There's an old newsroom saying that goes something like this: "If your mother says she loves you, check it out."
Penn's Middle East Center doesn't claim to love anyone. But the organization does say on its Web site that it "strives to reflect the diverse nature of the region in its public programming." A lofty goal, I thought, upon first reading those words. Yet as I found out recently, the diverse programming claim doesn't check out.
On Wednesday night, the center co-sponsored a slanderous speech by Eugene Bird entitled "What's Wrong with the Withdrawal?" The flyers advertising the speech described Bird as the current president of the Council for National Interest -- a seemingly unbiased organization that claims to be "non-partisan."
The Council actually has ties to terrorism. A former member of its board of directors now faces 19 counts of terrorism-related charges in Virginia for allegedly funding both Hamas and al Qaeda. Moreover, the same member, Abdurahman Alamoudi, publicly supported both the Lebanese terrorist groups Hezbollah and Hamas while serving on the board in October 2000: "Hear that, Bill Clinton? We are all supporters of Hamas. I wish they added that I am also a supporter of Hezbollah."
It is unsurprising, then, that Saudi Arabia supports the Council for National Interest by providing it with up to 5 percent of its funds. Part of that money goes to the Council's Web site, whose domain name, cnionline.org, is registered to a man convicted of making illegal shipments to Libya and Syria and charged with negotiating business deals with a designated terrorist.
Worse, Bird himself met with several avowed terrorists in 1999, sitting down to chat with Nabih Berri (of the Lebanese Amal terrorist group) and senior Hamas official Mahmoud Al-Zahar. Where did I learn this? From a press release by CNIF, a branch of the Council.
If the Penn Middle East Center actually researches its speakers, then I wonder how it failed to come across this press release. Or if it did see the release, I wonder how the center failed to conclude that supporters of terrorism usually don't "reflect the diverse nature of the" Mideast.
Indeed, it would have been only too easy to check out Bird's background -- especially since he has a history of revealing his biases.
On May 4, 2004, he appeared on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation's National News, suggesting that Israelis may have been to blame for the Abu Ghraib abuses perpetrated by American soldiers.
"We know that the Israeli intelligence was operating in Baghdad after the war was over," he said. "The question should be: Were there any foreign interrogators among those that were recommending very, very bad treatment for the prisoners?"
Bolstered by the Middle East Center, Bird went further on Wednesday, advancing his theory that a cabal of Jews -- namely, "Wolfowitz, Perle and Feith" -- was responsible for leading America into the Iraq war and other "mischief in American foreign policy." His evidence? The Downing Street Memo, a British document that discusses Bush's desire to invade Iraq but never even mentions Israel.
When asked whether non-Jews like Cheney and Rumsfeld had a hand in the war, Bird dismissed the notion and instead called American Undersecretary of Defense Douglas Feith's loyalties into question.
"Feith -- he's almost an Israeli citizen."
At this point, two men who were unaffiliated with Penn screamed at Bird and asked him why he was only singling out Jews as responsible for the Iraq mess. Their shouting was totally unnecessary and they should have asked their questions civilly.
Still, their question was a valid one. Bird's response?
"I have a member of the Holocaust in my family."
That's like when a racist claims his friends are black. It might be true but it doesn't change anything: the Holocaust "member" doesn't negate Bird's conspiracy theory that Jews propagated the Iraq war.
Of course, Bird also subtly theorized that Israel was partly to blame for 9/11: "The Saudis have been friends for years. ... I was just as astonished as anybody that middle class Saudis -- 15 of them -- would engage in a blow against America.
"And remember what George Washington said about entangling alliances -- we certainly have one with Israel -- 'be careful because their enemies may end up as your enemies.' And that's certainly happened in the Middle East." Bird then referred the audience to antiwar.com, a Web site that promotes Terror Enigma, a book that implicates Israel in the 9/11 attacks.
This university should be ashamed that its Middle East Center didn't vet a bigot before allowing him to spew his venom on campus. At least students now know: If a conspiracy theorist comes to speak, check him out.