From the Editors
[The following open letter was organized by "anti-nomalization groups" at the American University of Beirut (AUB). It was originally published on the Sawt al-Niswa website on 21 June 2012. Click here to read the letter from the AUB Office of the President in response to this and other similar statements opposing the commencement speaker.]
Can AUB find only those Complicit with Zionism to Honor?
An Open Letter from anti-normalization groups at the AUB
In the lead-up to last year’s AUB graduation, over one hundred of the university’s faculty members voiced their principled opposition to the bestowal of an honorary doctorate upon a former World Bank president with demonstrated political and economic connections to the Zionist occupation of Palestine. In light of this petition, and numerous messages from AUB students and alumni, as well as others, James Wolfensohn decided not to attend the AUB commencement and was not awarded an honorary doctorate from AUB. In meetings that followed this event, university administrators assured AUB community members that awarding future honorary doctorates would be a more transparent process. The AUB administration also stressed, in a letter to the faculty, that “as an institution of higher learning with an historic presence in Lebanon and the Middle East, AUB is deeply committed to upholding the essential values of academic Freedom, and will do so within the bounds of Lebanese law, which strictly prohibits collaboration with Israeli institutions.”
Directly contradicting this commitment to transparency, AUB administrators have chosen to announce the 2012 honorary doctorate recipients less than a week before the ceremony at which these awards are to be presented. More insulting to the AUB community, as well as to the society in which the university is situated, is that Donna Shalala, one of this year’s recipients, and the one set to deliver the Commencement address on June 22, has established clear academic ties with the Israeli apartheid regime and has been one of the leading voices opposing the boycott of Israel. AUB’s choice of honoree forces us to wonder whether this is no mere coincidence, whether there is a systematic and structural attempt to turn the AUB, through its administration and Board of Trustees, into a normalizing entity, violating the boycott principles that Palestinians under Israeli occupation have called for and that most advocates of the Palestinian cause have endorsed. This shows a lack of concern for the fate of Palestinian victims of Israeli oppression, disrespect for universal human rights, and a disregard for the sentiments of the Lebanese community that supports Palestinian rights.
Ms. Donna Shalala served as U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services for eight years under President Bill Clinton. In these eight years, her administration systematically brought about the starvation of the Iraqi people under one of the most brutal sanctions regime in human history; directly killing 1-1.5 million Iraqis, 225,000-500,000 of whom were children. During her tenure as Health Secretary, she accepted honorary degrees from two Israeli universities: the Technion University (in 1994) and the University of Haifa (in 1998). After taking on the presidency of the University of Miami, she has worked to encourage partnership agreements signed between her university and Israel’s Bar Ilan and Ben Gurion Universities. In July of 2011, Ms. Shalala was awarded another honorary doctorate from the Ben Gurion University. At the celebration she stated that “I am honored to share this special day with the students and scholars at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. BGU proudly represents Israel’s abiding commitment to the special values and tradition of higher education.” All four of these universities, as with most other Israeli universities, are deeply enmeshed in discrimination against Palestinian students, Israeli military training and the development of weaponry used against Palestinian and Lebanese civilians.
Consistently misrepresenting the boycott of Israeli academic institutions as a boycott of Israeli academics, Shalala has been a leading opponent of the academic boycott. The highlight of her anti-boycott crusade came in July 2010 when she participated in a 13-member delegation of U.S. university presidents to Palestine organized by Project Interchange, an offshoot of the Zionist lobby group—and leading proponent of a U.S.-led war against Iran—the American Jewish Committee. The dual purpose of the delegation was to engage these university leaders in developing partnership with Israeli academic institutions—a goal clearly achieved with the University of Miami’s subsequent partnerships—and to fight the academic boycott.
Less than a month before travelling with the delegation, Shalala told the Jerusalem Post that she had “joined the presidents of the major American universities to denounce the boycott of Israeli academics. I sent a personal letter to the presidents of universities here, as did the other presidents, promising there would be no boycott in the United States and that Israeli scholars would always be welcome in the US.” Ironically, but far from surprisingly, Shalala’s Lebanese surname resulted in her detention and humiliation for over two hours by Israeli airport security. Astonishingly, she shrugged off this act of racism by saying: “While I was inconvenienced, Israel’s security and the security of travelers is far more important.”
As with Wolfensohn before her, there can be no doubt that Shalala is an accomplished individual, and even that many of her accomplishments may have benefited groups of people. There are hundreds of people around the world, however, who have done a great deal for humanity without also being complicit in crimes like the sanctions imposed on the Iraqi people, or with the apartheid regime of Israel.
Why are AUB administrators adamant in selecting those marred by such complicity for the bestowal of honorary awards? What makes AUB ignore the ongoing calls and petitions from its own community and the community at large to abide by the principles of academic boycott? What was the role of numerous lectures, conferences and seminars on the Arab Spring held this past year at AUB, if they failed to inspire AUB administration and community to understand the basic value that led to these revolutions, namely: dignity. Why would AUB advocate for a candidate for an honorary doctorate by pointing to their ethnic origin without pointing to their moral principles? These questions are not addressed to the AUB administration, which seems to be disrespectful of voices of its own students, faculty, and staff, and unconcerned to open a dialogue with its own constituency, but to the community in which AUB is embedded. It is about time for the community to oblige AUB to act as an institution embedded in a society that stands by moral principles of humanity, dignity, and equal rights.
Anti-Normalization groups at AUB
If you prefer, email your comments to email@example.com.
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