Testing Limits: Orthodox High School Disinvites Palestinian-American Scholar

Students petition to bring Columbia historian Rashid Khalidi to their high school.

NEW YORK CITY– The modern Orthodox Ramaz high school is the latest to join a growing list of venues where debate over the boundaries of acceptable discourse relating to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has led to major figures being disinvited from speaking engagements.

RamPo, the school's student-led extra-curricular politics society, recently invited Rashid Khalidi, a well-known historian of the Middle-East, to give a talk. Shortly thereafter, school head Paul Shaviv rescinded the invitation, overruling the students.

Khalidi is the Edward Said Professor of Modern Arab Studies at Columbia University, and is the author of several major books concerning Palestinian national politics and identity.

In response to Shaviv's action, RamPo started a petition calling on Shaviv “to realize how important academic equitability is to the Ramaz community and reverse his prohibition on Professor Khalidi's address.” By late Friday, the petition had collected some 180 votes. Many appeared to be from outside supporters of open dialogue, including leaders of the Open Hillel movement and J Street U. Other signees included “Adolph Hitler” and “Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.”

In a letter sent on Friday to Ramaz faculty and parents and in a separate statement sent to Haaretz, Shaviv explained his actions concerning the “delicate political situation. “Ramaz is a school with a long tradition of openness and debate,” he wrote, and the RamPo’s invitation “was well intentioned, but inappropriate […] The students sought ‘dialogue’. We felt that controversy would be inevitable over this invitation, would massively overshadow any conversation and would make an educational experience impossible; and also that Prof. Khalidi, who is an international personality of great political stature, was not the right partner for ‘dialogue’ with high school students.”

Shaviv also explained to Ramaz faculty and parents that he took pains to meet with Khalidi personally while disinviting him. “In an effort to maintain a professional and respectful relationship with Professor Khalidi, it was very important that I meet with him personally to explain why we did not think his visit was appropriate. After an amicable and civilized discussion, which included a recognition that we were both graduate students at Oxford at the same time, he acknowledged he understood the issues at hand. The entire school appreciates Professor Khalidi's realistic understanding of the school's position,” that note said, in part.

“The issue has never been about whether or not students should hear another view," Shaviv added, "they should. Our question was, ‘is this the appropriate program?’ To this end, we are working with RamPo to arrange an event that will provide the program content they originally envisioned.”

In response to an interview request, RamPo’s co-presidents sent an otherwise unsigned note, saying “while we disagree with the Head of School's decision on this matter, we look forward to working together with the Ramaz administration to expose the student body to outside perspectives. The Ramaz Politics Society will continue to stay committed to encouraging open dialogue in our community.”

Last month RamPo hosted former Republican New York City mayoral candidate Joe Lhota without any apparent controversy.

Khalidi responded to a request for an interview about the issue by saying, “I don’t want to talk about it.”

Khalidi, a member of the Council on Foreign Relations and editor of the journal Palestine Studies, was a member of the Palestinian delegation to Arab-Israeli peace talks in Madrid and Washington between 1991 and 1993.

It was at that time that Noah Simblist, then a Ramaz high school student, took a class on Israeli history. He asked his teacher for permission to bring in a Palestinian diplomat to speak at school, who he would have invited through a connection he had with Americans for Peace Now. His teacher agreed, Simblist told Haaretz in an interview, but Ramaz administrators did not, telling him “not only can they [Palestinian diplomats] not come do this event, but they cannot come into the building.” Today Simblist is an associate professor of art at Dallas’ Southern Methodist University, and writing a book about how art and activism intersect in Israeli-Palestinian politics.

Shaviv’s deferential tone toward Khalidi in the school head’s statements, Simblist said, “reflects the evolution of the politics and political rhetoric from 1991 until now,” though not necessarily a shift in Ramaz’s fundamentally conservative culture.

“The fact that they wouldn’t bring in Khalidi, who is a leader in the field of historians of Palestinian identity, speaks to a conservative attitude that is not open in any way. On the other hand, I was heartened to see that a student group would want to invite him and when told they couldn’t, tried to raise public awareness.”

Ramaz is well within its rights to decide who may speak there, during the school day or as part of an extra-curricular program, said David Bloomfield, a professor of education, leadership, law and policy at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate Center. Hosting a controversial speaker “might be seen as sponsorship by the school or some other adverse use of school property,” Bloomfield told Haaretz. But, he added, he doesn’t view barring Khalidi as a good idea. “The school shouldn’t need to feel so protective of students on an issue like this. This is an opportunity for the school to open up a guided dialogue on things that the students are otherwise seeing discussed on cable TV.”

Other kerfuffles over speakers’ Israel-related politics this week include pro-BDS literary theorist Judith Butler pulling out of a panel discussion on Kafka at New York’s Jewish Museum after her Israel/Palestine politics became an issue. The museum cancelled the entire event.

And John Judis, a senior editor of The New Republic and author of a new book on Harry Truman’s role in Middle East policies and the establishment of the Israel, was disinvited from a talk he was slated to give at the Museum of Jewish Heritage: A Living Memorial to the Holocaust this month. His book, he was told, was too controversial.

Alex Livak