The room was packed. There weren’t enough chairs to accomodate everyone in one of the building’s larger rooms, so people were turning to the Education Center’s lobby for additional chairs. Before Alison Weir began her lecture, people could feel the tension in the room. While some of the attendees did not know what to expect, a few came prepared to question Weir’s stance on the Arab-Israeli conflict. After the conclusion of her lecture, during the question and answer portion, the room erupted.
At one point, someone yelled out, “Classic anti-Semitism.” At several moments, some of the attendees exited the room upset. After being told to stop interrupting the speaker, one woman was escorted out of the room for being “disruptive.”
Why did incivility erupt at Friday’s lecture “Israel-Palestine: What the Media Leaves Out” presented by alleged anti-Semite Weir? This question can only be answered by taking a closer look at the events leading up to the lecture.
Circumstances Surrounding the Lecture
While the event was publicized like any other lecture at the College, it reached the radar of the President’s Office. The Department of Sociology and Anthropology, the Office of Institutional Diversity and an outside organization called Charleston Peace One Day initially sponsored the event. Controversy first arose when senior David Lappin contacted the department and office, asking for them to withdraw support of the event, which he said constituted hate speech. While the office ultimately decided to take back its sponsorship, the department continued its support. According to the department’s director Heath Hoffmann, withdrawing support would have gone against the principle of academic freedom.
Unsatisfied with Hoffmann’s response, Lappin contacted the President’s Office. Chief of Staff Brian McGee responded by informing Lappin that the College was officially withdrawing all monetary support of the event.
Traveling Israeli professor Naomi Gale and Marty Perlmutter, Director of the Jewish Studies Program, also expressed concern about the lecture leading up to Friday. At one point, Perlmutter asked to see an outline of the lecture in order to provide a potential respondent, but Weir declined. Lappin, Gale and Perlmutter all said that they wished departmental sponsorship was withdrawn, but wanted the event to go on, supporting free speech.
(To read about what went on prior to the lecture, click here.)
Alison Weir’s Lecture
While students, faculty and members of the community had concerns about the lecture, many of them still attended the event. Before Weir’s critics spoke up, she gave her much anticipated lecture. Weir started off by explaining her background. She told the audience that she didn’t know anything about the conflict until she started researching it 13 years ago. She remembered thinking “the Middle East seemed distant and irrelevant.”
It wasn’t until her first trip to Israel, the West Bank and Gaza during the second intifada as a freelance journalist when she “noticed the coverage appeared one-sided.”
“The more I looked into it, the more shocked I became,” Weir said. “Even though the media consistently calls Israel’s actions as retaliatory, it is not.”
Weir focused on the lack of accurate media coverage done by Americans. She discussed how while the media reports on deaths from both sides, much more of their attention is directed toward Israeli causalities. However, she noted that most deaths occur on the Palestinian side.
In addition to focusing more on Israeli deaths as opposed to Palestinian, she noted that the American media tends to omit certain coverage. “There is dissent in Israel with young soldiers refusing to take part,” Weir said. “We rarely hear about this important aspect.”
Why should Americans care? Weir noted that the United States gives over $8 million per day to Israel. As a result, Americans are directly connected to the region.
“That’s off the charts of our expenditures abroad,” Weir said. “So we are directly connected to what Israel does and therefore it is important to know what it is doing.”
Weir also discussed the history behind the conflict. She said it was important to note because it is often portrayed inaccurately. She called the history “fairly simple” and “not complex.” During the Ottoman Empire, the region was multicultural with Jews and Arabs living peacefully together. However, when political Zionism was on the rise, there was the discussion of a home for the Jewish people to escape persecution. Weir said Palestine was chosen because of its Biblical connections. However, she noted that “it was not a land without a people.”
The region was predominately Arab until Jewish people began to immigrate there. In addition, Weir claimed that the Jewish people ethnically cleansed certain areas leading up to the creation of the state of Israel.
Weir also discussed her first trip to Israel where she saw entire residential areas destroyed. She noted that at one point in her trip, she heard gunfire while visiting Gaza. She assumed at the time it was coincidental, but looking back, she thought the Israelis were trying to send her a message to not go there.
“I saw a people and land being destroyed through the use of American tax dollars,” Weir said. “This is what I saw.”
The Audience’s Response
After Weir’s lecture, Lappin was the first attendee to ask a question. He first thanked her for coming and then asked her whether she recognized the contributions made by Israelis. Before finishing his question, Weir asked that he keep his response short and said, “Don’t give a speech.” From that moment on, matters only seemed to get worse.
Several audience members yelled out, “You’re distorting the facts.” Others interrupted her by saying, “It’s not true.” At one point, Weir said, “I will ask security to escort people out who interrupt.”
An audience member asked Weir if she recognized the state of Israel. She responded, “Recognizing Israel as it stands would mean we recognize that it was okay that they ethnically cleansed the place.” Several audience members challenged Weir, asking her to define the term and cite her sources. When an attendee asked her to give specific examples, the audience clapped. While she mainly told the audience that all her citations were heavily noted on her website, she said she read books, some written by Israelis, that “documented that criteria.”
At one point, a student who said he was not Jewish, asked Weir to comment on the Boston Marathon explosions. He wanted to know how the American population should react to terrorism. While Weir said the event was tragic, she also said she would not “answer questions that [were] shallow.”
Another student asked Weir if she was aware that terrorists in Gaza launched rockets from hospitals and schools, and as a result, this is why there are more Palestinian deaths. The student also informed Weir that the Israelis send leaflets before targeting the source of rocket launches. Weir responded, “This is one of Israel’s propaganda talking points that is untrue.” Many audience members were upset by Weir’s response, and several of them left the lecture as a result.
While the loudest voices came from attendees upset by Weir’s comments, there were a few audience members in support of Weir. One said, “I think you are a hero.”
Several students were upset by how the event unfolded. While sophomore Matt Ramsey said he didn’t know much more than most people about the subject, he did not appreciate the incivility of the room. “I was getting more ticked off by the moment,” Ramsey said. “After being here, I’m worried. If this is the American community, I’m worried.”
Weir also was not pleased by the audience’s response. “I felt that this disruptive behavior hijacked the event,” Weir said. “Students were here to hear me. This was a chance for them to hear what I have to say and instead, these people demanded to get all the attention.”
Weir even noted, “This is the worst event I’ve taken part in.”
While Weir was not pleased by the incivility of the room, she said she did not feel negatively toward the College. Weir said, “I’d be very happy to come to this college again, but in a more normal situation.”
To read the preview of the event, click here.
To read Alison Weir’s response, click here.