Feeling frustrated about Arab anti-Semitism? Upset by people's insensitivity toward Jewish concerns? Think you're powerless to influence your school or community? Think again.
A group of Harvard students spoke out against hate speech in the Middle East, and, thanks to the support of the community, achieved results. I helped organize the group, and our efforts resulted in shutting down an Arab League think tank that distributes hate speech against Americans and Jews.
It all started last year when I was a student at Harvard Divinity School. In December, I helped organize a panel on the rise of global anti-Semitism. One panelist, Dr. Charles Jacobs, president of the David Project, stunned me with the pervasive, Nazi-like imagery and calumnies directed against Jews that are spread throughout the entire Islamic world, funded by oil money from the Gulf. I was surprised not only by the extent of the hate education, but also by how little the usually well-informed people at the Harvard Divinity School knew about the issue of hate speech in the Middle East.
Most shocking, however, was what Jacobs explained next: Harvard Divinity School itself was complicit in the problem by accepting money from a purveyor of hatred in the Middle East.
Harvard Divinity School -- my school -- had accepted a $2.5 million endowment from Sheikh Zayed, ruler of the United Arab Emirates. Zayed funds a United Arab Emirates think tank of the Arab League called the Zayed Center that disseminates anti-Semitism and anti-Americanism throughout the Islamic world. The center published a book claiming that the American government masterminded the Sept. 11 attacks, hosted notorious Holocaust deniers and featured a lecture by a Saudi professor who claimed that Jews use non-Jewish blood for holiday pastries. The Los Angeles Times quoted the center director as saying the "Jews are the enemies of all nations."
I knew I had to take action. Just as Harvard would refuse funds from a Ku Klux Klan financier, the university should also reject the hate money of the sheikh.
Soon after the talk, a group of students and I founded Students for an Ethical Divinity School and petitioned William Graham, dean of the Divinity School, to live up to the university's ethical standards and return Zayed's gift. Graham told us he would "study the issue." I tried to imagine him making this comment if we were African Americans, gays, or women defamed by a donor. I couldn't.
Three months later, after an aggressive media campaign brought the issue to CBS News, The Wall Street Journal, The Boston Globe and CNN, and exposed Harvard's connection to the center, and after thousands signed a Web-based petition, the president of the United Arab Emirates shut down the Zayed Center. Harvard responded cautiously, announcing that the university was pleased that Zayed had taken action and that Harvard will delay for a year making a final decision regarding whether to accept the money. U.S. State Department spokeswoman Jo-Anne Prokopowicz expressed satisfaction that Zayed had shut down a center that "espouse[d] intolerant views, including questionable programs and publications containing anti-American and anti-Semitic content."
There are several important lessons here: The first is that hate funded by Arab leaders or anyone else can and must be countered. This is a victory for people of conscience of all faiths and backgrounds. We should never ignore, rationalize or underestimate hate speech.
The second lesson is that many people shrink from these battles. It's sad and a little frightening to experience the indifference toward Jewish concerns and Jewish students that so many Harvard professors and the dean of the Divinity School exhibited. Equally frustrating and disappointing is to see the reluctance of some Jewish professors and students to speak out against the institutional insensitivity of Harvard Divinity School.
Ultimately, a willingness to stand up and speak up can make a difference. We won the battle through persistent campaigning, good research, and community support. We thoroughly researched the Zayed Center's Web site and downloaded the hate speech before the center got wind of our efforts and began deleting it from their site; we learned more about Zayed Center publications with help from MEMRI (www.memri.org), an organization that translates Arabic press into English. Both the Anti-Defamation League and the Simon Wiesenthal Center helped us gather important documents. We received the most instrumental support from the David Project, the on-the-ground campus activists in Boston.
It is unfortunate that the responsibility to wage a campaign against the Zayed Center's hate speech should have fallen on a small group of Divinity School students. American moral leaders and human-rights groups should live up to their own standards. There can be no free pass for incitement of hatred and genocide. Hatred is a weapon of mass destruction.
A few weeks ago, Sheikh Zayed explained that once it came to his attention that the center had "engaged in a discourse that starkly contradicted the principles of interfaith tolerance, directives were issued for the immediate closure of the center."
Zayed's statement is encouraging, and I hope that other Arab leaders will follow his example and understand that demonizing Americans and Jews is unacceptable and intolerable.
As a result of our success, I have seen greater willingness among Jews on campuses and in communities to participate in campaigns against anti-Semitism. I am heartened by the courage of others to stand up for what's right.
After graduating from Harvard, Rachel Fish joined the David Project in New York City (www.davidproject.org ), which works to support students on campus to promote a fair and honest understanding of Middle East conflict.