The Boniuk Center for the Study and Advancement of Religious Tolerance has announced a policy change in the way it will co-sponsor events aimed at bringing together people who disagree on certain divisive issues.
Under this new direction, aptly termed the "bridge-builders" approach, the center "will now only agree to co-sponsor speakers who are jointly invited by two groups representing two different constituencies relevant to the topic presented," according to a statement released by the center's director, Carol Quillen.
Thus, for example, if a local Muslim and Jewish group together request funds for an event discussing peace in the Middle East, or a Christian and Jewish group jointly request funds for an event discussing Holocaust-denial, the center will consider funding such programs under this new approach. It also will work to help facilitate such partnerships by helping to bring together interested parties.
The Boniuk Center will continue to use its "neutral" status to meet privately with religious and community leaders who express controversial views, and will encourage dialogue between those who disagree. "If we decide that a public event would be fruitful, we will hold one, but not unless we are convinced that we can attract a diverse audience and create a safe space in which people can discuss their differences," Quillen clarified.
This new "bridge-builders" approach coincides with one of the center's own public lecture programs, the Bridge Builder Series, which seeks out people who serve as bridges of connection between groups normally estranged from each other. Additionally, the Boniuk Center plans to hold conferences that will bring together local communities that might otherwise have little or no interaction. Quillen indicated that the center currently is planning such a conference on hate speech, with Arab and Jewish groups.
The Boniuk Center, founded in 2004, is located on the Rice University campus. Dr. Milton Boniuk, whose father's family was lost during the Holocaust, and his wife, Laurie, gave a generous $5 million endowment to create the center whose mission is to "understand and promote conditions conductive to sustainable, peaceful coexistence among people of different religions around the world."
The center's new change of direction was announced in response to the "mixed success" of its former strategy in bringing together people who disagree on specific issues. Under the now-former guidelines, any community organization, department, center or institute at Rice could have requested assistance, in the form of co-sponsorship, from the Boniuk Center. And, the center had as part of its former policy not to perform background checks on, or screen the presentations of, those who were being invited to speak. This former strategy, while helping to communicate messages of religious tolerance and peaceful coexistence in many instances over the past three years, also served to legitimize extremist and intolerant points of view, most recently through certain anti-Israel programs at Rice.
Though widely regarded as being an insulated and apolitical campus, Rice, over the past few years, has seen more and more politicization. This change is especially true with regard to the Arab-Israeli conflict, and corresponds with the arrival of Ussama Makdisi, an associate professor of history and holder of Rice's newly created Arab American Educational Foundation chair.
Makdisi, who teaches that Israel allegedly is guilty of "ethnic cleansing" against the Palestinians, among other crimes, has organized a free and public lecture series at Rice called, "The Arab World: History, Politics, & Culture." Over the past two years, this event has served to advance a partisan agenda, and has drawn largely homogeneous audiences that concur with the series' often anti-Israel messages. Its co-sponsors have included the Rice History Department, James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy, Arab American Educational Foundation and the Boniuk Center.
Last year, among the speakers to present at Rice as part of this series was Ilan Pappé. One of Israel's so-called "new historians," Pappé is a committed Marxist who advocates the destruction of Israel. He argues this opinion on a fraudulent and invented mythology, which was exposed as such in a book by King's College of London professor, Efraim Karsh, titled: "Fabricating Israeli History: The ‘New Historians' " (Cass).
The first speaker in this year's program was Romi Khouri, who offers courses in anti-Israel propaganda for the east Jerusalem-based Palestinian Academic Society for the Study of International Affairs. Khouri's presentation at Rice was followed up by a lecture from Joseph Massad, Columbia University's controversial associate professor of Middle East and Asian Languages and Cultures.
The JH-V attended the Massad lecture, on Nov. 1, at the Baker Institute. Addressing an audience of 100, nearly half of whom were Rice students, Massad theorized that European Jews, once the object of anti-Semitic persecution, have become the perpetrators of anti-Semitism against the Arab Palestinians through the creation of a "European colonial experiment" in Israel. He constructed this historical narrative by drawing largely from the literary criticisms of the late Edward Said, Columbia's professor of English and comparative literature, who is credited with revolutionizing the anti-Israel movement on college campuses.
Much of Massad's presentation focused on semantics and the supposed evolution of the term "Semite" – a derogatory racial category that creates an inferior "Other," as compared to the Western superior, according to this theory. Claiming that early 20th-century European Jews "de-Semitized" themselves by assimilating and adopting European cultural norms – nationalism, colonialism (and democracy?) – Massad argued that these "new Jews," meaning "racist" Zionists, sought to create their own "European colonial experiment" in then-Palestine. And, in order to do so, these Jews allegedly dispossessed the Palestinians of their land and turned them into the "new Semites."
The apparent purpose of Massad's damning indictment against the modern State of Israel was three-fold: To equate Zionism with Nazism; to call into question Israel's fundamental right to exist; and to turn the accusers of anti-Semitism into the accused.
Notably absent from Massad's lecture were verifiable facts or any acknowledgement of Zionism as an authentic and internationally recognized movement of self-determination by Jews in their historic homeland.
During the lecture's question-and-answer session, most in the audience agreed with Massad's position, and provided him with opportunities to restate his claims. The first question to be asked came from a man in the audience who wanted to know why Massad's presentation did not focus on the alleged "U.S. and Jewish war crimes in Palestine and Iraq [which have turned Iraqi cities, in particular] into concentration camps to which Treblinka, Dachau and Auschwitz look like tiny dots."
In reply, Massad offered the following succinct answer: "Well, I think you just told the audience what they should know."
After several similar queries were posed, and reaffirmed, a woman was called on who asked the only question that evening that appeared to disagree with Massad's demonization of Israel. She wanted to know: "Why don't you mention Palestinian terrorism when exploring Palestinian identity?"
In response, Massad did not deny that the first mass murders in then-Palestine were committed by Arabs against Jews. However, he launched into a justification of the Hebron massacre (1929) as being the fault of the Jews, and not the Arabs, and stated further that Jews were responsible for bringing "terrorism" to the region.
According to Massad, the "occupation" of Palestine did not begin in 1967, and not even in 1948, but in the 1880s with the first major wave of Jewish immigrants. In explanation, he argued that the Jews who were immigrating to then-Palestine committed acts of "terrorism . . . by the force of money"; and when the Jews "came in, they would steal, then they would buy the land and kick the Palestinians . . . off the land." Then Massad claimed that these same "Zionist colonizers" denied the Palestinians "any possible work on the lands that they had worked for many, many years." Such pronouncements, however, contradict the many well-documented cases of precisely the opposite, in which the booming economies cultivated by these Jewish communities created a swell of Arab Palestinians in these areas precisely because so many jobs were being offered.
The questioner, perturbed by Massad's apparent obfuscations, again asked about Palestinian terrorism, this time specifically about the indoctrination of Palestinian children to use violence against Israeli men, women and children. Yet, Massad again turned the question around, and this time accused the woman of being a "true" anti-Semite. During the entire episode, certain audience members nearby were permitted to verbally abuse the woman, and when she attempted to respond to Massad's final accusation, she was told to be quiet by the event's Rice faculty sponsor, Makdisi.
Following Massad's lecture at Rice, the JH-V contacted Mitchell Bard to discuss the apparent rise of anti-Israel sentiment on American college campuses. Bard is a U.S.-Middle East policy expert and executive director of the nonprofit American-Israeli Cooperative Enterprise, which helps bring distinguished professors from Israel to the United States to ensure that Israeli and Middle East history is being taught with objectivity and credibility.
Speaking by phone from his Maryland office, Bard indicated that certain American universities employ faculties that are teaching distorted versions of history in the classroom, and are pursing efforts that are outside the bounds of legitimate academic discourse. "These include poisonous attacks against Israel that are not based on scholarship, but on political agendas and personal biases, and, unfortunately, these views are being integrated into the classroom," he pointed out.
"Whenever a class is used for these inappropriate purposes, advancing political and personal agendas, students should protest to the appropriate officials, whose job is to ensure classrooms are free for the use of open discussion of topics, and that instructors are adhering by the university's code of conduct," he continued. "There needs to be a rejection of classroom work or campus activities that aren't based on scholarship. And, universities must apply the same standards to these history and Middle East studies departments as other academic fields," he said.
This year's installment of "The Arab World: History, Politics, & Culture" series still has one more speaker on its billing. Lara Deeb, a professor at the University of California, Irvine, who writes often about alleged Jewish "control" of the media and U.S. foreign policy, and the alleged crimes Israel has carried out against the Palestinians, is scheduled to address the topic of "Understanding Hizbullah" at Rice's Baker Institute on April 10, 2008.
The Boniuk Center's involvement in this series has been minor, according to Quillen. The center is not its main sponsor, nor is it involved in the logistics or selection of the speakers. Quillen further explained that the center's decision to contribute to the 2007-08 series was made last summer, and that contribution has already been made. She indicated that the center cannot retroactively apply its new change in sponsorship guidelines.
Quillen admitted that the center's former approach to co-sponsoring such events was "naïve" and "flawed," in that it led people to view sponsorship as endorsement. With the center's new direction, she noted that future programs promise to be "more balanced and productive." She also said that the institution will be spending "valuable time repairing the center's image in the community."
Looking ahead, Quillen concluded by stating: "As an institution proud to be in Houston, we respect our community colleagues and seek to align ourselves with any and all groups who desire a peaceful future for all our residents in the region. Only by working together can we create a future worth living."