Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), formerly known as the Radical Student Alliance (RSA), as well as the Arab Culture Club (ACC), announced that they had dropped their sponsorship of a possible upcoming event with DePaul University Professor Norman Finkelstein, controversial critic of Professor Alan Dershowitz and author of The Holocaust Industry. This comes after an announcement on March 2, when the Finance Board stated that it gave funds to sponsor the event.
While sources say that the causes for the SDS/RSA dropping the event were based on conflicts between the club's leaders and the event organizer, other sources state that the ACC abandoned the event because they did not wish to remain the sole sponsors for the controversial event.
"I think it is something that SDS/RSA would do, but I think one problem is that there was this sort of disconnect with [Finkelstein organizer Kevin] Conway [‘09] what he was thinking about and doing and the rest of SDS/RSA," said SDS/RSA co-facilitator Daniel Duffy '07. "There are few people in the SDS/RSA who know anything about Finkelstein and you know, why should we? Kevin had the idea, and he came to us with the idea, it didn't germinate with the SDS/RSA."
Conway explained that the SDS/RSA announced their disavowal at a potluck meeting "about two weeks ago Sunday… there was nothing on the agenda about Finkelstein, it was about the anti-war strategy. At the end [of the meeting], a couple people at the end who I guess were seniors were whispering to each other, saying ‘should we do this now?'"
Conway said that the club then told him they would not sponsor the Finkelstein event because "one, was he's an alleged Holocaust denier, and the other was that it wasn't properly authorized, it didn't go through the official channels. Even though Duffy authorized it, Duffy doesn't speak for all of [SDS], so he didn't have the authority to do that. And then I got stuff like, ‘we haven't accepted you as a member of the group, you've been pushy since we got here.'"
SDS co-facilitator Michelle Lindstrom '07 stated that "it's not so much that [Conway's] membership is in doubt, it's just that he wasn't a good member." She added that "what ended up happening was that we met to decide on our campaign for the semester and do some organizing work, and we said at the meeting conclusively that it was something that wasn't going to happen and that we weren't happy that you, in a sense, appropriated our name and used it to your devices."
Another reason the SDS disavowed the event was Finkelstein's reputation with the Anti-Defamation League. "What was especially troubling was that none of us knew that Finkelstein had been accused of being a Holocaust denier," said Lindstrom. "It was particularly troubling to find out about that, and to find out that our name has been attached to it for the better part of a month, and that people therefore think that the RSA is working to bring to campus a Holocaust denier, in the simplest of terms."
The Washington Post, however, deemed these accusations "baseless" in 2006 ("In N.Y., Sparks Fly Over Israel Criticism," The Washington Post, Oct. 9, 2006).
Lindstrom added that the group's decision also stemmed from a seeming break in communication. "After communication with the group saying he can't use our name, we see the Justice article saying that Kevin Conway went to the F-Board using the RSA's name. There was no approval made, and he just kept going forward," she said. "Basically we were under the impression that the communications we had had with him, which were primarily to the effect of ‘we don't know if we want to do this, we need more information, the RSA has not consented to bring Finkelstein as an RSA-sponsored event,' we assumed he got the point, but then every other week we got a new connection between Finkelstein and the RSA, or Kevin as the RSA representative."
Duffy said that while "in my personal opinion, I'd like to see [Finkelstein] come… there's been a lot of frustration with the sort of privileges that [Conway has] taken that weren't necessarily given to him." Duffy stated that Conway "was asking for money in the RSA's name, he's been doing stuff, like going to the newspapers. He says he's a member of the RSA, but he's only been to two meetings… I've been a member, I've gone to all the meetings for the last year and a half; he's not a member."
Conway angrily responded to Duffy's statements, recalling that, according to the RSA/SDS constitution, "anyone who identifies themselves as a member of RSA is one." "I think [Duffy is] pretty mad about the op-eds, and the articles—I think its misplaced anger," added Conway. "Duffy's disliked me for a long time, that's been obvious. They say [the event] was imposed on them, and they were never consulted and things like that…I think I want nothing to do with that group ever, ever again, and I doubt Finkelstein does either—I mean, I can't speak for him, but Finkelstein isn't desperate to speak anywhere, and I doubt he'd want to speak for a group like that."
Meanwhile, the Arab Culture Club stated that they had backed out of co-sponsoring the event due to both logistical concerns as well as because of Finkelstein's reputation. ACC Co-President Farrah Bdour '07 added that Duffy told her that "it was [Conway's] original idea in January, we didn't really see why we would continue…it wasn't an effort that we were initiating in the first place. It was originally the RSA and they were looking for co-sponsored, and they had three or four cosponsors, but at the end, we were the only co-sponsors left." Because the SDS dropped, Bdour said, "we don't want to be the only group bringing him to campus."
When asked to elaborate on why the ACC did not want to take sole sponsorship of the event, she said that the Campaign for Peace Committee, which reviewed the Finkelstein event February 15, warned of "possible repercussions to Arabs and Muslims on campus."
While Bdour said that many members of the group felt this was "far-fetched," she recalled the hostility surrounding the Daniel Pipes speech of 2003. "There was a demonstration and there was a walk for peace, and people were screaming at them… people got beat up," she said. "I hope this sort of thing couldn't happen with Finkelstein, but we wanted to make sure that things that happened in the past didn't happen again." Bdour added, though, that if another club was willing to cosponsor the event, the ACC would return to cosponsor the Finkelstein speech.
Meanwhile, several students' responses to SDS and the ACC's dropping of the Finkelstein event were mixed.
"I think that's probably a good decision because I think Norman Finkelstein could just perpetuate a lot of hate and negative feelings on this campus," said Zahav co-president Gabi Lupatkin '09. "It's a better strategy for the school to work for [programs that bring] more peace not more hate."
David Kuperstein '08 said his opinion was conflicted. "Personally, I'm critical of things Mr. Finkelstein has said and written in the past. It's my understanding that the majority of his appearances tend to be more of a theatrical nature than academic. On other hand, it's their right to bring him the same way it's anyone's right not to attend or to peacefully protest. That's free speech."
Boots Janoowalla '10, however, felt that "it might have been a good idea for him to come. I don't know a lot about his philosophy. Just to have different viewpoints, it was good to have Carter and then Dershowitz. It's really important to listen to all sides of the argument." She added that "I would've supported him coming even though I don't know a lot about him. It would give a different viewpoint."
Meanwhile, Ari Jadwin '10 said that "I'm in no way against free speech however there is a thing as being productive. I don't personally agree with Finkelstein and I don't think his coming here would've been productive but just incite totally counter productive reactions. It would further the endless cycle of fighting and not talking."
However, the SDS's removal of their co-sponsorship does not preclude the cancellation of the event. Because the ACC, who hold the funds for the event, stated they would consider granting their sponsorship status if other clubs followed suit, Conway said that "I've asked several groups—they've been responsive, so I hope they know what they're in for. Associating yourself with Finkelstein can get you libeled by Dershowitz, betrayed by your own group…I've had to warn them, since I apparently wasn't clear enough the first time."
Jacob Korman '08 of the World Can't Wait club has since offered to co-sponsor the Finkelstein event. The little-known club, which was originally meant to protest the Bush administration, has not been heard of since its motion recharter in 2005. "We're discussing the fact that Brandeis doesn't have an open dialogue, but in fact is going in the opposite direction," said Korman. "People are being shot down for their views before they are even heard…I don't know much about Norman Finkelstein, except that people get rabid around the mouth every time they mention him."
Korman added that the group is "truthfully a group of people who are interested in dialogue." He also said that "I'm so tired of people dropping stuff because of pressure… no one else is standing up. I'm a philosophy major, and I believe in free speech, I believe in a lot of different theories about rights. If I don't stand up for this, who will? Because a lot of people on campus are running in the opposite direction; nobody wants to be controversial, nobody wants to be the devil's advocate."