Lecture Stirs Anger
A public lecture by a visiting scholar on the UCLA campususually doesn’t make much of a ripple, but nearly all of the 1,800 seats inRoyce Hall were taken and the atmosphere was electric when professor Edward W.Said stepped up to the lectern.
The sponsoring Burkle Center for International Studies hadbeen forced to move the Feb. 20 event from a smaller venue, and inside RoyceHall, groups of students worked their cell phones in Hebrew and Arabic. At theentrance, Bruins for Israel, StandWithUs, the Spartacus Youth Club and the BlueTriangle Network passed out competing pamphlets.
Said has impeccable academic credentials as a graduate of Princetonand Harvard universities, professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia University and the author of 20 scholarly books translated into 35 languages.
Although his reputation as an ardent advocate of Palestinianand Arab causes had preceded the Jerusalem-born scholar, some members of theuniversity community and the public had come hoping for a sober and rationalpresentation on the complexities of the Middle East.
Most were quickly disabused of that hope, none more so thana number of the most dedicated Jewish advocates of reconciliation andco-existence with the Palestinians. After a heated shouting match with Said, soardent a peacenik as Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller of UCLA Hillel subsequentlylabeled the Columbia professor as “a fraud.”
Said, who served as a member of the Palestinian NationalCouncil from 1977-1991, set the tone by declaring that Israel’s treatment ofPalestinians is currently the world’s most visible case of human rights abuses.
“The denial of human rights by Israel cannot be accepted onany grounds,” whether based on divine guidance or past Jewish suffering, hedeclared.
While agreeing that Palestinian suicide bombings were”terrible,” Said quickly put the onus on the Israeli bulldozing of homes,helicopter missile attacks and strip searches of civilians.
Warming to his subject and accompanied by enthusiasticapplause by a good part of the audience, Said said that any human rightsviolations charged to Saddam Hussein were also applicable to Israel.
Describing some of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’spronouncements as “thuggish balderdash,” Said said that Israel, which hadenjoyed a reputation as a progressive society in its early years, “now had theimage of an aggressor.”
Said, acknowledging his own partisanship as a Palestinian,said he saw little chance of a modus vivendi between the Palestinian “David”and the Israeli “Goliath,” at least until Israeli leaders expressed theircontrition for the alleged crimes against the Palestinian people.
“Neither side is blessed with a [Nelson] Mandela or a[former South African president F.W.] de Klerk,” Said said.
Toward the end of his 75-minute talk, Said softened hisrhetoric by citing his friendship with Israeli conductor Daniel Barenboim,which has led to the creation of an Arab-Israeli youth orchestra.
The mellower mood vanished with the first question, whichwas posed by Seidler-Feller.
Charging that Said had painted a black- and-white picture ofthe world, Seidler-Feller pointed to a number of misstatements by the speaker,and, amidst raucous catcalls from the audience, challenged Said to sign a jointstatement advocating Israel’s return to the pre-1967 boundaries, a jointcapital in Jerusalem and settlement of the Palestinian refugee problem.
Said would have none of it. He denounced Seidler-Feller’s”tirade of falsehoods,” and as a victim of the propaganda, which, Said claimed,is the only thing sustaining Israel, besides the support of the United States.
Seidler-Feller was still in an angry mood the following day.”Said appears as a sophisticated, urbane, reasonable academic, but he is reallya belligerent naysayer,” Seidler-Feller observed. “That is why he is a fraud.”
“He is so encumbered by memory, that he is stuck,” theHillel rabbi added. “He is totally dependent on his sense of victimhood. WeJews have used this approach at times, too, but in order to reach any kind ofagreement, we must both go beyond that.”
Seidler-Feller also expressed his disappointment that, inhis talk, Said had “created an atmosphere which empowered the audience to behostile.”
Dr. David N. Myers, a UCLA history professor and formerdirector of the UCLA Center for Jewish Studies, who has frequently spoken outagainst the Israeli occupation policies, also expressed his disappointment.
Myers described Said as “a tragic figure, a man ofremarkable intelligence, charisma and oratorical skill, who chose to ignore thecomplex dynamics of the conflict and instead recited the stale platitudes ofPalestinian rejectionism.”
Dr. Sam Aroni, another UCLA professor and a longtimeadvocate of a two-state solution, said he left Royce Hall deeply depressed atthe apparent impossibility of dialogue between the Israeli and Palestiniansides.
“Unfortunately, Said used emotional, rather than rationalarguments,” Aroni said.
One exception to the negative reaction among Jewish doveswas that of philanthropist and political activist Stanley Sheinbaum, one of themost veteran and prominent members of the peace movement.
“Said’s points were generally valid, but Israelis andAmerican Jews don’t have the patience or tolerance to deal with them,” he said.
While there may be some disagreements about certain facts,Sheinbaum said, the main point is that “the Palestinians consider themselves underoccupation, and the question is whether Israelis understand that.”
At the request of the Burkle Center, Sheinbaum hosted areception for Said at his home after the talk. Approximately 60-70 guestscontinued to debate the issues, generating ” a little heat,” Sheinbaum said. Hehas since received four to five pieces of hate mail, Sheinbaum added.
Professor Geoffrey Garrett, director of the Burkle Center,announced that the next forum speaker will be Martin Indyk, former U.S.ambassador to Israel, and that he was finalizing plans for the appearance ofKing Abdullah II of Jordan.
The associate director of the Burkle Center, politicalscientist Steven Spiegel, who was unable to attend the Said lecture, said thatSaid’s appearance was in keeping with the UCLA mission of presenting a varietyof views.
“However, by the end of the forum series, the other sidewill be more than amply represented,” Spiegel said. Â