May 7, 2014
On 4 April, the administration of Suffolk University in Boston sent an email to the entire student body announcing that Abraham Foxman, a top pro-Israel lobbyist, would address some of the college’s 2014 graduation ceremonies.
The university’s announcement billed Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) since 1987, as "a worldwide leader in the fight against bigotry." However, many of the students had a decidedly different take on Foxman.
"After reading what he has said about minority groups — specifically Muslims — I was upset. I wanted to do something," Batool Raza told The Electronic Intifada.
Raza, who grew up in Pakistan and moved to the United States in 2006 in order to attend college, will graduate from Suffolk University Law School this May. Foxman is scheduled to address graduates in arts, law and business, as well as to receive an honorary degree on 17 May.
A small group of students led by Amy Willis, president of Suffolk’s chapter of the National Lawyers Guild, drafted a petition opposing the choice of Foxman as commencement speaker.
The petition highlights three principal reasons why the authors believe Foxman is not an appropriate speaker for commencement: his opposition to the US’ recognition of the Armenian genocide, his encouragement of widespread surveillance of Muslim communities in the US, and his objection to the opening of an Islamic community center close to the site of the World Trade Center in Manhattan.
In 2007 the US Congress considered a resolution that would recognize the killing of nearly 1.5 million Armenians by the Ottoman Empire between 1915 and 1923 as genocide. Abraham Foxman opposed the bill, arguing it would be "counterproductive" to Turkish-Israeli relations, asserting that during wartime, "things get messy" ("Jewish group recognizes Armenian genocide," Los Angeles Times, 23 August 2007).
Foxman has repeatedly advocated for and defended the indiscriminate spying on Muslim communities in the US following the 11 September 2001 attacks. Most recently, he and the ADL exploited the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing as an opportunity to promulgate the pseudo-scientific "radicalization theories" that have justified the sweeping surveillance of and spying on Muslims in the US ("The four lessons of the Boston marathon bombing," Jewish Journal, 10 April 2014).
Speaking to a reporter with the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, Foxman said, "Should we follow the ethnic communities? Should we be monitoring mosques? This isn’t Muslim-baiting — it’s driven by fear, by a desire for safety and security" ("Even after Boston, there is more anti-Jewish than anti-Muslim sentiment in US, says ADL’s Foxman," 28 April 2013).
"A little too controversial"
While canceling commencement speakers is not common, in recent years a number of universities have rescinded invitations to controversial speakers.
On 3 May, former Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice joined the growing list, opting to bow out from speaking at Rutgers University’s commencement after students protested her role in the US invasion of Iraq. After announcing that she would not address the graduating class, Rice stated on her Facebook page: "Rutgers’ invitation to me to speak has become a distraction for the university community at this very special time."
Sammy Nabulsi, the elected president of the Student Bar Association at Suffolk, said he understood that the choice of commencement speakers can be contentious but "Foxman’s a little too controversial."
After the petition began to circulate and trigger debate on campus, Nabulsi saw what this meant to the graduating class.
"That’s when I took a more formal stance: I asked the president and board of trustees to disinvite him as a speaker — or at least not give him an honorary degree — because it’s dividing the student body."
The petition has received almost 1,000 signatures.
Nabulsi, a Muslim and Palestinian-American law student, is also graduating this year. He argued that Foxman’s discriminatory beliefs were a "slap in the face" to the student body and the school’s tradition of embracing diversity.
He explained that one needn’t go further than the university’s website to see that the school prides itself on encouraging diversity. Yet he added that "diversity" is more than just a marketing ploy. "Dean Camille Nelson made diversity a big initiative when she came on a few years ago," he told The Electronic Intifada.
Suffolk Law School was founded in 1906 as a "working man’s college," providing evening classes so that men and women of all socioeconomic classes, races and religions could attend after work.
In response to the petition, the school’s administration reaffirmed its selection, quoting President Barack Obama’s praise for Foxman’s legacy of rejecting hatred ("Suffolk Law students protest choice of ADL leader as commencement speaker," Boston Business Journal, 17 April 2014).
Willis, the initiator of the online petition, has had no luck in meeting with the administration to discuss it.
The university did not respond to the The Electronic Intifada’s request for comment.
According to Nabulsi, the process of picking speakers is kept intentionally opaque. The university’s board of trustees is divided into small committees that choose possible speakers and send out invites. Nabulsi has encouraged Damian Wilmot, who leads the committee responsible for selecting the law school’s speaker, to allow student opinion to influence the decision-making process.
Foxman has been instrumental in leading the ADL to become an organization as committed to censoring criticism of Israel as it is to defending Jews from defamation.
For example, Foxman led the chorus of howls against the One State Conference held at Harvard University in 2012. Writing in The Boston Globe, Foxman claimed that the conference organizers’ true aim was to "make anti-Semitism more acceptable" by cloaking it in concerns about Palestinian rights ("Israelis, Palestinians under one flag," 29 February 2012).
Last year, the ADL published a list of the "top ten most influential and active anti-Israel groups in the United States," describing them as "fixated with delegitimizing Israel."
Questioning Foxman’s views and tactics is hardly a marginal position. In 2010, The Jewish Daily Forward detailed the rightward direction Foxman had taken the ADL with a skeptical eye ("As some retire from ADL, will Abe be next?" 27 October 2010).
But the petition by Suffolk students refrains from criticizing Foxman’s anti-Palestinian statements as well as his denial of the Nakba (Arabic for catastrophe) — the ethnic cleansing undertaken by Zionist forces at the time of Israel’s establishment in 1948.
In a 2008 opinion piece, Foxman writes, "Adopting the narrative underlying the Nakba terminology leads in a direction away from responsibility for building a nation and toward illusion and blame, twin illnesses which have haunted the Palestinians for decades. What is referred to as a catastrophe in 1948 was largely self-inflicted by the Palestinians, with the support and encouragement of the Arab world. There would have been no war and no refugee problem had the Palestinians accepted the UN two-state solution of 1947" ("Negating the Nakba narrative," The New York Sun).
Amy Willis of the campus chapter of the National Lawyers Guild said that while she has received a lot of support from individuals, no other student group was willing to endorse the petition institutionally due to the perceived sensitivity of the issue.
Indeed, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency published comments by Matthew Smith, a law student at Suffolk University and a member of the school’s Jewish Law Students Association, alleging that supporters of the petition had "inappropriately referenced Foxman’s Jewish heritage" as a reason to disinvite him from speaking at the commencement ceremony ("Suffolk University defends choice of Foxman as commencement speaker," 23 April 2014).
But the cautious wording of the petition belies the fact that the university has a newly-formed and undeterred Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) chapter — members of which say they have experienced a favorable response on campus.
Yasmeen Hamdoun, the current president of the SJP chapter, said the group’s first events last fall attracted a substantial number of curious and open students and very little backlash.
Laila, another member of SJP who declined to give her last name, wrote to The Electronic Intifada: "We came to the conclusion that lots of people want to learn about and support Palestine, and they just don’t know how, or in what way. Ever since then, large numbers of people have shown up to all of our events, and based on the discussions toward the end of each event, we realized that lots of people (more than we think), rallied behind our cause."
Hamdoun said the group plans to launch a campaign for boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel once its base has expanded.
Charlotte Silver is a journalist based in San Francisco. Follow her on Twitter: @CharESilver.