Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Olmert at the University of Chicago

A disturbing video was posted yesterday on the Huffington Post by Ali Abunimah, a co-founder of "The Electronic Intifada". It featured what happened when former Prime Minister of Israel, Ehud Olmert, was invited to speak at the University of Chicago's School of Public Policy. You can watch the video here, but it essentially involves students yelling at Olmert and preventing him from conducting his speech.

This video and subsequent blog post are disturbing on several levels. The fact that students are actively impeding a public speech is by definition a violation of free speech, because Olmert's opinions are just as valid as the students' and should be allowed to be heard. The idea that people who disagree with us should be forbidden from expressing their views is one that should be abhorrent to any democracy, but some of the students at the University of Chicago (and Ali Abunimah) have no problem with it.

I challenged Mr. Abunimah on his apparent support for these students and he responded:

"What does free speech have to do with it? The man is a mass killer! He bombed the Islamic University in Gaza destroying its (USAID funded) buildings. He killed dozens of university students and teachers during his career of crime. What about their rights? What about the rights of Palestinian universities in Jerusalem that can barely function because of the land confiscations and settlement building done by Olmert? If John Wayne Gacy came to give a speech at the University of Chicago, would you expect people to sit and listen to him politely? The difference is that Gacy killed far fewer people than Olmert. I do not object to what Olmert says or thinks. I object to what he has done. He must be held accountable, and until the appropriate institutions do so, it is right that civil society confronts him directly with his crimes whenever the opportunity arises."

You can read the rest of my conversation with Mr. Abunimah in the HP article, but his argument has numerous holes in it. Olmert is not a "mass killer" by the legal definition, as he has not been convicted, and at this moment in time he has no different legal status than any Israeli or any other foreign dignitary. If we are all equal under the eyes of the law, there is no reason Olmert should not be allowed to speak. But in Mr. Abunimah's eyes, Olmert has already been tried, convicted, and (apparently) sentenced to having his tongue cut out.

Even if Olmert was a convicted war criminal, though, he should still be allowed to speak. Criminals on Death Row publish books all the time, and defendants on trial are allowed to speak on their own behalf before, during, and after trial. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote a book in prison, and I doubt Mr. Abunimah would want such a book destroyed so no one should be able to read the words of a "criminal".

Regardless of what Olmert has or has not done, it was not the students' prerogative to prevent him from being heard. Such a stifling of intellectual discourse has no place anywhere in America, but especially not on a university campus.

1 comment:

  1. I think what's more important to note is that all the protestors were boo'ed by the crowd. If I was Abunimah, I would be ashamed by the video. It shows how anti-Israel activists use obnoxious tactics to try and scare away people from hearing the other side.

    This is not flattering to anti-Israel activists. It's embarrasing.