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Finkelstein visit “on hold,” not cancelled

Published: February 2, 2007
Section: Front Page


Despite last weeks invitation extended by the Radical Student Alliance (RSA) to controversial Professor Norman Finkelstein to address the Brandeis Community on Feb. 6, the event has now been placed on hold, according to sources within the Office of Student Life. The deferring of this event, however, has given rise to a serious split between members of the RSA and school officials, with both sides providing different reasons for the postponement.

Finkelstein, the author of controversial works such as The Holocaust Industry and, according to the Anti-Defamation League, an obsessive anti-Zionist, was invited to speak on campus by members of the Radical Student Alliance, with the Arab Culture Club cosponsoring the event a continuation of the dialogue begun by [former President Jimmy] Carter and [Professor Alan] Dershowitz.

Originally, it was intended for Professor Finkelstein to speak after Professor Dershowitz Jan. 23, but that plan was refused by the administration due to constraints on time and personnel. Eventually, plans were made for the event to be held Feb. 6, and Finkelstein had not charged any sort of fees for his appearance.

The Dean of Student Life Rick Sawyer, who deals with guest speakers for Student Life, said by e-mail that speakers like Finkelstein would be on hold while he and the Union works to form a committee of students, faculty, and staff who could bring some order and appropriate intellectual framework to campus appearances…and further the conversation stimulated by the Carter book and visit. Given the gravity of this issue, he added, an orderly process for inviting speakers would maximize the power of the differing messages.

Union President Alison Schwartzbaum '08 said the reason that the speaker was postponed
was to “make sure the students get something out of it. When a controversial speaker
comes to speak, some people come to protest, and some come to listen. the people who come
to protest leave angier, and the people who come to listen are more angry, and there's no
talk about it.”

She added that “when polarizing speakers come at random without guarantee of a follow-up,
it has the potential to pull the community so far apart it can tear it at the seams.
That's why we're creating this committee.”

Kevin Conway of the RSA, however, said he believed there were differing motives. He argued that the members of the administration first told RSA that hadnt provided enough notice to set-up the events and then invented a committee that was simply a block on free speech. In an e-mail, Mr. Conway stated that Ill be forgiven if I refuse to accept the decree of a soon-to-be committee as binding.

Some students have questioned whether this committee goes against the spirit of debate. Shai Posner 10, feels that having a committee to screen speakers defies the liberal standards at Brandeis. Likewise, Arun Narayanan 10, argues that controversy is educational and there is no harm in creating debate.

What is perhaps more interesting is some of the developments within the RSA. Although Mr. Conway said there has been significant discussion in the RSA community, there had been some issues in the RSA over the hasty decision to invite Professor Finkelstein. Nevertheless, Mr. Conway feels that the RSA is committed to bringing the [Israeli- Palestinian] conflict out in the open.

Ultimately, the school administration and Student Union are moving into unknown territory as they begin to formulate a committee that will inevitably have to draw a line on what are views welcome to the fervent debate in the Brandeis community.