The leadership development director for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), Jonathan Kessler, came to speak on campus on Thursday, April 23, drawing a handful of interested students as well as a crowd of about 20, who gathered in opposition to AIPAC’s message and felt uncomfortable with Kessler’s presence on campus.
After more than an hour of tension and voices that ran equally high on both sides, Kessler and a few students moved their meeting elsewhere. A majority of the students, including some who did not come in with the dissenting group, stayed behind after Kessler’s departure to hold an impromptu discussion.
Notice of Kessler’s talk was sent out to students just one hour prior to the event, scheduled for 7 p.m. Many felt that the short-notice coupled with the wording of the email, were objectionable. “Are you pro-Israel and unsure about how to make a stand for Israel on your college campus? Are you lacking confidence in how to be openly pro-Israel amongst your far-left colleagues? Are you yourself beginning to QUESTION Israel BECAUSE of the propaganda you see and hear around your college campus? Come and discuss this STRUGGLE TO SECURE ISRAEL ON COLLEGE CAMPUSES …” the invitation read.
Some students felt excluded by the wording of the email, which reiterated, “Again, only for students seriously interested in securing Israel on our campus.”
“We weren’t included in the conversation,” first-year Leen Alfatafta said. “The only people who were invited were pro-Israel.”
The incident has since raised questions about campus climate and tolerance of opposing views, with some fearing that voices from all sides are being inadvertently silenced. Still, many questioned the use of a public campus space to host such a contentious speaker. AIPAC, considered one of the most powerful pro-Israeli lobbying groups, is no stranger on college campuses. The organization hosts an annual policy conference in Washington D.C. that doubles as a campus outreach effort by inviting student leaders from universities in all 50 states.
“Every future senator will pass through an American campus. Every future member of the House of Representatives will pass through an American campus. AIPAC’s job is to identify, engage and educate those individuals that are already self-defining, self-actualizing as campus political leaders,” Kessler said in a clip of the 2010 conference, released by the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. “We simply have to find a way of identifying those most likely to emerge as America’s future policy makers, specifically foreign policy makers.”
Kessler added, “How are we going to beat back the anti-Israel divestment resolution at Berkeley? We’re going to make sure that pro-Israel students take over the student government and reverse the vote…This is how AIPAC operates in our nation’s capital. This is how AIPAC must operate on our nation’s campuses.”
AIPAC’s presence on campus drew further scrutiny after an article written by Bryan Ellis in the socialist newspaper Liberation News, stated that an event series titled “Finding a Path to Peace” was not given permission to host two events at New College this past January. Ellis, who was on campus protesting Kessler’s talk on Thursday, alleged that President O’Shea had received threatening calls from members of Sarasota’s Jewish community in response to the Finding a Path to Peace event. President O’Shea rejected the article’s claims.
“There was a series, [Finding a Path to Peace], that was put out that said it had New College sponsorship, and it didn’t have New College sponsorship. I was concerned about it and so were some others because what was being presented there was quite one-sided, and was being billed as two-sided. And of course if it were a student event – fine. But it was being presented as sponsored by New College,” O’Shea said, adding that the series’ organizers ultimately respected the school’s decision not to sponsor the series and moved the events elsewhere.
“It is true that the Jewish Federation was not happy about [the Finding a Path to Peace event] there – they felt it was one-sided. I quite agreed with them though, I thought it was one sided … It would be O.K. to put that on campus as a student event, and people could disagree on it, but not presented as a New College event, or as having the college’s [sponsorship], which I think is what they wanted,” O’Shea added, saying that the event in question seemed to draw in students beneath the “guise of a multiple religion” function.
Finding a Path to Peace was billed as a Palestine/Israel educational series and was co-sponsored by the Peace Education and Action Center, the Center for Religious Tolerance, the Women’s Interfaith Network, the Venice Interfaith Community Association, the Suncoast ANSWER Coalition, and WSLR Community Radio.
Events in the series included screenings of the acclaimed documentary by Israeli-American filmmaker Ronit Avni, “Encounter Point,” as well as a screening of the documentary “Where Should The Birds Fly” by Gaza filmmaker Fida Qishta, and a presentation by Tzvia Thier, an Israeli-American activist who identifies as a former Zionist.
“As a rule I often feel that New College can often be a tough place for students that are observant and quite religious,” O’Shea said, adding that he hopes students on campus do not become polarized by outside forces. “It’s concerned me. So I really hope that’s not going to happen here. No matter what one thinks of AIPAC, I certainly hope that the students that had invited that speaker are not feeling themselves unsafe or targeted. Which would be terrible. And I think there are outside groups here that are quite interested in creating divisions because it helps their cause if they can demonize somebody else. I hope we don’t fall into that.”
Information for this article was taken from www.newyorker.com, www.nytimes.com and www. aipac.org and www.jta.org