A Benedictine student’s comments during a university sponsored presentation last week, about the similarities between Palestinians and the Holocaust survivors, was shared on Twitter and created a storm of controversy; the video has been viewed more than 260,000 times. It also drew the scorn of Jonathon Greenblatt, CEO of the Anti-Defamation League.
Harold Kasimow, a professor at Grinnell College, visited Benedictine University to speak about his experience as a child Holocaust survivor on Thursday October 24th, 2019. Benedictine student Ayah Ali, the President of SJP, Students for Justice for Palestine, was in the audience.
“Greenblatt condemned (Ali) of Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) at Benedictine University for asking a Holocaust survivor to denounce the Israeli government’s ‘ethnic cleansing,'” according to the Jewish Journal.
“To demand this elderly Holocaust survivor condemn Israel is outrageous & deeply offensive,” said Greenblatt. “Yet another example of SJP’s anti-Semitic practice of marginalizing Jews and reducing their identity to their connection to Israel.”
“As I was sitting and listening to (Kasimow), I loved his speech and it motivated me to ask him the question I asked. I felt that I could stand in solidarity with him and he could stand with me,” stated Ali.
Ali’s question compared the Holocaust and genocide to the fate of the Palestinian people and a video of her comment was shared by SJP’s Twitter account – @BenUSjp2. Hundreds of people reacted, while some were in support, most were critical.
“u stupid f****** c***!” said @TheWizardOfAv in a Direct Message on Twitter.
“You have no right to place any ‘expectation’ on Kasimow,” said Twitter user @dschwarz.
“These students should be ashamed of themselves. They have no clue of history,” said Twitter user @hosea9595.
“What is wrong with you, it’s just an old Jewish man that’s his only connection and that would not have been brought up if he was a genocide survivor of any other background, you are doing your cause a disfavor and frankly I don’t know how you didn’t feel stupid doing this,” said Twitter user @baghdaddy7.
Ali began on the video speaking by acknowledging the struggles Kasimow faced and stated that she “wanted to draw a parallel between a very similar occurrence happening in present day and history [Palestine].” In the video, Ali can be seen asking Kasimow what his personal thoughts are on the establishment of the Israeli state at the cost of Palestinian lives with Kasimow stating “Sometimes I feel that people have a strong opinion on issues on which they don’t have sufficient knowledge. I don’t have enough knowledge to say a yes or no answer.”
“A lot of the criticism we are getting is that we came in with the agenda that this is a Jewish speaker and he is automatically a Zionist. This was not the case,” stated Dania Alzein, the Media Representative of SJP.
Several other twitter users have commented on the issue, stating that Ali did not handle the situation well and that there is a time and place for everything, but this was neither the time nor place.
“Comrades I support the immediate liberation of Palestinians and the right to return and I work towards that as often as I am physically able so please understand this question is coming from a place of concern more than anything: what the absolute f*** are you doing. “Was there absolutely anything whatsoever to warrant this? Has he in the past been vocally anti-Palestine and pro-Zionist? Or is it just that ‘ah, he’s Jewish, and his holocaust story would be a really convenient thing for us to use for our own purposes’?” said Twitter user @coffeespoonie.
“I want a free Palestine, but this isn’t really helpful,” said Twitter user @_Lesbyterian.
“After stepping back and looking at everything,” said Ali, “I do wish I had restated my question [given the opportunity]. I can strongly say that I have been a Palestinian activist for a while, but I have never felt this silenced and this choked. I feel like I am drowning in the backlash of Zionists trying to silence me. And that feeling is worse than anything I’ve felt in the past.”
President Gregory of Benedictine University shared the importance of “civil discourse and productive discussion around potentially polarizing topics.” In an email response to the issue, he stated that “the University does not support or tolerate speech that is hateful to any group. As an inclusive, Catholic, and Benedictine institution of higher learning, we provide a values-based education that revolves around developing the whole person… we expect students, faculty, staff and guests to adhere to the Benedictine values upon which we were founded – including hospitality, community, and love of Christ and neighbor. Dr. Kasimow was an invited guest to campus and we thank him for sharing his experiences with our community.”
Ali and SJP BenU have faced backlash on Twitter and via emails with threats from users who are attacking Ali for being anti-Jewish. Several journal articles have been published since the event, some stating that Ali forced Kasimow “to condemn the establishment of Israel, and then walked out on his speech after he did not do so.”
“We went in with a very open mind and were not at all trying to downplay his experience. We only wanted to draw a parallel between his story and what Palestinian children are facing today. We are NOT anti-semitic. SJP is reaching out to Pro Palestinian Jewish groups for their critiques and assistance,” stated Alzein.
***The Illinois state defines cyber bullying as substantially interfering with the student’s or students’ academic performance; or causing a substantially detrimental effect on the student’s or students’ physical or mental health. These anti bullying laws cover off campus activities as well and prohibit the bullying based on race, religion, national origin, association with a group, or any other distinguishing character. Cyber bullying can be charged as a crime in some jurisdictions and can result in a misdemeanor. Policies can be found at this site.