Trinity is one of Ireland’s most famous and well-established universities. I have come to expect excellence, well-mannered discussion and debate from such a prestigious establishment.
Sadly the recent conference on the 11-12 September 2017 held at and funded by Trinity College, “Freedom of Speech and Higher Education: The Case of the Academic Boycott of Israel” and run by Academics for Palestine, did not live up to the standards I have come to know.
Having arrived on a cold afternoon, I registered and received my name tag. I proceeded to get something to eat where I met a woman also attending the conference. I would later find out her name was Nadia Silhi Chahin, she would be speaking at the event the following day. We had a brief conversation about the Palestinian territories in which she said her family had come from “Palestine”.
During our conversation, Nadia referred to Zionists instead of Israelis on a few of occasions and so I asked, “What is a Zionist”? To my surprise, given that the usual definitions given to Zionists can be aggressive, she gave me the accepted definition of a Zionist; one who believes that Jews have the right to self-determination and a homeland in Israel. I asked, “are you a Zionist then?” She replied, “No.” She then went on to say that she does not believe that the Jews should have a homeland in Palestine.
Walking into the conference hall, I had a sour taste in my mouth. With students wearing “Free Palestine” and “Israel Apartheid” shirts, I could tell this was not going to be simply a discussion about freedom of speech. There was a brief introduction to the conference’s proceedings, nothing too interesting until the funders were thanked for their support. The list included Trinity College Dublin and IFUT (Irish Federation of University Teachers). I was shocked, to say the least, that I had already met one speaker who believed Israel should not exist and that Trinity University and IFUT funded this Israel hate fest.
The main keynote speaker was Steven Salaita. I was well aware of Steven and his previous controversies prior to coming to the conference and had done some research on him. As Steven took to the stand, there was an air of silence as if a god had entered the room. Many seemed to be in awe around this figure, many of who called him a hero for freedom of speech. I would give him a different name.
Steven opened his talk by welcoming all of the members of the Israeli Embassy and made several jokes to the tune of the embassy sending “spies” to catch him say something controversial. From the onset, I knew this would become a bloodbath of simply trying to invoke a response from someone. Eventually, that would be me. During the speech, Steven makes several references to “Zionists” being supporters of Apartheid, ethnic cleansing and so on. The undertone of hatred towards those of the pro-Israel variety was quite clear. From calling Jews colonizers to stating “Zionists” make up b******t lies and accusing Israel of going on “killing sprees”, to say Steven was here to speak about freedom of speech is nonsense in itself. Steven received a standing ovation following his speech.
Towards the end of his speech, Salaita made reference to a tweet that had him fired from the University of Illinois. Salaita then sued the university, something he was “glad” to do. He claims he was fired due to his pro-Palestinian views and that there was a campaign organised to have him fired by pro-Israel activists. He did not provide any further information on the groups. The tweet was infamous, yet it was not directly quoted during his speech, and the audience was not told what the tweet contained.
Come question time, I took it upon myself to reference it. So I asked him, “Do you still stand by what you said?” I then read out the tweet, “You may be too refined to say it, but I’m not: “I wish all the f*****g West Bank settlers would go missing.” ” I gave context to the crowd, the tweet was posted at a time in which three Israeli settlers went missing in the West Bank and were found murdered by Hamas days later. What came next was not only shocking but also terrifying on many levels.
There’s something profoundly sexual to the Zionist pleasure w/#Israel‘s aggression.
Sublimation through bloodletting, a common perversion.
— Steven Salaita (@stevesalaita) July 9, 2014
The crowd seemed stunned that I had even dared ask such a question, the eyes of the room were locked onto me. A moment passed of silence as my heart pounded in terror. It seemed I was not the only one in shock, Steven seemed dismayed that anyone should question his story. He tried to answer the question but seemed lost in the array of “emm” and ughh”. To try and break the awkwardness he spoke of the recent news of Hezbollah and Hamas being backed by Iran as a ploy by Israel, suggesting a new reason for Israel to go to war. He was clearly trying to think of an answer to my question.
Once back on topic, he stood by his statement and said he does wish all settlers would go missing but does not wish harm to them. He concluded his response by claiming that the settlements are the main cause of the conflict in the West Bank. Despite his vague clarification for his tweet, it is clear he wishes harm upon Zionists and/or settlers from his response and tweets. In the past Salaita has ridiculously alleged that Zionists have a sexual urge for bloodshed.
Academics for Palestine claimed this conference was about freedom of speech, given its title. This conference was anything but. Besides the marauding talks by academics saying the same convoluted messages one after the other, it was, to be put simply, an anti-Israel hate fest. I learned nothing of the core message of the conference and simply saw that people were willing to pay the entrance fee to listen to speakers repeat the lies that they wanted to hear. The off-hand conversations I heard referencing “Israeli genocide” and hatred told me enough about the true goal of people who attend these conferences.
One may make up their own mind as to how this conference was run but I have made up my own and encourage others to avoid any such conferences in the future if they wish for a well-balanced discussion. I strongly believe that Trinity and IFUT should apologise for hosting and funding such a horrendously one-sided, hate-filled event.
Contributed by Alan Lyne, president of CAMERA-supported society Maynooth University Israel Society.