Skip to comments.DePaul faces criticism over Palestinian art exhibit
Posted on 05/02/2005 7:56:51 PM PDT by Land_of_Lincoln_John
During the past five years issues relating to the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians have challenged university administrators. Not least among the institutions embroiled is DePaul University.
The nations largest Catholic university, DePaul serves more than 23,000 students. Founded on the principle of admitting people of all religions, the university has no idea how many students are Catholics, Muslims, or Jews, although anecdotal estimates in the Jewish community peg the number of Jewish students at around 1,000.
On the one hand, Jewish students at DePaul encounter a campus environment well equipped to serve their social, spiritual, and educational needs. An active DePaul Hillel, supported by JUF, brings Jewish and Israel-oriented programming to campus; students will soon be able to pursue an academic concentration in Jewish studies; and the university itself brings to campus speakers, lecturers, and cultural events with Judaic and Israeli content.
On the other hand, during the past five years students on the Lincoln Park and Loop campuses have witnessed events, lectures, posters, and tabling" by student groups that demonize Israelis and delegitimize the State of Israel. In 2003 the DePaul succah was vandalized, an act that the university immediately denounced.
Add to the mix the hiring by the political science department in 2002 of Norman Finklestein as an assistant professor. Finklesteins academic career and reputation are rooted in his radical Israel-bashing and Holocaust-minimizing work and comments. (In a lecture in Beirut, Finkelstein said that he "truly honored" Hezbollah fighters in southern Lebanon, according to The Forward.)
Most recently, DePaul has come under scrutiny for not rehiring Thomas Klocek, an adjunct professor with a spotless 14-year teaching record. According to a university spokeswoman, Klocek, who is not Jewish, behaved in a manner that was belligerent" and menacing" when he argued with students manning an information table for the group, Students for Justice in Palestine.
The latest flash point is "The Subject of Palestine," an art exhibit that opened at the DePaul University Art Museum in February 2005, which is slated to run through May 6. The exhibit was organized by Students for Justice in Palestine and the Museum, and co-sponsored, according to the exhibit catalog, by more than a dozen university departments and programs. At issue for the Jewish community, indeed all concerned with historical accuracy, is not as much the art itself, but rather the context in which the catalog and accompanying signage frame the work. Also in question is the universitys official connection to the exhibit.
In correspondence with DePaul President Rev. Dennis H. Holtschneider, Jewish Federation Executive Vice President Michael Kotzin indicated that the introductory text, with its revisionist history and rejectionist ideology, contaminates the entire exhibit." The language used in the exhibit signage and catalog, Kotzin said, encapsulates a narrative in which Palestinians see themselves as martyrs victimized by the Israelis and in no way responsible for their own condition. Defying the historical facts, it asserts that in 1948 statehood was lost to Israeli occupation, implying that Palestinians once had statehood, which they did not, and ignoring the fact that they could have had it at that point had they and the Arab world not rejected what the United Nations offered and Israel agreed to.
Most revealing," Kotzin continued, is the assertion that it was Israeli occupation that denied the Palestinians their state. By proclaiming that even when Israel existed within the 1948 borders that was occupation, the statement implicitly rejects the legitimate re-establishment of Jewish sovereignty in the ancient homeland of the Jewish people, a legitimacy endorsed by the United Nations."
As JUF News went to press, the DePaul administration, in its Newsline publication, sought to set the historical record straight" with comments by Holtschneider, Kotzin, and Daniel Goffman, a professor and chair of the history department, and Warren Schultz, associate professor of history. Quoted in the article, Schultz said, Dan [Goffman] and I are in agreement that this [the catalogs assertion about Palestinian statement] is not a statement we would have made about the events in 1948, but I recognize that what this statement does reflect is a view of at least some Palestinians, and as such, it helps people to understand the art that is being produced."
Professor Elie Rekhess holds an unequivocal view.
Rekhess is senior research fellow at Tel Aviv Universitys Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies, director of the Program on Arab Politics in Israel, and a visiting professor at Northwestern University.
There are aspects of the Middle East conflict that are disputable; however, in the case of the Palestinians, statehood was not lost to Israel. Statehood as offered in the partition plan was simply rejected by the Palestinians themselves and by the Arab states," he said When it comes to those issues that are disputable, one would expect an exhibition hosted by an institution of higher learning to present an objective viewpoint."
Rekhess related having recently attended a symposium at DePaul during which a professor from the history department had encouraged attendees to view the exhibit.
Like Rekhess, Kotzin takes DePaul to task for appearing to provide total and absolute endorsement of the exhibit.
We are well aware of DePauls longstanding efforts to create an atmosphere welcoming to Jewish students. But we have strived to help DePaul leadership better understand how recent developments there exist in the context of a global attempt, seen on many American campuses, to demonize Israelis and their supporters and to deny Israels right to exist."
Against the backdrop of all these events and in light of requests that the university seek to distance itself from The Subject of Palestine," I spoke with Rev. Holtschneider, who began serving as DePaul's 11th president on July 1, 2004.
Q: A university administrator has to traverse difficult terrain. What principles guide your approach?
A: You expect the worlds great issues to be discussed on the campus, and that youre going to see them in all their complexity. You expect to hear about them with both great precision and great passion. One of the great principles is academic freedom and free speech for students. Upholding them in every scenario is not always ideal; there are problems, but the alternative is worse.
The danger is, you open yourself up to situations when people talk about some of the issues but not all, and who shade the issues in certain ways that may be in fact wrong. People are going to advocate certain positions, they are going to be adversarial, and you hope that even though one person may not be correct, the group in conversation will steer toward truth and that as a thinking, intellectual community we can arrive at correction.
Q: What do you see as your specific role?
A: I have to make space for people to say things that may not be popular, for people to have even heated discussions. But my role as president is to guard the conditions so you can have the full conversation. And that means protecting free speech, even if there are people who push the bounds. Students need to reach informed understandings, and you try to set up conditions for that.
Q: Does The Subject of Palestine" meet that test?
A: This exhibit raises an important intellectual question: How is history used in the midst of great political discussions, national wars, and debates? History gets told differently depending on where you sit. In the case of this exhibit, the concern is that students will not understand that bigger question. And theres a question about the veracity of the information presented.
Q: How will DePaul address those questions?
A: We are going to ask the campus to set up an educational event, to invite members of the campus to consider the historical facts. There are some who say its all a matter of interpretation. But there are facts. You need to sort through what you know in the midst of interpretation and to arrive at an understanding of what the facts are, and where those accepted facts are violated.
Q: Are you concerned that the university has been used as a setting for propaganda?
A: When you use the word propaganda, that intimates an intentionality of proposing something that goes beyond the facts. And I cant speak to that. The question I can speak to is, how does history get used and shaped and characterized in these highly politicized moments? How can the same story be characterized in so many different ways?
Q: How exactly will you proceed to determine the historical facts in this instance?
A: We will turn to those in the institution who do have expertise, and to others who can help us understand the situation, and were going to put together a public event to discuss that. I dont know whom we are going to get right now. We are trying to bring some light to those who can engage the question of to what degree the panels in the exhibit match the truth of the situation, and how does the larger question work where history keeps being shaped by political goals?
In truth I have no doubt we will discover that this [exhibit] may not match that [truth] well.
We will use this controversy to look at a call to a higher level of scholarship. Our hope is to make this a learning opportunity many of our students know theres a conflict but dont know the history of the conflict.
Q: Are you worried that over the past five years the atmosphere for Jewish or pro-Israel students has been somehow tainted at DePaul?
A: Since the day DePaul opened in 1898 the university has had a strong relationship with the Jewish community. Im proud of that fact. We have worked together to build an outstanding, diverse institution of higher education. Im proud of the fact that the chairman of our board is Jewish, and that he is not the first.
This is an important and valued relationship, and I would hope we wouldnt lose our friendship and partnership in the midst of sorting through these things.
DePaul Hillel is supported by Hillels Around Chicago: Multi-Campus Center, a partner in serving our community supported by the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago, and Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life.
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