Chesler Chronicles

Princeton, Columbia Cancel Free Speech: Darwish Silenced

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) shakes hands with audience members during a campaign event on Feb. 23, 2016, in Kentwood, Mich. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)

The Evolving Story

I have been told that the Jewish student groups at Princeton, including Hillel, have behaved in a characteristically cowardly and opportunistic way in the matter of canceling Nonie Darwish’s speech. This problem exists on almost every campus in the Western world. The liberal Jews want very much to work with and to please/appease the more left-wing Jews as well as the Muslim students, including various Islamist imams on campus. Thus, they are the first to exclude, cancel, limit, or denounce speakers who do not toe the Party Line.

Based on a conversation with a reliable source whom I will not name, I have now learned that the Director of Hillel, a rabbi, as well as the Jewish group “Tigers for Israel,” literally conspired with the Muslim chaplain on campus to cancel Darwish at the last moment. Perhaps the Hillel rabbi values her interfaith dialogue far more than she values the right to intellectual diversity on an American campus. The Jewish groups (and a student Democratic group as well) had apparently all agreed to sponsor Darwish. But then, the Muslim chaplain allegedly described Darwish, falsely, as the equivalent of a “neo-Nazi.”

That is when everything began to fall apart.

Suddenly, at the last moment, the invitation was withdrawn, the room reservation canceled. Student Rafi Grinberg (with whom I have not yet spoken) tried to find another room—only to discover that the Jews had already canceled Darwish’s security arrangements. The Republican students still backed her speech. Finally, as Darwish sat at a café in New York City awaiting news of her fate at Princeton, Grinberg considered renting the Nassau Inn—right across the street. For a number of reasons, this was ultimately rejected as too ironic, too bizarre an option.

Carolyn Glick, writing about the disquieting relationship between some American Jewish organizations and the needs of the Jewish state, notes a similar problem with Hillel. She writes:

“Take UC Berkeley’s Hillel center, for example. Since Ken Kramarz, Hillel’s regional director for Northern California, started his job in June 2007, Berkeley’s Hillel has adopted a hostile view towards Judaism and Israel. As pro-Israel community activist Natan Nestel notes, in the past year alone, Hillel held a dance party on Yom Hashoah, and it held a Cinco de Mayo barbecue on Remembrance Day for Fallen IDF Soldiers. It has also failed to hold community Seders for the past two years. Instead, last year, its members hung signs in the Hillel building declaring, “Matza sucks.”

Beyond its derogatory treatment of Jewish and Israeli holidays, Berkeley’s Hillel has allowed an extremist group called Students for Justice for Palestine to participate in its organizational meetings.”

In 2003-2004, I began receiving emails from professors from all across America. They had just read my (then) new book The New Anti-Semitism and wanted to tell me how fearful they were of stating the truth about Israel and about anti-Semitism on their campuses lest they lose their funding, connections–maybe even their positions. I tried to interest several mainstream newspapers in telling this story way back then; indeed, one reporter at a major newspaper tried to do this story only to be stopped “at higher levels.”

What are all the large American Jewish organizations (the ADL, the AJCommittee, the UJA immediately come to mind) doing about the campus situation? Why is the very liberal Hillel in sole charge of the Jews on campus? (At least, that’s how Hillel sees it). Why is this problem only being dealt with by brave, independent, Jewish grassroots groups with 1/100th, maybe 1/1000th of their funding? Why is this problem seen as only a Jewish problem?

They always come for the Jews first but everyone else is right behind. The world did not stop the airplane hijackings, synagogue attacks, and suicide bombings when Palestinian terrorists targeted only Jews and Israelis. Thus, the world soon inherited the whirlwind.

As I’ve written many times before: Now, we are all Israelis.

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Original Story

In our time, a speaker must face a gauntlet of hostility and a menacing crowd if she wishes to speak in favor of Israel or to tell the truth about Islam.

That’s if she’s lucky. Most such speakers never get invited or when they do, their invitations are canceled.

Nonie Darwish, the author of Cruel and Usual Punishment: The Terrifying Global Implications of Islamic Law and Now They Call Me Infidel: Why I Renounced Jihad for America, Israel, and the War on Terror, has faced on-campus hostility and disruption before. Over the years, I have interviewed her about this a number of times. Like many of us, she has also sometimes been forced to have security guards with her when she speaks.

Nonie Darwish

Phyllis Chesler and Nonie Darwish

This time, Nonie, who is the founder of Arabs for Israel, was invited to speak at both Columbia and Princeton. The official invitation at Columbia came from the very distinguished CAMERA, Scholars for Peace in the Middle East (SPME), and from a new student organization there: Campus Media Watch, a group which is not yet quite up and running. Darwish flew from the West Coast, and was already all dressed up and ready to travel to Columbia when she got word that she’d been canceled.

“How humiliating is that? To come all this way, to be almost out the door of my hotel only to be told that they had to cancel my speech because campus security felt they could not protect me. Everyone is trying to blame someone else. Even the campus Republicans were afraid to sponsor me. SPME kept trying to fix it, but in the end, they could not.”

True, in 2006, President Ahmadinejad of Iran was not able to speak at Columbia because the notice given was too short. However, in 2007, Columbia University was able to provide security for him. And yet they could not provide it for Darwish. In 2006, Holocaust-denier Norman Finkelstein spoke at Columbia and in 2009, anti-Zionist, Israeli journalist Amira Hass spoke at Columbia–both without incident. Neither speaker was canceled. Next week, Noam Chomsky is speaking there. In Darwish’s view, “I doubt Chomsky will even need any security.”

Omar Bargouti spoke at Columbia a few weeks ago. He debated George Fletcher and did not require a major security presence. Dr. Judy Jacobson, the co-coordinator of the Columbia chapter of SPME, pointed out that this was entirely “unlike the Wilders event, which was open only to Columbia University ID (CUID) holders, and which used limited entrances, exits, and routes.” Of course, the kind of people who don’t like Bargouti simply avoid his lectures; they do not turn up looking for a fight. This is not true for those who fear and oppose free speech for Darwish and Geert Wilders.

Jacobson also said: “Valid concerns were raised by the security team at Columbia. Miscommunications occurred between the students who invited Darwish and the faculty members who tried to get her a room in which to speak. The head of security, John Murolo, would like to be able to provide proper security for her.”

Even after the Columbia fiasco, Darwish was still ready to take the train to Princeton when she got word that the event was canceled. She told me: “The Jewish group just caved in. The imam spoke to the rabbi and somehow persuaded him that my speech would not be good for Jewish-Muslim relations. Again, the Republicans on campus did not rescue me.”

Thus, both Princeton’s debate society and Tigers for Israel (more like Pussycats for Israel) caved in.

Princeton? Well, Norman Finkelstein spoke there as well apparently without incident as have the pro-Palestinian and anti-Israeli Richard Falk and Yoav Peled.

In Darwish’s case, Tigers for Israel and the debate society of Princeton both canceled her speech at the last moment. Muslim students, and a Muslim imam, Soaid Sultan, the head of Muslim life on campus, allegedly found what Darwish might say  objectionable. According to Darwish, “they accused me of saying that the Qu’ran has violent passages in it (it surely does), and that I compare Islam with communism.”

This accusation was based on a speech that Darwish had not yet given. Does the First Amendment not apply to her? Or to anyone else who says such things? Does the First Amendment exist now merely to protect hate speech against Jews, Israel, and America? And to prevent us from telling the truth about Islam and terrorism?

In Darwish’s case, since she has left Islam and converted to Christianity, her words are now easier to dismiss; she is no longer a Muslim and therefore has no right to speak about Islam. (Please see my piece where I write about the “balkanization of the imagination” that this point of view represents).

According to CAMERA, Campus Media Watch, and Dr. Jacobson, speaking for SPME: “We would all like to have Darwish speak at Columbia in the future but we want nothing unpleasant to happen and we want to do it right.”

What is one to make of all this? Often, things done in haste on campuses fly right under the radar. Often, huge student and faculty crowds turn out to support the rock star or the politically correct victim of the week. Large, safe rooms are found at the last minute. Experienced and powerful people put their shoulder to the wheel and make sure this happens.

But in this instance, Darwish had to turn around and fly right back home. Even if well-meaning people tried their best, meant well, or had simply not planned things right from the start, this will still stand as yet another day in which free speech and truth speech were silenced in America.