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Jewish Journal

UCLA Symposium on Gaza Ignites Strong Criticism

by Tom Tugend

February 11, 2009 | 10:07 pm

Slyomovics spoke at UCLA during a July 2006 conference marking the arrival of the Journal of Middle East Women's Studies. Photo by Jonathan Friedlander

Slyomovics spoke at UCLA during a July 2006 conference marking the arrival of the Journal of Middle East Women's Studies. Photo by Jonathan Friedlander

Academic seminars are so numerous at UCLA that they rarely have much of an afterlife, but this has not been the case with the symposium on “Human Rights and Gaza” held Jan. 21 on campus.

Even three weeks later, some outraged critics across the country continue to weigh in and to characterize the symposium as an “academic lynching,” a “one-sided witch hunt of Israel,” a “Hamas recruiting rally” or, at the very least, “a degradation of academic standards.”

On Monday, UCLA Chancellor Gene D. Block issued a statement urging the campus community to “engage in civil discourse” and “respectful discussion” on even the most controversial topics.

At issue in the symposium were the alleged human rights crimes against Gaza residents during the three-week incursion by Israeli forces, launched with the announced purpose of eliminating persistent missile firings by Hamas militants on Israeli communities .

While critics of the symposium, who spoke to a reporter after the session, were especially upset by the audience conduct during a raucous question-and-answer period, the one-sidedness of the professorial presentations also drew sharp objections. Podcasts of all of the talks are online(visit jewishjournal.com), although the question-and-answer portion is not.

Professor Susan Slyomovics, director of the sponsoring Center for Near Eastern Studies (CNES) and the symposium moderator, had invited four of the leading academic critics of Israel, and she opened the event by promising the audience of some 400 that it would learn the “truth” about Gaza, thus far hidden or distorted by the mainstream media.

The professors’ presentations were generally calmly delivered and well modulated, but spiced with anecdotes and conclusions that left no doubt that Israel was guilty not only of war crimes in the Gaza fighting but was pretty much at the root of all the Mideast’s problems since the inception of modern Zionism.

Leading off was UCLA historian Gabriel Piterberg, who was raised in Israel, graduated from Tel Aviv University and served in the Israeli army. He opened his talk with a telling anecdote: In a recent phone conversation, his brother, a former officer in the Israeli air force, quoted an Israeli Apache helicopter pilot as telling a radio station, “We should bombard Gaza so hard that Dresden will pale in comparison.”

The reference was to the series of air raids on the German city by waves of British and American bombers in February 1945, which created a firestorm and claimed between 24,000 to 40,000 civilian lives.

Piterberg went on to liken Zionist policy since 1900 to historical colonial enterprises, in which European nations eradicated and enslaved the indigenous populations.

Next, professor Lisa Hajjar, who chairs the Law and Society Program at UC Santa Barbara, opened with a fairly dispassionate discussion on the rules of warfare and the responsibilities of occupying powers.

She also said that regardless of its earlier troop withdrawal, Israel still occupies Gaza because it controls the enclave’s borders and air space. Since it is illegal for an occupying power to make war on the occupied, Israel is guilty of war crimes, she concluded.

The third speaker was Richard Falk, emeritus professor of international law and practice at Princeton University, who was recently named U.N. special rapporteur on human rights in the Palestinian Territories.

Falk, who joined Piterberg as the second Jewish professor on the panel, has previously compared the Israeli treatment of Palestinians to the Nazi extermination of Jews and was recently refused an entry visa by Israeli authorities.

Falk maintained that Hamas and its missiles posed no security threat to Israel, that Israel had refused Hamas truce offers and labeled Israeli action in Gaza as a “savagely criminal operation.”

The final speaker was UCLA English literature professor Saree Makdisi, who stated that when Israeli forces withdrew from Gaza in 2005, the continuing blockade “made Gaza a prison and [Israel] threw away the keys.” He added that it was Israel’s “premeditated state policy” to kill Gazans and stunt the growth of their children.

While the four professorial talks were delivered and received quietly, interrupted only occasionally by applause, emotions escalated during the closing question-and-answer session.

Most of the questioners were adults, well beyond student age, and their softball questions about control of Washington by the Jewish lobby and how to divest from Israel were easily fielded by the speakers.

The mood changed when a few pro-Israel attendees got their chance, according to audience members. When Eric Golub asked Hajjar whether she would consider as prosecutable crimes Hamas’ murder of Fatah rivals, the use of civilians as human shields and recruitment of suicide bombers, the professor responded, “If you think I favor suicide bombings, then you have that Zionist hat on your head screwed on way too tight.”

Hajjar later retracted her comment, but her initial response was met by audience cheers and chants of “Zionism is racism,” “Zionism is Nazism,” “Free, Free Palestine” and “F…, f… Israel.”

Although there were no threats of violence and a policeman was at hand, when the meeting concluded, some members of the audience engaged pro-Israel students with further cries of “f… you.”

Shirley Eshaghian, a psychology senior and president of Bruins for Israel, said she left the symposium shaken.

“I never felt so unsafe on campus,” she said. “People were shouting, and I had this horrible feeling that I, as a Jew, was being attacked; that I was being called a Nazi.”

Dana Sadgat, an 18-year-old freshman in computer science, said she was also deeply upset. “This was not put on by a bunch of kids; this was run by an academic department at UCLA,” she said. “There was no speaker there for Israel; there wasn’t even one who was not against Israel. But this experience has made me even more pro-Israel.”

The two students agreed with other attendees that at no point did Slyomovics, the organizer and moderator of the event, try to intervene or urge the audience to observe a basic level of decorum.

Seminars and symposia that raise controversial viewpoints are common at UCLA and are, indeed, considered one of the hallmarks of a free university.

Partially for that reason, and perhaps because, apparently, no pro-Israel UCLA professors were in attendance, the symposium held on Jan. 21 evoked little reaction at first.

That changed within a week, due mainly to a detailed report on the symposium written and circulated by e-mail by Roberta Seid, who added her own rebuttals to the charges against Israel. (The report can be read by visiting this article at jewishjournal.com.) Seid is a historian who teaches a course on modern Israel at UC Irvine, and she also serves as director of educational research for the pro-Israel organization, StandWithUs.

Her 10-page report mobilized critics who had not attended the symposium. “I got an e-mail from a friend in Indiana who asked me, ‘What’s going on at your university?’” said UCLA computer science professor Judea Pearl.

Some of the strongest objections to the symposium have come from UCLA faculty often considered peaceniks by the mainstream Jewish community, such as Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller, UCLA Hillel director.

“This symposium constituted a reprehehensible academic abuse by CNES,” Seidler-Feller said in an interview. “The center was for many years an internationally respected institution, but it is becoming more and more representative of only one point of view. UCLA has been a pretty calm place, but this symposium has pierced the calm.”

David N. Myers, director of the UCLA Center for Jewish Studies, who has publicly protested the level of Israeli force used in Gaza, also expressed reservations. After stressing the university’s role as “an open marketplace of ideas” and Israel’s actions in Gaza as a legitimate topic for academic discussion, Myers described the symposium as a form of rhetorical overkill.

“This was a forum in which there was relatively little difference in overall perspective among the four speakers, all of whom were very critical of Israel,” he said. “I myself wondered if it was necessary to have four speakers, rather than one, or perhaps two, address this topic.”

Two other UCLA professors, considered middle of the road, also responded to questions by The Journal.

Neil Netanel, a law professor and director of the Israel Studies Program, said that according to all reports reaching him, the symposium was “a one-sided witch hunt of Israel.”

However, he added, “I cannot say that the symposium was outside the accepted boundaries of academic discussion…. But I, personally, would be embarrassed to put on such an overtly one-sided panel, both in substance and tone, on a highly contentious and controversial issue.”

Pearl, who is also a Jewish Journal columnist, extended the discussion to a wider audience through an essay in The Wall Street Journal marking the anniversary of the killing of his son, journalist Daniel Pearl, by Islamic extremists in Pakistan. In the column, Pearl labeled the symposium a “Hamas recruiting rally,” but, speaking to The Jewish Journal, he emphasized a different concern.

“The CNES, which once had a reputation for open-mindedness and diversity, has been closing its door to one segment of Near Eastern society, represented by the Israeli people,” he said. “That is a loss for its students and shame for UCLA.”

At the center of the controversy is Slyomovics, who joined UCLA as an anthropology professor in 2006 and became CNES director a year ago. According to some reports at UCLA, she speaks Hebrew and attended Hebrew University in Jerusalem, but there is no such data in her voluminous Google file.

She picked up the phone when a Jewish Journal reporter called her office and asked for comments.

“Read the podcasts of the symposium on our Web site,” she said.

When informed that the reporter had done so, she said, “I have a student here, excuse me,” and hung up.

Subsequent e-mails to Slyomovics asking for information about the scope and policy of CNES were not acknowledged.

In his reaction to the controversy this week, UCLA Chancellor Block also noted that “many people have contacted me — and some have even written news articles — to express profound disappointment over what they believe was the panel’s unbalanced presentation and lack of decorum during the question-and-answer period.”

At the same time, Block renewed UCLA’s commitment to the “free exchange of ideas ... as a core value of academic freedom” and praised UCLA as one of the most invigorating intellectual campuses in the world.

“Our students must hear diverse viewpoints, if only to sharpen their own thought processes and strengthen their arguments,” Block added.

The chancellor noted that a number of prominent Israeli diplomats have spoken on campus recently, and he lauded the recent dedication of a UCLA “Peace Pole” by students of widely differing backgrounds and opinions.

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