The smear campaign has started

A Response to “To be Middle Eastern at Wash. U.”

Kaity Shea Cullen | Class of 2016

Earlier this week, an opinion—“To Be Middle Eastern at Wash. U.”—was published in Student Life. The letter begins by announcing the start of a smear campaign, but it was the false, unclear and misleading allegations that appeared within the letter itself that were both offensive and deeply disturbing. But rather than focusing on ways in which Middle Eastern voices are oppressed on campus, this letter served more to smear, conflate and delegitimize the voices of two pro-Israel groups on campus, Wash U Students for Israel (WSI) and the Wash U Israel Public Affairs Committee (WIPAC).

The letter claims that the perspective of Middle Eastern voices is “constantly either ignored or actively suppressed,” citing as evidence the alleged last-minute cancellation of Palestinian poet Remi Kazani’s performance on campus last spring. However, that event was indeed held successfully. I know because the author of the letter and I were both in attendance. And it was a particularly memorable night, as I have never heard such unapologetically hateful rhetoric on this campus.

Kazani’s poems did not simply seek to voice a new perspective. They made light of the Holocaust and sought to delegitimize Israel’s basic right to exist. The event made Jewish students feel unsafe, unwelcome and unheard on this campus. The conversation that night sparked an anxiety among the Jewish community here that had me up into the early hours of the morning, trying to offer reassurance and support to my friends and classmates.

This isn’t the kind of free speech that will bring about mutual understanding and respect, and hate speech, regardless of against whom it is directed, has no place at Wash. U.

The letter continues to cite the cancellation of a recent panel at the Missouri History Museum as evidence of hostility towards the Palestinian cause on campus, yet the university administration was not involved in the event. In fact, many pro-Israel students turned out to protest its cancellation.

The letter was also inaccurate in its assertion about club activities on campus. The Wash U Israel Public Affairs Committee advocated for sanctions on Iran, but never requested funding for an event called “Iranium.” The sanctions legislation that WIPAC supports serves as a last resort tactic to ensure that diplomacy can succeed. The additional sanctions would only be imposed if nuclear negotiations with Iran fail to produce a final deal.

Diplomacy must be carried out carefully and pragmatically when dealing with a supreme leader that has claimed that “The Holocaust is an event whose reality is uncertain” and stated that Israelis “cannot be called human beings,” a nation that continues to be the world leader in state-sponsored terrorism, a regime that has formally announced hundreds of executions and raised the concern of the United Nations for “amputations, flogging… and unfair trials.”

Iranian civilians can hardly be held accountable for the actions of the regime, and sanctions provide a way to ensure that diplomacy is successful and military measures, which would place the people of Iran in harms way, are not necessary to ensure regional stability and the national security of the United States and her allies.

The author of the letter states that “as a human being,” she is sickened by the actions of Wash U Students for Israel. As a fellow human being, I am sickened by the intentional and unjustifiable defaming of WSI that followed.

The letter claims that WSI has advocated for “the perpetuation of military occupation of the West Bank and Gaza.” WSI and WIPAC have never advocated for the long-term involvement of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) in the West Bank. The question of Gaza is irrelevant, as Israel disengaged from the Strip in 2005 and it has been under the governance of the terrorist organization Hamas for most of the time since. In fact, both student groups support a two-state solution and believe that the existence of an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel is imperative for peace. This is a long-standing and publicly expressed belief of both organizations.

I was particularly disturbed by the author’s accusation that WSI sought to exploit the LGBTQIA* community by including a gay soldier in their event last week. Notably, the presentation was not on the LGBTQIA* experience in the IDF or in Israel, and the soldier’s sexuality was not the primary focus of the discussion. How including a member of this community in a discussion on an unrelated issue, without fanfare or some form of “permission” from the rest of the LGBTQIA* community can constitute exploitation is beyond me.

Still, the issue of LGBTQIA* rights in the IDF and in Israeli society more broadly is certainly worthy of discussion. Gay and lesbian Israelis serve openly in all branches of the military, with legal protections against discrimination in recruitment, placement, and promotion. Moreover, the IDF will pay for soldiers with gender dysphoria to receive hormone replacement therapy and sex reassignment surgery.

These protections extend into many other aspects of daily life. Strict laws prohibit discrimination in the workplace and in schools, and same-sex couples are recognized as legal units in matters of spousal benefits, taxation and hospital visitation. They can also adopt children, and lesbian couples can receive free in-vitro fertilization treatments until they successfully produce two children.

These legal protections reflect the level of acceptance towards the LGBTQIA* community that exists in Israel, one of the few places in the Middle East where gay and lesbian couples can safely and proudly display their affections. Members of the community are widely represented in mainstream Israeli media, and Tel Aviv, Israel’s second most populous city and the “gay capital of the world,” is home to a publicly funded annual gay pride parade that attracts more than 100,000 attendees from across the globe.

The author also raises an important point by asking “what about the LGBTQIA* Palestinians?” But she is wrong to claim that the pro-Israel community is guilty of “ignoring intersectionality.” In the Gaza Strip, homosexual acts are punished with ten years of imprisonment, while the West Bank lacks any legal protections for this community. As a result, Israel has provided asylum to hundreds of LGBTQIA* Palestinians. Tel Aviv has even become home to the Palestinian Queer Party’s monthly meetings.

Israel is a global leader in LGBTQIA* rights and stands in stark contrast to her neighbors. Iranian law prescribes the death penalty for male homosexuality and 60 lashes for kissing another man. Homosexual acts are similarly punishable with one year of imprisonment in Lebanon and up to three years in Syria and Egypt.

Being inclusive of the LGBTQIA* community and communities of color on our campus is important, but this is also a value that characterizes both WSI and WIPAC. The letter attacking these student groups was not only riddled with factual errors, but also deeply hurtful in the way it mischaracterized these organizations. The pro-Israel community, too, feels disrespected by people claiming to wave the banner of free speech.

But we will not be silenced.

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