A public lecture by a visiting scholar on the UCLA campus usually doesn't make much of a ripple, but nearly all of the 1,800 seats in Royce Hall were taken and the atmosphere was electric when professor Edward W. Said stepped up to the lectern.
The sponsoring Burkle Center for International Studies had been forced to move the Feb. 20 event from a smaller venue, and inside Royce Hall, groups of students worked their cell phones in Hebrew and Arabic. At the entrance, Bruins for Israel, StandWithUs, the Spartacus Youth Club and the Blue Triangle Network passed out competing pamphlets.
Said has impeccable academic credentials as a graduate of Princeton and Harvard universities, professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia University and the author of 20 scholarly books translated into 35 languages.
Although his reputation as an ardent advocate of Palestinian and Arab causes had preceded the Jerusalem-born scholar, some members of the university community and the public had come hoping for a sober and rational presentation on the complexities of the Middle East.
Most were quickly disabused of that hope, none more so than a number of the most dedicated Jewish advocates of reconciliation and co-existence with the Palestinians. After a heated shouting match with Said, so ardent a peacenik as Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller of UCLA Hillel subsequently labeled the Columbia professor as "a fraud."
Said, who served as a member of the Palestinian National Council from 1977-1991, set the tone by declaring that Israel's treatment of Palestinians is currently the world's most visible case of human rights abuses.
"The denial of human rights by Israel cannot be accepted on any grounds," whether based on divine guidance or past Jewish suffering, he declared.
While agreeing that Palestinian suicide bombings were "terrible," Said quickly put the onus on the Israeli bulldozing of homes, helicopter missile attacks and strip searches of civilians.
Warming to his subject and accompanied by enthusiastic applause by a good part of the audience, Said said that any human rights violations charged to Saddam Hussein were also applicable to Israel.
Describing some of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's pronouncements as "thuggish balderdash," Said said that Israel, which had enjoyed a reputation as a progressive society in its early years, "now had the image of an aggressor."
Said, acknowledging his own partisanship as a Palestinian, said he saw little chance of a modus vivendi between the Palestinian "David" and the Israeli "Goliath," at least until Israeli leaders expressed their contrition for the alleged crimes against the Palestinian people.
"Neither side is blessed with a [Nelson] Mandela or a [former South African president F.W.] de Klerk," Said said.
Toward the end of his 75-minute talk, Said softened his rhetoric by citing his friendship with Israeli conductor Daniel Barenboim, which has led to the creation of an Arab-Israeli youth orchestra.
The mellower mood vanished with the first question, which was posed by Seidler-Feller.
Charging that Said had painted a black- and-white picture of the world, Seidler-Feller pointed to a number of misstatements by the speaker, and, amidst raucous catcalls from the audience, challenged Said to sign a joint statement advocating Israel's return to the pre-1967 boundaries, a joint capital in Jerusalem and settlement of the Palestinian refugee problem.
Said would have none of it. He denounced Seidler-Feller's "tirade of falsehoods," and as a victim of the propaganda, which, Said claimed, is the only thing sustaining Israel, besides the support of the United States.
Seidler-Feller was still in an angry mood the following day. "Said appears as a sophisticated, urbane, reasonable academic, but he is really a belligerent naysayer," Seidler-Feller observed. "That is why he is a fraud."
"He is so encumbered by memory, that he is stuck," the Hillel rabbi added. "He is totally dependent on his sense of victimhood. We Jews have used this approach at times, too, but in order to reach any kind of agreement, we must both go beyond that."
Seidler-Feller also expressed his disappointment that, in his talk, Said had "created an atmosphere which empowered the audience to be hostile."
Dr. David N. Myers, a UCLA history professor and former director of the UCLA Center for Jewish Studies, who has frequently spoken out against the Israeli occupation policies, also expressed his disappointment.
Myers described Said as "a tragic figure, a man of remarkable intelligence, charisma and oratorical skill, who chose to ignore the complex dynamics of the conflict and instead recited the stale platitudes of Palestinian rejectionism."
Dr. Sam Aroni, another UCLA professor and a longtime advocate of a two-state solution, said he left Royce Hall deeply depressed at the apparent impossibility of dialogue between the Israeli and Palestinian sides.
"Unfortunately, Said used emotional, rather than rational arguments," Aroni said.
One exception to the negative reaction among Jewish doves was that of philanthropist and political activist Stanley Sheinbaum, one of the most veteran and prominent members of the peace movement.
"Said's points were generally valid, but Israelis and American Jews don't have the patience or tolerance to deal with them," he said.
While there may be some disagreements about certain facts, Sheinbaum said, the main point is that "the Palestinians consider themselves under occupation, and the question is whether Israelis understand that."
At the request of the Burkle Center, Sheinbaum hosted a reception for Said at his home after the talk. Approximately 60-70 guests continued to debate the issues, generating " a little heat," Sheinbaum said. He has since received four to five pieces of hate mail, Sheinbaum added.
Professor Geoffrey Garrett, director of the Burkle Center, announced that the next forum speaker will be Martin Indyk, former U.S. ambassador to Israel, and that he was finalizing plans for the appearance of King Abdullah II of Jordan.
The associate director of the Burkle Center, political scientist Steven Spiegel, who was unable to attend the Said lecture, said that Said's appearance was in keeping with the UCLA mission of presenting a variety of views.
"However, by the end of the forum series, the other side will be more than amply represented," Spiegel said. Â