Middle East studies in the News
Rift at Jewish School in Manhattan Over Canceled Plan for Israeli-Palestinian Talk [on Rashid Khalidi]
by Jacob W. Sotak
During a presentation on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Peter Beinart, an author and columnist who writes frequently on the topic, suggested to a group of high school students that they invite a particular Columbia University professor to give his views.
It was a suggestion he had made to similar groups. Still, Mr. Beinart said, he was surprised when the students followed through.
But there was one problem. The students attend Ramaz, a prestigious private Orthodox Jewish school on the Upper East Side, and the professor,Rashid Khalidi, is well known for his outspoken support of Palestinian resistance to Israel's policies in the Palestinian territories.
The invitation came from a student group called the Ramaz Politics Society, or RamPo. Though the group's faculty adviser and other administrators supported the invitation, Paul Shaviv, the head of the school, overruled them and rescinded it.
In response, the society drafted an open letter to Mr. Shaviv that reads in part: "I believe it is critical that Ramaz students are exposed to different perspectives and that open dialogue be encouraged at Ramaz, not limited." The letter has garnered the support of nearly one-third of the high school's student body, as well as more than 100 signatures from alumni, parents and outside supporters.
The dissent became loud enough that Mr. Shaviv felt compelled to respond. In a statement on Sunday to parents and faculty, he described Professor Khalidi as "an international personality of great political stature," but went on to suggest that the professor's visit would ignite a political wildfire that would probably outweigh meaningful dialogue.
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been roiling college campuses across the country in recent years. Chapters of Hillel, the Jewish student group, at Swarthmore and Vassar Colleges recently said they would not abide by Hillel guidelines that prohibit collaboration with speakers or groups that "delegitimize" or "apply a double standard" to Israel. A nationwide professors' group recently voted to boycott Israeli academic institutions.
More uncommon is this kind of debate at a high school, but Ramaz is not just any high school. Founded in 1937 by Rabbi Joseph H. Lookstein, the school was set up to combine Judaic studies of a traditional yeshiva, taught in Hebrew and largely focused on the Talmud and the Torah, with secular study. As a modern orthodox school, Ramaz, which also has early childhood, elementary and middle school grades, is open to boys and girls. Tuition in the high school ranges from $35,600 a year for freshmen to $36,950 a year for seniors.
Mr. Shaviv said in an interview this week that he had met with Professor Khalidi personally and that the professor "understood the issue immediately." Mr. Shaviv described Professor Khalidi, whom he overlapped with briefly while at Oxford, as a "world-class academic," but suggested that any dialogue between the professor and students would be distinctly imbalanced.
"It would be a bit like inviting the head of our high school tennis team to play an exhibition match with Andre Agassi," he said. "We are not a university. We are not a graduate institute on the Middle East and politics. We are not a political organization. We are a high school. Given the sensitivity of this issue, this was simply not an appropriate or balanced dialogue."
While the student leadership of the Ramaz Politics Society declined to be interviewed, they said in an emailed statement that the decision to invite Professor Khalidi was born out of the desire to "promote open dialogue at Ramaz and to give the student body the opportunity to hear an outside perspective on an issue important to us."
The talk, according to the society's leadership, was to take place on Feb. 19 and be a presentation about the two-state solution. Professor Khalidi would have talked for around 45 minutes, followed by a 30-minute question and answer session with the students. The society had also arranged for students to attend meetings before and after the presentation to "discuss the issues Professor Khalidi would have talked on."
Daniel Gutkind, a Ramaz sophomore, said that while he was not sure if the invitation should have been extended in the first place, he was certain that the visit would not have disrupted the student body.
"I have been going to Ramaz for 10 years," he said. "My parents are Israeli and I'm very Zionist. I think the students can take it. I probably would have gone to hear it and would have come out thinking, 'This guy makes some good points,' but he's not going to change anything."
Mr. Gutkind's classmate, Aaron Dahan, said that while he was initially interested in the talk when he was alerted through the society's Facebook group page, he became skeptical after reading Mr. Shaviv's letter.
"I started to think maybe he is not the best person to come to this school," Mr. Dahan said. "It's very Zionist."
Professor Khalidi, who was born in New York City to a Palestinian Muslim father and Lebanese Christian mother, has written many books and articles about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and is often quoted by journalists presenting a Palestinian view of affairs. His close ties to President Obama, whom he met and befriended while a professor at the University of Chicago, drew close scrutiny from Mr. Obama's opponents during his 2008 presidential campaign.
Critics have accused the professor of having had ties to the Palestine Liberation Organization, which he has denied, saying on Tuesday that he "served as an adviser to the Palestinian delegation during the peace negotiations with Israel in Madrid and Washington from 1991 to 1993."
In a separate telephone conversation this week, Professor Khalidi expressed little surprise that the invitation from Ramaz had been rescinded. But he declined to comment further, saying only that he has "nothing to add to what is out there already."Note: Articles listed under "Middle East studies in the News" provide information on current developments concerning Middle East studies on North American campuses. These reports do not necessarily reflect the views of Campus Watch and do not necessarily correspond to Campus Watch's critique.
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