In response to Kenyon Students for Justice in Palestine (KSJP) and other organizations inviting activist Marc Lamont Hill to speak on campus, Kenyon Students for Israel (KSFI) voiced their concern over the negative consequences his visit could have on the Kenyon community, as Hill had in the past made remarks deemed by some to be anti-Semitic.
As a Jewish student, I was initially opposed to Hill’s scheduled speaking engagement. However, upon attending the event, I not only realized that his character had been unduly derided, but also furthered my understanding of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
To contextualize the controversy surrounding Hill, one must look to comments he made last year during a speech he gave to the United Nations. In his speech, he addressed the Israeli-Palestinian conflict using language associated with the propaganda of Hamas, an anti-Semitic terrorist organization. Hill later said that his comments were taken out of context, but still he received considerable public backlash and was subsequently fired from CNN.
While KSFI was well-intentioned in bringing this incident to light in an all-student email outlining their objection to Hill’s attendance, they failed to recognize his whole body of work. I disagree with some of Hill’s stances on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but he is undeniably a thoughtful, intelligent and serious academic who discusses the conflict in good faith.
I was surprised when Hill decided to begin his speech by addressing the comments he made at the United Nations. Hill carefully articulated what his intentions were in his United Nations speech, and happily fielded questions from students who challenged him further.
Hill then spoke at length about the nature of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and he shared his knowledge and opinions in a way that appealed to the audience’s sense of justice and humanity, rather than pandering to their political prejudices.
Additionally, Hill was highly aware that some members of the audience would be skeptical of him for his past remarks, and he spoke accordingly. He vehemently denounced anti-Semitism many times throughout the evening, and rightly pointed out that global anti-Semitism is intensifying and needs to be dealt with urgently.
While Hill did advocate for a one-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, a position I strongly disagree with, he also acknowledged the opposing point that this approach could leave Jews more vulnerable to oppression in international politics.
Further strengthening Hill’s message was his willingness to explore a number of political issues worldwide. Hill explicitly stated that he had no intention of isolating Israel in his criticisms, and he didn’t mince words when calling out other nations in the Middle East who have committed wrongdoings, nor did he shy away from discussing domestic issues such as systemic police brutality.
The part of Hill’s speech that resonated with me the most was when he said that everyone desires to live in a just and equal world, but not everyone agrees on how to get there.
In the true spirit of Socratic dialogue, Hill admitted to his own fallibility and facilitated a civil discourse in which both his perspective and the perspectives of others were taken seriously. Hill’s visit should be a testament to the values of a liberal arts education and the benefits we all reap when we expose ourselves to ideologies different than our own.