October 20, 2009

War crimes are not free expression

Olmert’s actions in Gaza make him unfit to speak at the University.

“At the University of Chicago, freedom of expression is vital to our shared goal of the pursuit of knowledge, as is the right of all members of the community to explore new ideas and learn from one another.” On Thursday, October 15, former Prime Minister of Israel Ehud Olmert was welcomed to the University of Chicago; the line above is taken from an e-mail sent detailing security protocols for the event. However, I noticed a disconnect when I saw that line, and compared it with the actions of the University. This event, which was supposed to promote a discussion on leadership and current events, was not allowed to be taped or recorded in any way by attendees and was sparsely advertised to the University community. The University clearly did not want any opposing voices to be present and this secrecy only serves to undermine the lofty goals quoted above.

I was among the audience at Ehud Olmert’s speech and, as many reports detail, Olmert was constantly interrupted. However, contrary to what has been stated in some media reports, I did not see a disorganized rabble, or a mock town hall mob. Yes, I heard some of the more provocative things quoted in the Maroon (“Jeers Stifle Olmert’s Speech,” 10/16/09). However, you wouldn’t have simply heard “war criminal,” “murderer,” “you have an ugly face,” and so forth. I heard things such as, “I’m here to give voice to Mohammed Samouni, who never had one because he was six months old when you killed him.” I saw one woman stand up and wave a list of more than 1,400 people killed in Gaza. A large number of students read lists of names of those killed in Gaza, Lebanon, and the West Bank. I heard pro-Israel students laugh as one person threw a book at a pro-Palestinian student. I saw a pro-Palestinian student pushed by a supporter of Olmert, who cowardly fled, while the crowd around her blamed the protestors. There is no one side to any incident.

We are taught that interrupting someone never accomplishes anything. We, as future academics and leaders, are taught to base things on fact, to find a reasoned approach to problems. More than 1,400 people were killed in Gaza, and an overwhelming majority of them were civilians. By all standards, this would be considered military incompetence at best and a massacre at worst. The day after the lecture, the United Nations Human Rights Council formally backed a report that confirmed war crimes committed against Palestinians by Israel. And the University of Chicago, an institution committed to integrity and civilized discourse, welcomed the man who was responsible for it all.

Death is universal, and it is permanent; the death toll is a fact that does not change no matter which side of the argument you stand on. And the only way the former Prime Minister of Israel could be made to face the gravity of the deaths he ordered, was by men and women, normally quiet and nonchalant, standing up and proclaiming that their family members, friends, loved ones, or simply innocent fellow human beings were killed at the hands of the man before them. Were the responses of these people rational? Perhaps not, but they were human, and no amount of intellectualism should prevent humanity in any form. Ehud Olmert is not an academic who happens to have a difference of opinion that must be respected; he is responsible for the deaths of thousands. As the first protester who stood cried out, war crimes are not free expression.

Olmert was brought to this campus as a part of the King Abdullah II Annual Leadership Lecture. Ehud Olmert was charged in August of charges such as fraud, breach of trust, and tax evasion (for which, in part, he resigned). I ask my fellow students: Is this the best leader we can find to lecture us on leadership and integrity?

The only responsible course of action is for the University of Chicago to apologize to the members of the Arab, Muslim, and pro-Palestinian community for allowing such a blatant display of bias and insolence against them. The University must understand that it is responsible to its donors and alumni and to the hardworking students and faculty who make this school what it is. Most of all, the University owes an apology to each and every student at the U of C for bringing a man to campus who has damaged the reputation and standing of the institution we take pride in. If not, then your $50,000 a year isn’t worth much, is it?

Frank Pucci is a third-year in the College majoring in political science and history.