SLU student group hosts pro-Palestinian event

BY MIKE SHERWIN

OF THE JEWISH LIGHT STAFF

A Saint Louis University student organization’s “Palestine Awareness Week ” has put some St. Louis Jewish organizations on high alert, ready to respond to what some believe will be a biased, anti-Israel presentation.

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SLU Solidarity with Palestine, a recognized student organization, organized a week of events which includes a talk by Norman Finkelstein, an assistant professor of political science at DePaul University and the author of the controversial book, “The Holocaust Industry. “

In his book, Finkelstein, the son of Holocaust survivors, argued that America and Israel have exploited the Holocaust for political and monetary gain.

Other events, running each evening from Jan. 29 to Feb. 2, include a documentary film showing, a multi-media theater piece, a talk by a former SLU student (and co-founder of SLU Solidarity with Palestine) who traveled to Palestine and lived in a refugee camp, and a “crash course ” on the Israel-Palestine conflict.

Brendan Kottenstette, one of the organizers of the “Palestine Awareness Week, ” said the events are intended to show a side of the conflict that has been overlooked by the media.

“We’ve recognized that there’s a humanitarian crisis in the occupied territory of Palestine and we’re doing what we can to raise awareness on our own campus and within the St. Louis community, so we can promote dialogue and hopefully we’ll eventually effect some changes, ” Kottenstette said.

The events have prompted skepticism from Jewish groups in St. Louis, some of which have circulated the list of events through emails, calling on members to attend the events and offer counter arguments if necessary.

Don Meissner, chair of the Anti-Defamation League’s Israel Task Force, said he did not want to speculate about the events before they take place, but he encouraged people in the Jewish community to attend.

“I think it’s important to go and hear what’s being said, and to respond if necessary by offering balanced information and arguments, ” Meissner said.

Donn Rubin, chair of the Jewish Community Relations Council’s Israel Committee, said the choice of Finkelstein as a speaker sends up a red flag for him.

“It’s one thing to encourage lively debate on all sides of an issue, but it crosses a line to invite speakers whose credibility is besmirched by their outrageous stands, including Holocaust denial. ” Rubin said. “We look forward to working with campus organizations to promote appropriate and productive discussion on these complex issues in the Middle East. “

Kottenstette said Finkelstein does not deny the Holocaust.

“That’s a common misconception, ” he said. “Depending on which camp you’re from, he’s either controversial or a very noted scholar. But he doesn’t deny the facts of the Holocaust. “

“His book [ “The Holocaust Industry “] is an analysis of the response that people have, particularly Zionists, that criticism of Israel or her policies are anti-Semitic, or if you’re Jewish, that you’re a ‘self-hating Jew’, which is really kind of a ridiculous term, ” Kottenstette said.

David Gerber, a young adult coordinator with the Jewish Community Center and Hillel, and former President of the local ADL Board, said he works to make sure that there is a variety of viewpoints on issues about Israel or the Middle East conflict.

“Part of the purpose of campuses is to let groups with different voices be heard, ” Gerber said. “We certainly don’t want to go out and protest their speeches, but in the same manner, we want to let students know there is a variety of Israeli programming and give them the opportunity to hear different voices and different views. “

Rabbi Jeffrey Stiffman, emeritus of Shaare Emeth, and chair of the Jewish Community Relations Council’s Israel Advocacy Committee, said while he believes in freedom of speech and in letting student groups hold whatever programs they choose, he still has reservations about the events at SLU.

“I would hope a university on the level of Saint Louis University would have had a more balanced program, ” he said. “As far as I can see, there is a whole week of programs that are designed to show only one side of the issue and paint Israel and Israelis in a very negative light, while not showing any of the errors or mistakes or terrorism that comes from the other side. “

Stiffman also cautioned that while he hopes that interested students will attend the events, he does not think they should be confrontational.

“I don’t feel that provoking the speaker would do anything other than create a spectacle or bring media attention to what’s essentially one of many student organizations’ events during any given week, ” Stiffman said.

SLU Spokesperson Clayton Berry noted that the “Palestine Awareness Week ” is a student event, funded through student fees, and not an official university event.

In an email statement, Berry said, “The University encourages a balance of points of view on socio-political issues. Universities should try to promote the free exchange of ideas. The views expressed during these events, or any other for that matter, do not necessarily reflect the views of the University. “

Berry noted that on Feb. 15, another student organization is bringing former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak. “The most decorated Israeli soldier in that nation’s history, Mr. Barak will talk about Middle East issues from the Israeli perspective, ” Berry said.

Karen Aroesty, regional director of the Anti-Defamation League, said she hopes people will attend to find out if what is being presented is fact, and if all sides are represented.

“The amount of misinformation out there is the real problem, ” Aroesty said.

“It’s not about being anti-Israel. You can have strong feelings that the Israelis should or shouldn’t be doing something a certain way. That’s what democracy is all about. But you better get your facts straight. “

Aroesty said she is a proponent of “individual advocacy. “

“That requires that people in the community not be apathetic, and that they are educated so they can be right with facts and hold the people who are not accountable. That may occur on the level of a Jimmy Carter, on the level of a Norman Finkelstein, and it can occur around the workplace water cooler, ” she said.

Kottenstette acknowledged that the week of events could stir controversy. “There’s something about this issue that’s automatically controversial, ” he said. But he said SLU Solidarity with Palestine only wants to present facts.

“We’re not going to be slandering the Israeli government and not showing facts, ” he said.

“If our presentations and the information we present seems to indict the government of Israel or its policies as guilty of human rights violations or violations of international law-as the U.N. has accused them of-it’s not because we’re trying to slant things intentionally. It’s because the historical record that we’ve been drudging through has shown it to be so. “