated by his critics courageously came to hear him speak. They may or may not have been convinced about his positions on Israel and Palestine but I imagine most of them left feeling that demonizing him and driving him out of his chosen profession was likely not the academy at its finest” Schubel wrote.
President Sean Decatur believes that Salaita’s arrival on campus has the power to introduce a dialogue. “I think that this raises some questions and I don’t really know what the answers are to this. But to me the compelling questions are about the role of social media and communication…and how that falls under the umbrella of academic freedom,” Decatur said. When questioned about how he would respond to the situation that the president of Illinois faced, Decatur replied, I’m always hesitant to say what I would do if I were in someone else’s position because I’m not. And things are very complicated.”
The dialogue about Israel and Palestine will continue over the next few weeks. Baumann will be giving a talk on Tuesday, Feb. 24 at 7 p.m. entitled “Anti-Zionism and Anti-Semitism: In Response to the Salaita Tweets.” J Street U is screening the movie Two Sided Story Thursday, Feb. 19 at 8 p.m.