Recently, the University of Chicago invited former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to speak at the Harris School of Public Policy for its annual leadership lecture. In light of the UN Human Rights Council’s Goldstone report implicating Olmert in war crimes, many in the Chicago community were appalled and formed a coalition demanding the school cancel the event and withdraw the invitation. Unfortunately, the university displayed a complete disregard for the different view points surrounding this controversial figure, acting insensitively toward its students and denigrating its own integrity in the process.
Following the precedent established by Columbia University, prestigious universities make a point of fostering open discussion by proactively putting forth controversial issues surrounding invited speakers. At Columbia, the president of the university delivered an introduction of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad that both distanced the university from the individual and raised critical issues that were important to some students at Columbia. After a conversation with the Harris School, the coalition was assured that Dean Colm O’Muircheartaigh would deliver an introduction that would do the same, thereby fostering rigorous debate and dialogue.
Unfortunately, nothing close to criticism or diassociation was uttered during the dean’s introduction. There was no mention of Olmert’s attack on Lebanon in 2006, in which he used chemical weapons and cluster bombs, killed about 1,000 civilians and caused the displacement of nearly half a million Lebanese, all in contravention of international human rights and humanitarian law. No mention was made of his recent attack on Gaza just this past year, in which nearly 7,000 Palestinians were either killed or wounded, over half of whom were women and children. Not a word was uttered of Israel’s use of illegal weapons, human shields and targeting of UN aid workers, in addition to its violations of Geneva Conventions, all of which took place under Olmert’s tenure. Moreover, Dean O’Muircheartaigh failed to mention the corruption charges Olmert is currently facing in Israel.
In fact, for an institution that prides itself on critical thinking, the University displayed an embarrassing level of commitment to one largely unpopular and unsubstantiated point of view that makes Olmert seem like a hero and a man of peace. Not to mention the administration outright misled those concerned by not keeping its word and raising critical issues in the introduction. Just as importantly, students and alumni of the university who hold different view points on Olmert were stifled and marginalized. In doing so, the university inhibited the academic freedom of its students. For many, Olmert is responsible for death and destruction that has directly affected their lives. Yet the university had no regard for those experiences when it failed to even take them into account in their presentation of Olmert. The University of Chicago displays the utmost discipline and sensitivity towards its diverse student body, yet when it came to this issue it displayed an utter disregard for the views of its Arab and Muslim students and other students of conscience. Which begs the question: how many Arab children must be killed before the University of Chicago considers it a war crime? How many accusations must be laid at the feet of a head of state, and by whom, before the University of Chicago deems somebody controversial?
It is not the fact that the University of Chicago decided to invite a pro-Israel speaker that has offended so many. Rather, it is Olmert’s criminality that offends. It is the disparity with which the university treated its affected students that offends. It is the way in which they assured us that all views would be given a platform, and yet blatantly repressed the point of view of one group of people, that offends. And for this they must, at the very least, apologize.