Opinion | Chapman needs balance when hosting controversial speakers


Jackie Cohen, web editor of The Panther, has been to Israel six times, but she’s open to dissenting opinions, and she hopes Chapman can be, too. Photo courtesy of Jackie Cohen

I grew up in a pro-Israel environment, learning about the country beyond the conflict. I’ve visited Israel six times.

While I have a strong connection to Israel, I also support a potential Palestinian state that lives in peace alongside Israel. I like to engage in conversations with people who strongly criticize Israel, as I’m interested in learning more about the complex conflict.

I don’t believe that people with opposing views should be shut down. Free speech is a basic right that allows us to have these conversations. However, a university should present multiple perspectives when discussing controversial issues.

On March 27, the political science department hosted Norman Finkelstein, who has previously claimed that Jews use the Holocaust for political and financial gain, calling it an “extortion racket.” He also wrote that “the honorable thing now is to show solidarity with Hezbollah,” which the U.S. designated as a terrorist organization in 1997.

Finkelstein’s speech at Chapman can’t be considered an educational experience.”

This isn’t Chapman’s first time hosting a controversial speaker. In October 2017, Laura Kipnis, who has taken a controversial stance about Title IX and sexual assault on campuses, spoke at Chapman. Following her speech, some Chapman administrators gave the opposing view, discussing the positive effects of Title IX.

When Finkelstein spoke, there was no opposing perspective, which denied students the ability to analyze all of the information and formulate their own conclusions.

This wasn’t Finkelstein’s first visit to Chapman. In 2013, Finkelstein attacked late Holocaust survivor and Chapman distinguished presidential fellow Elie Wiesel while speaking on campus.

“I’ve never read anything by Elie Wiesel that had any content,” he said in 2013. “He’s good theater. I’m not an actor – that’s the difference between us.”

After Finkelstein’s speech, Jewish students expressed concerns about his support for Hezbollah, yet for some reason, he was brought back to campus this year.

Finkelstein’s inflammatory statements go beyond his speeches across college campuses. He runs a blog and has written six books about Israel and the Holocaust.

In interviews, Finkelstein referred to the rockets being launched into Israel as “fireworks” – not rockets – and in a blog post, he criticized the media for saying that the rockets were “paralyzing the country.”

While visiting Israel, I’ve seen the stacks of rockets collected at the Sderot Police Station, and they look anything but harmless. It is also false to claim that the rockets “don’t paralyze the country.” Every time a rocket is shot into Israel, a code red siren blares and people have 15 seconds to find a bomb shelter. During peaceful times, the country can go months without a code red, but during the 50 days of Operation Protective Edge in 2014, more than 4,500 projectiles were launched into Israel. How does that not paralyze a society?


At a playground in Sderot, children can hide in a snake-shaped bomb shelter if there is a code red while they are playing. Photo by Jackie Cohen

This brings me to Finkelstein’s claim that Israel has targeted Palestinian civilians. In 2005, Israel disengaged from Gaza, moving Israeli citizens out in a peace effort. Gaza then held an election – its first and only – and elected Hamas, a terrorist organization.

Since the disengagement, rocket attacks from Gaza – with some reaching Israel’s capital, Jerusalem, and biggest city, Tel Aviv – led to three operations in the strip: Cast Lead (2008-09), Pillar of Defense (2012) and Protective Edge (2014).

Prior to bombing buildings during operations, Israel dropped leaflets written in Arabic that announced the building would be bombed. Israelis called residents to tell them to evacuate and drones shot warning flares to prevent civilian casualties. Does this sound like a country that targets civilians?

Consider where Hamas places its arsons. During Protective Edge, Hamas rockets were found hidden in a United Nations-funded school on the Gaza Strip, which was supposed to serve as a shelter for Palestinians. So, who is placing civilians in harm’s way?

Finkelstein’s speech at Chapman can’t be considered an educational experience. His statements weren’t backed by facts. However, while I don’t agree with his opinions, I respect his right to have them.

But it’s not an effective way to exercise free speech when Finkelstein’s opinions are presented as facts and the other side is not represented. Instead, it becomes a tool to push his agenda on students. Maintaining a balance between opposing sides would allow students to create their own opinions and receive the full benefits of freedom of speech.