Joel Beinin is a tenured Middle East history professor who is on leave from Stanford while he serves as the head of Middle East Studies at the American University in Cairo. Just today Beinin, who used to be the president of the Middle East Studies Association and is an outspoken critic of Israeli policies, was unceremoniously dumped as a speaker at an event tomorrow at San Jose’s elite Harker School, apparently due to pressure from a group of parents and an outside advocacy organization. We’ve written to Harker for their statement on the incident and will keep you posted as we learn the facts. Meanwhile, Beinin writes:
I suppose I should feel like I am very powerful if people are so convinced that I have to be prevented from speaking. But really, it just adds to my shame that this is what American Jewish identity has come to.
Last time this happened to Beinin was when the admirably “bipartisan” Israel Action Committee of Marin’s Rodef Sholom decided to invite Beinin to talk about his area of expertise, Egyptian Jews. When the rabbi of Rodef Sholom found out, she and the executive director went over the heads of the committee and revoked the invitation, causing the longtime committee organizer Roy Mash to quit in disgust.
Read Roy Mash’s extraordinary open letter:
Open Letter to the Clergy and Board of Rodef Sholom 8/19/05
Dear Clergy and Board of Rodef Sholom,
The purpose of this letter is to explain in some detail my reasons for resigning from the Rodef Sholom Israel Action Committee, on which I have served for the last three years, in response to the decision to disinvite Joel Beinin from speaking in our coffee series this coming October.
In July of 2004 the Israel Action Committee met and after some discussion decided, at my suggestion, to invite Professor Joel Beinin of Stanford University to speak on some topic related to Arab Jews, an area in which he specializes. Dr. Beinin accepted the invitation, and we eventually settled on the title: “‘Arab-Jews’ or ‘Jews of the Arab World’? Europe, Zionism, and Arab Nationalism.” Dr. Beinin was scheduled to speak in October 2005.
This June, Joseph Abdel Wahed, of the organization Jews Indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa (JIMENA), wrote letters to the Rodef Sholom clergy, president, and executive director expressing his dismay at our invitation of Dr. Beinin. As it happens, JIMENA had appeared at Rodef Sholom previously in another speaker series, and part of my motivation in proposing Dr. Beinin was to provide a contrasting perspective. The letter went on to request that, in response to Dr. Beinin, JIMENA be given the opportunity to address the Rodef Sholom community and present their documentary “The Forgotten Refugees.” (In fact, soon after the IAC was formed, JIMENA was invited to give a presentation. When we could not offer them the honorarium they demanded, they refused to come.) My understanding is that plans are now under way to have JIMENA appear in the IAC speaker series.
In mid August, over my strenuous objections, the decision was made to disinvite Dr. Beinin from speaking.
The Campaign Against Dr. Beinin
When we invited Dr. Beinin to speak, I was aware that he was a figure sometimes accused of being “pro-terrorist,”a self-hating Jew, etc. I read a number of the attacking sources, but found little aside from pseudo-scholarship and polemical broadsides. There was certainly nothing to compare with the erudition, nuance, and professionalism to be found in Dr. Beinin’s book, The Dispersion of Egyptian Jewry: Culture Politics, and the Formation of a Modern Diaspora, or his introduction to Nissim Rejwan’s recent memoir The Last Jews in Baghdad: Remembering a Lost Homeland. It is one thing for such campaigns to circulate in a reactionary internet fringe, another when they reach into the heart of my community, and there find adherents.
In the end, however, the main reasons given for canceling Dr. Beinin’s appearance were not substantive, but “institutional.”
Rodef Sholom Not “A University”
It was suggested, for instance, that “Rodef Sholom is not a university.” True enough, but what are the implications of this truism? Which ideas or persons might be acceptable in a university setting, but not a Jewish setting? Presumably those that either do not address Jewish concerns at all (say a computer science lecture), or those that do address Jewish concerns but are in some way “anti-Jewish”. A university in a pluralistic society is committed to hearing “all sides” (within reason). In contrast, it is supposed, a particularist Jewish community is committed only to hearing the “Jewish side.” It may stretch itself to hear an “opposing” position, but it is under no obligation to do so.
But what if the speaker herself as Jewish, and speaking on a topic of Jewish concern? To redirect such a speaker away from a Jewish setting to a university is to imply that her ideas are, in some way, representative of the “other side,” the non-Jewish or even anti-Jewish side. It is to imply that such a speaker is in some way acting against their own Jewishness. Thus it is with Dr. Beinin.
And what about the part of me that admires and wants to hear from Dr. Beinin? The part of me that is sympathetic to his general perspective? Is this just my “university” part, my assimilated part, my devil’s advocate part that takes the other, non-Jewish side? Does not the suggestion that I and others retire to some non-Jewish elsewhere to hear a fellow Jew with an outlook similar to our own call into question our Jewishness?
Or might it not be the case that, given Judaism’s long and deep tradition of concern for justice and ethics, for self-criticism and reflection, a Jewish venue is precisely the setting most appropriate for a speaker like Dr. Beinin?
Perception and Reputation
In the decision to disinvite Dr. Beinin, his credentials and expertise have not mattered. That JIMENA has been invited to speak at a later time has not mattered. (After all, “We are not a university.” Hence, balance is not the issue.) That Dr. Beinin is Jewish has, if anything, counted against him. Here he joins a distinguished, ancestral line of ex-“communicated” Jews. In declaring him persona non grata the deciding factor seems to have been how Rodef Sholom is “perceived by the community.” What does it say about our “reputation” as an institution that we would allow into our midst such an execrable individual?
Given the history of IAC speakers over the last three years, Dr. Beinin’s scheduled appearance may simply have been the last straw. Doubtless, Rodef Sholom’s reputation had already been “tarnished” by having Palestinian speakers such as George Bisharat and Beshara Doumani, and “problematic” Jewish groups such as Jewish Voice for Peace, Tikkun, and Brit Tzedek v’Shalom, in addition to the “good” groups such as Jewish Community Relations Council, The Israel Center, and Stand By Us.
If perception and reputation are to be decisive criteria in choosing speakers, the impressions of the actual attending audience are, ironically, irrelevant. So it matters little that the response to these coffees among Rodef Sholom congregants who attend them has been generally positive. What counts are the impressions of those who do not attend! Those monitors in the larger over-seeing and over-hearing “community” who are upset by the idea that Rodef Sholom congregants should hear from speakers they — the oh-so-interested non-attendees — find objectionable.
A Moral Obligation
To summarize: The IAC voted to invite Dr. Beinin to speak. He accepted the invitation. Dr. Beinin and ourselves have proceeded for a year on the understanding that he would give a talk – which for all we know he had prepared especially. It seems clear we have a basic moral obligation to fulfill our commitment.
Such commitments can be overridden, of course, but only under extraordinary circumstances, such as demonstrable lasting damage to Rodef Sholom. Community disapproval does not, I believe, remotely begin to meet the definition of “extraordinary circumstance.” Nor do I see that anything close to lasting damage to Rodef Sholom is plausible.
In short, being a mensch means sticking by agreements.
Shame and Pride
Thinking about Jews and Israel often produces in me a compound of pride and shame. This is the first time, however, I have felt ashamed to be a member of Rodef Sholom.