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Hushed “Voices” in the library

Free speech meets the Middle East conflict

Published: March 14, 2008
Section: Front Page

There’s usually little talking done in a library. In the spring of 2006, though, speech in a library became a big issue, and not because loud voices were preventing students from getting their studying done.

Created as an art project for the Coexistence and Conflict course “The Arts of Building Peace,” an exhibit entitled “Voices of Palestine” was displayed for four days before being removed by the university administration. The exhibit depicted artwork made by Palestinian children that included some provocative images, including a map of Israel with a snake wrapped around it, and was removed following student complaints.

While the controversy surrounding Gravity Magazine sparked a discussion regarding offensive speech and its relationship to race, the controversy around Voices of Palestine was connected to a different topic: Israel and the Arab-Israeli conflict.

What is the university’s responsibility to facilitate dialogue regarding these topics? What is its responsibility to ensure that the large Jewish population on campus has a comfortable living environment? Ultimately, does a level of discomfort on the part of certain students necessitate the removal of the offending material?

Politics: the partisan realm

These topics of Israel and the Arab-Israeli conflict are consistently prevalent on campus, for obvious reasons. As the only nonsectarian Jewish-sponsored university in existence, the fact that Brandeis grapples with issues intimately connected with Judaism and Israel is not surprising. This debate opens up different avenues of discussion, and is distinctly different from the debate that occurred following the Gravity controversy.

As Prof. Govind Sreenivsasan (HIST) wrote in an e-mail to The Hoot, discussing politics differs from discussing race, because when it comes to politics, there are sides that one chooses to be on.

“Most students have already been taught, and therefore ‘know,’ that racial tolerance is a positive good,” he wrote. “While this doesn’t ensure that we never have racial incidents at Brandeis, it does tend to inhibit the open expression of racial intolerance. Politics, especially the politics of the modern Middle East, is another matter altogether.”

“In the first place, since politics is an inherently partisan realm, people are much less inclined to respect (or even tolerate) political viewpoints that are different from their own,” he added. “Furthermore, since the majority of Brandeis students are Jewish, the dominant voice on campus is pro-Israel. It is therefore often difficult to have balanced discussions of Israel/Palestine issues at Brandeis, and students who dissent from the majority opinion often feel stifled, especially when outside speakers are brought to campus.”

As Helaina Skop ’08 summed up, “it makes sense that we’re having this issue at Brandeis. These are global issues, and there are two sides, and they’re both here.”

The kids aren’t all right

“It sort of spun out of control before people could think through the genesis of it,” said Dean of Student Life Rick Sawyer of the VOP exhibit. “I think that project suffered mostly from questionable decisions made on time, place, and manner. It kind of had a life of its own.”

Shortly after the exhibit’s removal, the argument was made by administrators that all the exhibit needed was context (which the student who created the exhibit argued was provided by an explanation and a notebook in which anyone could leave a comment pertaining to the artwork). Also, the appropriateness of having the artwork in the library, a building students must enter, was questioned. However, Student Union Advocate Brian Paternostro ’08, who was also a student in the class, saw it a different way.

“With that incident, you saw an immediate shutdown of something that upset students because anti-Israel is equated with anti-Jewish,” he said.

The student complaints ignited a firestorm of action and reaction; the Faculty Senate, in defense of academic freedom, voiced its disapproval of the administration’s decision to remove the exhibit.

To Paternostro, though, the issue with VOP was not primarily that it was shut down, but that it was an opportunity to discuss the contentious issue of the Arab-Israeli conflict that was not seized upon.

“‘Voices Of Palestine’ translates to a greater issue of ‘wow did we miss a teachable moment,’” he said. “It’s ready, it’s there, and we passed the buck.”

And, as Sreenivasan noted, shying away from the topic of Israel is not something confined to the student body.

“Bear also in mind that this isn’t just about students,” he wrote. “Many faculty members have told me they wouldn’t go near Israel/Palestine issues in class with a ten-foot pole.”

And therein lies the problem; the educational opportunities are missed because of the hesitancy to offend.

“How are we educating students by not allowing them to be uncomfortable?” asked Paternostro. “You have to exist in a world where people don’t agree with you.”

“Our faculty and administrators as educators have the responsibility to teach inside and outside of the classroom,” said Sarah Krevsky ’08. “We’re in college, it’s time to explore other viewpoints.”

However, sometimes these issues are presented on campus in a big way. Last spring, President Jimmy Carter came and spoke about his book Palestine: Peace not Apartheid.

“In the past year alone, Jimmy Carter and Norman Finkelstein were given open platforms on campus,” wrote Brandeis Orthodox Organization President Katie Schlussel ’10 in an e-mail. “Additionally, there was recently a movie showing about Gaza. Both students and speakers were given the opportunity to express their views about Israel.”

As Schlussel and Skop noted, then, both viewpoints are present on campus. So why the uproar over VOP? If students are being exposed to both sides of the Arab-Israeli conflict, why was VOP special?

What it takes is not hiding it away.

“Brandeis has come a long way in the eleven years that I have taught here, but our campus discussion of these topics still isn’t at the level it should be,” said Sreenivasan.

“I don’t think the main problem is that there are too many intolerant people on campus, the problem is rather that there are too many indifferent people on campus,” he added.

“Too many people still think either that the diversity issue really isn’t that important, or that it is someone else’s problem or responsibility.”

For Prof. Gordie Fellman (SOC), the key is figuring out “how to talk about the conflict in civil ways.”

“I think it would be great it we had a kind of conversation, a civil conversation in which people honor each other,” he said. “Conversation is an alternative to the politics of confrontation. Conversation has the potential for enlightenment and growth and confrontation doesn’t. I think it would be to Brandeis’s credit if we figured it out.”

Schlussel added that Brandeis should strive to “allow everyone their opportunities and let the open minds of students make their own decisions. I think that the key to all of these issues is a sense of respect, education, and open mindedness.”

And that, for many of the people interviewed for this article, was the problem with the way VOP was handled. It was a top-down approach to free speech, as opposed to the standard setting coming from the student body. As Fellman noted, the control in situations like this should be reactions from the community, not rules and restrictions proclaimed from above.

“The way it’s controlled is the social pressure, not government restraints,” he said.

And in the end, if the administration is not willing to allow VOP to stand, change will have to come from the students. As Krevsky pointed out, it could be one event that changes the entire course of dialogue pertaining to these issues at Brandeis.

“The campus dynamics change so much year to year,” she said, “so we just need one instance of all these different people coming together to talk in a safe environment and suddenly you have a new tradition.”