Cancelled appearance of pro-Israel speaker sparks controversy

Administrators now working to bring Nonie Darwish to campus

Monday, November 27, 2006

The University and Brown Hillel have announced that Nonie Darwish, an ardent supporter of Israel with Arab roots, will be coming to campus in the near future. This news – made public in a statement on Hillel’s Web site – comes after a flurry of criticism and media attention that resulted from the announcement that Darwish’s original appearance, which was scheduled for this week, had been canceled.

In an e-mail to The Herald, Interim Vice President for Campus Life and Student Services Rusell Carey ’91 MA’06 wrote that he spoke “with the students who initiated the idea of bringing Nonie Darwish to campus and told them my office would sponsor such a lecture. They are proceeding with planning it for early in the second semester.”

Darwish, who was born in Egypt and raised in the Gaza Strip, is an outspoken supporter of Israel and American policies in the Middle East. She is the author of “Now They Call Me Infidel: Why I Renounced Jihad for America, Israel, and the War on Terror,” in which she tells of her Muslim upbringing in Gaza and the anti-Israeli indoctrination that she experienced there.

Concerns about the controversial nature of some of Darwish’s writings as well as funding and scheduling concerns led to the cancellation of the original event, according to Yael Richardson ’08, president of Hillel’s executive board.

Darwish was invited to speak by Brown Students for Israel, a student group that works closely with Hillel, said BSI President Paul Savitz ‘07.5.

“We had been planning the event … since the spring,” Savitz said. “We thought she would provide an interesting perspective.”

BSI contacted Hillel and the Sarah Doyle Women’s Center for funding for the event, which would have cost $2,700. The women’s center was contacted because Darwish planned to address women’s rights in the Middle East, Richardson said.

However, officials from the center never agreed to fund Darwish’s appearance.

“We never said we’d fund the speaker. We said we’d consider the proposal and talk to others before deciding what to do. Before that, the speaker was canceled by Hillel, I believe,” wrote Gail Cohee, director of the Sarah Doyle Women’s Center, in an e-mail to The Herald.

According to Richardson, when it became apparent that the Sarah Doyle Women’s Center would not help fund the event, BSI asked Hillel to cover the entire cost. It was around this time that the executive board became aware of some of Darwish’s controversial statements, including characterizing women who wear Muslim attire as having “a mission of spreading Islam,” Richardson said.

“(Wearing of Muslim attire) is the Muslim women’s form of jihad – without the violence – but it could be aggressive,” Darwish wrote in a February 2002 article titled “The Veil: Female Form of Jihad.”

Members of Hillel’s executive board then “debated in a very thoughtful and deliberate way” whether Hillel should be the sole sponsor of the event, Richardson said.

“After a lot of discussion with the people who were organizing the event, with representatives from the Muslim community, with Hillel staff … with other Jewish students involved with Hillel … and with (Muslim Chaplain and Associate University Chaplain) Rumee Ahmed … we ultimately decided that Brown Hillel should not be the sole sponsor of the event,” Richardson said.

In a presentation to the executive board, Ahmed said he believed Darwish’s beliefs are too controversial and potentially disrespectful to the religion of Islam to be invited to speak on campus. These concerns, coupled with funding and scheduling issues, led the executive board to decide not to sponsor the event, Richardson said.

Hillel’s decision prompted national media attention, especially from several conservative political pundits.

In a Nov. 19 New York Post column titled “Dissent Crushed,” Adam Brodsky wrote that the cancellation of Darwish’s appearance was an example of Muslims censoring criticism even from within their own ranks.

Brodsky wrote, “Too few Arabs and Muslims share (Darwish’s) desire for peace with Israel, equality and cultural reform. … When one Muslim voice does raise such sentiments, it deserves to be heard. Too bad the young Muslims (and their Jewish enablers) at Brown won’t hear it.” Stories about the cancellation have also run in a number of Jewish news sources as well as an online blog for conservative magazine National Review.

But these news stories have not captured the complexity of the events and the issues surrounding them, Savitz said.

“I think some of the stories from national media outlets have been … too sensationalized,” Savitz said. “The sensational mood misses a lot. The truth is more complex.”

Richardson agreed that stories in the national media have not accurately characterized the events leading up to the cancellation.

“The national media has made Muslim students seem like the aggressors in this decision, which they most certainly were not,” Richardson said. In fact, Hillel’s executive board decided to consult Ahmed and Muslim students to get perspective on the issue.

“The Brown University community values the contributions of affiliated student religious groups and supports open discussion among people of all faiths and religious beliefs,” reads the University statement regarding the arrangement on Hillel’s Web site.

A separate Hillel statement expresses support for bringing Darwish to speak. “We look forward to hearing Ms. Darwish’s perspective on the threat of radical Islam, a message that needs to be heard both at Brown and on campuses around the nation.”

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