Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

Academics' Concern over Jewish Sensitivities Backfires

Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

Academics' Concern over Jewish Sensitivities Backfires

Article excerpt

Academics' Concern Over Jewish Sensitivities Backfires

"Attempts to curtail artistic presentations at academic institutions on grounds that the works are offensive to some members of the campus community and general public occur with disturbing frequency."

Recently, the campus of a small mid-western college became the forum for a raging debate on freedom of expression. It was sparked by the cancellation by the college's administrators of a performance scheduled for last fall of the play Ansar, to be presented by the Palestinian theater troupe Al Masrah.

Franklin College, of Franklin, IN, has a student population of 900. Argument over whether or not the play's cancellation constituted a denial of First Amendment rights resulted in the appointment of an American Association of University Professors (AAUP) committee to investigate the matter. Professors, deans, students, alumni, the local press, the Midwest Regional Chapter of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) of B'nai B'rith, and even the president's wife, entered the debate. According to the head of the local AAUP, Dr. Jerry Miller: "There was a point last fall when we couldn't think about anything else..."

Several events led to the play's cancellation. One of these was the presentation at Franklin in March 1991 of a conference entitled "A New Order in the Middle East: Recent Changes in U.S. Foreign Policy." The program had been planned before the arrival of Dr. George Irani, a recently appointed assistant professor of international relations, who became involved with the planning committee soon after taking up his position. It was he who later suggested inviting the Palestinian theater troupe to the campus.

The conference planners, who included the president's wife, Mrs. Margo Martin, had wanted to present the Palestinian position. They felt the Israeli position was already well known.

When Dr. Irani became involved, however, he suggested that the Israeli position should also be included. He contacted Marsha Goldstone of the Indiana Jewish Relations Council. She recommended they invite Dr. Martin Spechler, an economics professor at Indiana University-Purdue at Indianapolis (IUPUI) and a former lecturer at Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

In addition to Dr. Spechler, other conference speakers included Los Angeles Times journalist David Lamb, peace activist Mubarak Awad, and a Kuwaiti professor, Dr. Abd Al-Jaleel, who spoke of life under the Iraqi occupation. The keynote address was presented by George Ball, deputy secretary of state and ambassador to the U.N. during the Kennedy and Johnson administrations.

"We will not start the year without a pro-Israeli position."

On March 6, nine days before the conference was to take place, two Franklin College alumni, both Jewish, invited President Martin to breakfast. One was Mr. Robert Epstein, a member of the board of directors of the Midwest Chapter of the ADL. They expressed their concern that the upcoming conference had a "pro-Palestinian slant."

Epstein then arranged a conference call between himself, President Martin, and Alan Katchen, the ADL's regional director. Katchen offered the ADL's assistance in recommending speakers who could present the Israeli perspective. When Martin suggested the alterations to the conference organizers, they responded that the speakers had already been contacted, the schedule publicized, and there was too little time to make the changes. It was agreed that Professor Irani would pursue Mr. Katchen's offer at some later date.

The conference attracted an audience of 350 students, professors, and community members. While many had high praise for the program, Spechler and three other attendees told reporters from the local newspaper, the Daily Journal, that they felt the conference was "unbalanced and anti Israeli." Mr. Epstein told the Washington Report in April that he felt that most of the Arab speakers were open-minded and offered "reasoned points of view. …

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