Dr. Yossi Olmert

By Shaun Narine

During Reading Week, I received a forwarded message from a colleague which informed me that Dr. Yossi Olmert, the brother of the Israeli Prime Minister and a Middle East scholar, would visit Fredericton in March.

My colleague suggested that I pass the information on to the Political Science Society (PSS) so that it could decide if it wanted to invite Dr. Olmert to give a talk.

I momentarily hesitated in doing this for two reasons: one, I knew that a speaker with links to the Israeli government would create considerable controversy. Two, I was personally averse to providing such a person a public platform.

I quickly overcame these objections.

A university should not shy away from controversy, particularly in the exploration of issues that are of international importance. And, quite clearly, my personal politics should play no role in determining which perspectives were expressed at the university.

I passed the information on to the PSS. It decided to invite Dr. Olmert to speak.

This decision attracted considerable criticism and led to a controversial lecture last Monday. I cannot speak for the PSS, but the Political Science Department wholly supports the PSS’s decisions, for the following reasons.

The first and most profound reason for allowing Dr. Olmert to speak is that a central purpose of a university is to allow the expression and investigation of unpopular opinions.

No other institution in our society is so dedicated to this cause.

If universities will not defend academic freedom and the right to freedom of speech, then they have failed in their most basic and necessary functions.

If we blocked Olmert’s lecture because some people found his views and his state’s actions to be offensive, then where do we stop?

If a Chinese scholar comes to Fredericton, do we prevent him/her from speaking to campus because of China’s actions in Tibet?

Do we block representatives from Sri Lanka because of their government’s treatment of the Tamils?

Are Iranian scholars forbidden because their government persecutes the Baha’i?

What about India, where the caste system constitutes the most sophisticated kind of oppression in the world?

Is any American scholar who wishes to support American government policies taboo?

Is any controversial issue suddenly beyond our ability to explore in a multi-dimensional way? Or is there only one set of acceptable opinions and, if so, who gets to determine what those opinions are?

The Political Science Department is looking into getting a Palestinian scholar to speak to campus next autumn.

But if were not willing to listen to Olmert, how could we defend listening to the “other side”? How could we claim to promote “critical thinking” if we were not willing to expose our students to all sides of an argument?

The PSS was criticized for not turning Dr. Olmert’s talk into a debate.

We reject this argument.

Dr. Olmert was invited to speak as an individual. Changing the terms of the engagement at the last minute would have been unfair.

Moreover, “academic freedom” is premised on the notion that the academy is open to different positions.

Requiring controversial speakers to endure a formal debate on their ideas automatically undermines what they have to say.

The question/answer session of a lecture is an adequate forum in which to raise probing questions.

On the Arab-Israeli conflict, the format in which the subject is discussed makes no difference to the civility of the discussion.

I have attended roundtables, panels and paper presentations on this subject, many of which have deteriorated into shouting matches.

What matters in debates on this topic are the self-restraint of the participants involved and the disposition of the audience.

Dr. Olmert was extremely provocative in his presentation. Any forum in which he appeared would have quickly lost its civility. Moreover, Dr. Olmert’s detractors saw him as representing the Israeli government. No matter how his appearance was staged, to these people his very presence was objectionable.

Many people went to Dr. Olmert’s talk with the desire to condemn the speaker and his country and no desire to listen and understand.

Even so, the lecture was a valuable educational experience. It gave us the chance to discuss academic freedom.

It exposed students to the raw emotions and intolerance, on both sides, that serve to fuel so many violent and intractable international conflicts.

Dr. Olmert is an extreme nationalist who sees the world in terms of ethnicity.

He is convinced that he is defending Jews against their enemies, both in Israel and abroad. Yet Olmert supports the “two-state” solution as the way to peace in the region and he represents dominant opinion in Israel.

If he is the “enemy” to the people who support the Palestinian cause, then he is also the kind of person with whom you have to make peace.

Finally, note the situation of Gordon Galloway, the British MP who has been denied access to Canada.

The government of Canada supports the decision to block Mr. Galloway’s entry because it finds his opinions offensive.

Galloway has been critical of the war in Afghanistan and has supported Hamas.

In some ways, he is the flip side of Dr. Olmert, and his plight demonstrates how easily the tables can be turned when we make freedom of speech conditional on our own political preferences

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