First came a eupeptic letter from a principal of Fieldston School. It began:
Dear Upper School Parents,
I am writing to let you know about an assembly we have planned for Thursday, February 23rd. We have invited Professor Muhammed Muslih of Long Island University and Associate Professor Mazin Qumsiyeh of Yale to speak to the Upper School students and faculty about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Both Professor Muslih and Associate Professor Qumsiyeh are Palestinians. Professor Muslih will speak for 10 minutes in favor of a two-state solution, and Professor Qumsiyeh will speak for 10 minutes in favor of a one-state solution, and for the balance of the assembly they will entertain questions from the audience.
Several days later another letter followed. It read:
Dear Upper School Parents:
I am writing to inform you that we have decided not to go forward with the February 23rd assembly on the Israeli-Palestine question. As important as we all believe this issue is and as much as we hoped for from the assembly and the accompanying activities, the events of the last several days have persuaded me that the assembly forum we chose to launch this discussion was not appropriate given the sensitivity and complexity of the issue.
I appreciate the many thoughtful phone calls and e-mails I received in response to my recent letter. Many of you who were most concerned about our plan framed your concerns in the most positive and constructive terms, and I deeply regret the unhappiness that my letter and support for this project has caused you.
Upper School Principal
What caused Fieldston to reverse engines so dramatically? “Their complacency got punctured,” says a Fieldston parent. “This is a school that distributed condoms to 15-year-olds without much protest from parents, and had a Transgender Day with no ruckus at all. So they must have thought they could get by with Dr. Qumsiyeh. Wrong.”
Very wrong, in fact. Not long after the announcement reached the upper school parents, Love began to receive phone calls and e-mails protesting Fieldston’s decision. A letter from Jerome Gordon, a retired banker and Jewish activist, was one of the most acute. He noted that Qumsiyeh, a geneticist, hadn’t been at Yale for more than a year—and that he wasn’t a professor when he was there. The doctor was, however, very active as a Palestinian extremist with a gift for invective. Indeed, one of his articles, distributed at the World Economic Forum in Davos Switzerland, wound up getting withdrawn following protests about his arguments for divestment from companies doing business with Israel.
Gordon, who had debated Qumsiyeh at public forums in Connecticut, concluded that the doctor’s presence at the Fieldston assembly would be “tantamount to support of his anti-Israel xenophobia and patent anti-Semitic vitriol. His cant is akin to that of the notorious Nazi-era propaganda newspaper, Der Stürmer. Who else would call Israelis ‘Zionazis’ or ‘Ashkenazis.’ Who else would call Zionism a disease. Only Dr. Qumsiyeh and a number of his extremist radical colleagues.”
Gordon concluded: “This is not the level of civil discourse and preparation that any self-respecting and concerned parent in the upper form at the Fieldston school would tolerate whether Christian, Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist, Shinto, animist, atheist or even Muslim.”
If the other letters proved cooler in tone, their message was the same. The school withdrew its invitation to Qumsiyeh and scrapped the assembly. Sometime in spring, the school announced, there would be “a half-day of panels, seminars and speakers after spring break on Palestine, Israel, and the Middle East, that will allow for a much more in-depth and sophisticated educational experience.” The identity of the speakers and panelists was “under development.”
The New York Times got wind of the controversy and covered it in a story headed SHELVING OF PANEL ON MIDEAST ROILS SCHOOL. The sense of the situation the article gave was one of bewilderment; somehow a mistake had occurred, but it was no one’s fault. It could happen anywhere. But Qumsiyeh’s dossier was a click away on Google, which furnished countless references to his malicious hostility to the Jewish state. Evidently no one at Fieldston could bother with doing a little checking in cyberspace.
One student, 16-year-old Evan Krasner, cannily asked, “How can this be a diverse debate? It’s two sides of one side.” But most at Fieldston stressed the First Amendment. Said Kenneth Roth, a Fieldston parent who is executive director of Human Rights Watch but insisted that he was speaking privately, “It suggests that some parents who supposedly believe in progressive education and trust their kids to hear all sides of disputes don’t extend that principle to disputes about Israel.”
It would be interesting to see if the parents who agreed with Roth would welcome an assembly in which two people spoke of Intelligent Design, one addressing the literal truth of the Old Testament, the other positing the theory of the Almighty as watchmaker and the world and its population as teeth in the gears. Or an assembly on the privileges of fetuses, with one speaker dilating on the horror of partial birth abortion, and the other stating the position of the Roman Catholic Church on an unborn’s Right to Life. Would they insist that the other sides had to be heard on these topics? Or don’t they extend that principle to disputes about evolution and humanity?