Miko Peled: Where to draw the line

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Author and Palestinian rights activist Miko Peled came to the University to speak at the invitation of English Professor Michael Drexler on Feb. 7. The lecture was supported by the University Lectureship Committee and co-sponsored by six academic departments: English, Geography, International Relations, Africana Studies, Arabic Studies, and History. Hillel and the Muslim Student Association denied requests to support the event.

 

Peled is a staunch supporter of Palestinian rights and a proponent of sanctions and divestments against Israel. Peled is also the author of a memoir entitled “The General’s Son: Journey of an Israeli in Palestine,” in which he recounts his personal experiences related to the Israel-Palestine conflict. However, it is not Peled’s support of Palestine that has been deemed problematic. Rather, his characterizations of Israel through anti-Semitic tropes, exemplified in his comparison of Jews to “sleazy thieves,” his equation of Zionism to racism, and previous comments that people should be allowed to question if the Holocaust occurred, make him a highly-contested choice to speak on campus.

 

Peled is not the first speaker to come to the University under criticism. Reactions from students, faculty, and staff are reminiscent of remarks made when Milo Yiannopoulos came to campus in February 2016 as well as when Amy Wax spoke in April 2018.

 

Drexler, a member of the Jewish community himself, defended his invitation to the controversial speaker saying, “He is now among the most prominent advocates for a single democratic state as the just resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. His perspective is one that I share and that I thought deserved an audience here at Bucknell.”

 

Institutions of higher learning have the obligation to expose students to a variety of opinions and ideologies that are drastically different from one’s own. However, universities must simultaneously promote equality regardless of a student’s racial, socioeconomic, or religious background. Managing these two duties is an intricate balancing act; the apprehension that comes with hearing an opposing opinion should facilitate productive debate and discussion, while also ensuring students do not feel threatened or marginalized.

 

“While I know some find this difficult to accept, allowing a speaker on a college campus is not an endorsement of the positions held by that individual. Rather, it is an affirmation of the mission of higher education broadly, and Bucknell specifically,” President John Bravman said in an emailed statement to the campus community in response to a rising level of concern regarding Peled’s visit.

 

“If learning the facts about the Occupation makes Jewish students at Bucknell uncomfortable, then I’m all for discomfort. It’s an incredible incentive for becoming better educated,” Drexler said in a statement to The Bucknellian.

 

Professors and student groups are responsible for weighing the risks and benefits of inviting speakers with polarizing views to campus, toeing the fine line between productive and non-productive controversy. The campus community must advocate for speakers who are widely-accredited experts in their field and who provide evidence corroborating their claims. Additionally, it is essential that the community is presented with opportunities to see lecturers representing a broad range of opinions so as to avoid the perpetuation of misinformation.

 

However, acknowledging that there has indeed been a nationwide surge in anti-Semitic incidents and rhetoric is vital to this discussion. Although the University’s Jewish community has not seen a notable increase of anti-Semitism on campus, sponsoring Peled’s lecture may present the idea that the University is complicit with such detrimental language.

 

“People should be allowed to criticize Israel’s government and policies on campus, as much as they criticize any other government or set of policies,” Rabbi Chana Leslie Glazer said in a statement to University Jewish students. However, despite her defense of diverse perspectives on campus, she expressed concern about Peled’s tone and mode of expression. “His permissiveness around Holocaust denial is discomforting and also makes me question whether he is an appropriate speaker for a university setting,” she said. Jake Rubin ’19 echoed the Rabbi’s opinion for the importance of allowing critique in a respectful manner.

 

“The University is right to allow a speaker to discuss the geopolitics of Israel and Palestine, but by choosing to allow one that builds his argument on blatantly racist and willfully ignorant claims, it failed to properly educate its students and supported the hate that sometimes makes me afraid to be Jewish,” Rubin said.

 

Therefore, we are left with the lingering question of where it is appropriate for this line between productive discourse and harmful rhetoric to be drawn. This is a question that may never be formally resolved. Yet, it is vital for institutions of power, such as the University, to look to the communities that are most directly affected by such events to discern when the conversation veers from beneficial to destructive.

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