Controversy surrounds a university-sponsored speaker slated to present this evening in Chumash auditorium on the Israel-Palestine conflict and its effect on the Middle East.
Ilan Pappe, an Israeli-born historian, plans to speak tonight about the Israel-Palestine conflict.
Pappe raised controversy in the past from his unpopular political views against the state of Israel and its creation in 1948. His book, “The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine,” argues that Israel’s first prime minister carried out genocide against the people of Palestine and Palestinians have a right to return to their homeland in Israel.
Speaking at the request of Cal Poly history professor Manzar Foroohar, Pappe’s presentation sparked criticism from some of the Jewish community in San Luis Obispo. The Amcha Initiative, which supports Jewish university students in California, wrote a letter to Cal Poly President Jeffrey Armstrong asking for the removal of financial support for Pappe’s visit.
Armstrong, however, was not convinced by the Jewish community’s call for action against Pappe.
“Academic freedom is very important in a university, so we’re not going to censor who the students invite to campus,” Armstrong said. “And sometimes, it’s uncomfortable.”
The decision to let Pappe speak at Cal Poly does not mean the administration supports his views, Armstrong said. He said there is money set aside in the College of Liberal Arts and history department, which are hosting the presentation, for students and professors to bring in outside speakers.
Armstrong released a joint statement Feb. 16 with two other California State University (CSU) presidents who are inviting Pappe to speak at their campuses. Armstrong, along with John Welty of CSU Fresno and Harry Hellenbrand of CSU Northridge, wrote that the real test of academic freedom comes when “we are asked to defend the expression of view with which we disagree.”
But Foroohar said there is no reason to disagree with Pappe’s works. Foroohar, who called Pappe the most respected scholar in matters of the Middle East, said all his research is based on historical documents from 1948 that tell a story contrary to the popular narrative of Israel’s formation.
“He’s not controversial for me,” Foroohar said. “He’s controversial for those that keep focusing on the official narrative. And he has refuted the official narrative based on those documents. He’s told the story they don’t want us to hear.”
She said much of the criticism toward Pappe stems from personal attacks and do not refute the facts he is presenting. These personal attacks, she said, are threats to academic freedom.
“These are not educational groups,” Foroohar said. “These are political pressure groups. And what they are trying to do, by intimidating faculty, (is) to silence the debate on some of these controversial issues. And by doing that, they’re trying to press their own political agenda on universities.”
But one of the leaders of the opposition to the presentation said he does not have a problem with Pappe’s views, but instead with the university’s lack of balance on the debate. Construction management freshman Elan Benor, who started an online petition against Pappe that received more than 150 signatures as of Tuesday afternoon, said the speech will “propagandize” Cal Poly students.
“I don’t think the university should only show one side,” Benor said. “That’s definitely not fair. Because if someone who doesn’t know anything about the topic goes to this speech, they’ll believe what he says. And that’s a problem. Because they’re not showing both sides.”
Benor was raised in a Jewish household, but said his family identifies stronger with the Jewish culture than the religion. He went to Israel in his sophomore year of high school and said he learned first-hand about the conflict there and the complicated relationship between Israel and Palestine.
Benor said he would like to see an equally polarizing speaker from the pro-Israel side come in opposition to Pappe, but there are currently no plans to bring such a person to Cal Poly.
“Anyone you bring in is going to be controversial, let’s say,” Benor said. “We would obviously want to bring in someone who would be most unbiased, someone who has a great knowledge of the topic.”
Pappe will speak tonight in Chumash Auditorium at 6 p.m. The event is free and open to the public.