NY college event with Israeli scholar who said only rape can deter Palestinian militants postponed after protests

Hunter College students & faculty protested pro-Israel groups' event with former military official Mordechai Kedar

Published February 17, 2016 8:30PM (EST)

Israeli scholar and former military intelligence officer Mordechai Kedar  (Wikimedia Commons/Ariel Elinson)
Israeli scholar and former military intelligence officer Mordechai Kedar (Wikimedia Commons/Ariel Elinson)

Israeli scholar Mordechai Kedar has insisted that only rape can stop Palestinian militants. "The only thing that can deter terrorists," the professor said after three Israelis were killed by Palestinian militants in the summer of 2014, "is the knowledge that their sister or their mother will be raped."

"You have to understand the culture in which we live," he added, in an interview on an Israel Radio program. "It sounds very bad, but that's the Middle East."

Despite widespread backlash in response to his comments, Kedar was invited to speak at New York City's Hunter College on Feb. 16. The event, titled "Israel and Her Neighbors," was organized by Hunter Hillel, and sponsored by several other pro-Israel groups, including Hunter Students for Israel, the Zionist Organization of America Campus and the United Jewish Appeal Federation of NY.

Students and faculty at the college protested in response to the planned event. Members of the Women and Gender Studies Department and activists from the groups Students for Justice in Palestine and Jewish Voice for Peace pushed for the event to be canceled.

Catherine Raissiguier, professor and chair of Hunter's Women and Gender Studies Department, told Salon she was "profoundly troubled by the statement" made by Kedar.

She said that, after learning about the event just a few days ago, individual faculty members in the department contacted the administration, expressing their concerns and "condemning" the invitation.

"We were shocked and troubled," Raissiguier explained. "We really wanted to make the community aware."

Rosalind Petchesky, distinguished professor emerita of political science at Hunter College and the CUNY Graduate Center, told Salon she found it "obscene" that Hunter would allow someone to speak who even suggests "something that is an international war crime," stressing that "rape is a violation not only women's human rights, but it is also a war crime and a crime against humanity."

"Palestinian women undergo abuse and sexual attacks by Israeli defense, by military, by police all the time — in East Jerusalem, at checkpoints, at prisons; it's well-documented," Petchesky added. "It's really disgusting. It just reveals a mentality that has no respect for women, and no respect at all for Palestinian women."

Hunter Hillel announced on its Facebook page on Feb. 15, the day before the lecture was to take place, that it had postponed the event. Hunter activists, meanwhile, told Salon that, if Hillel the event goes on as planned on the new date, they still plan on protesting.

"We underestimated the response and level of provocation that would result from our invitation to Mordechai Kedar to return to our campus for another program," Hunter Hillel wrote. "We have seen in the past days unexpected reactions, knee-jerk responses to unfounded statements and a lack of intellectual due diligence from both the Hunter community and external parties."

The organization alleges that Kedar's remarks were taken out of context. Hunter Hillel urged viewers to read an article written by Kedar in Arutz Sheva, a hard-line right-wing Israeli news outlet that is linked to Israel's right-wing religious movement and is supportive of Israel's illegal settlement of the occupied West Bank.

In the piece, Kedar declares that he is "an avowed feminist" and insists that, "unlike us" — meaning Israelis — "most of the people living in the Middle East" live in "the traditional frameworks in which they lived throughout history, the tribes and extended families." He says "one of the foundation stones of tribal life is 'the culture of shame,'" and, because "of this cultural ethos, there are men who put pressure on other men by threatening to rape their opponent's sister or mother."

"It can be said that throughout the Arab world sexual violence and rape are an inseparable part of the many conflicts that are tearing the Arab world into shreds," Kedar continues.

"In the Middle East, rape is a weapon of war" the Israeli professor concludes in the article recommended by Hunter Hillel. Arutz Sheva claims that this "objective information provided by an expert in a radio interview was skewed by those wishing to use it for political ends."

Jennifer Gaboury, a full-time faculty member and associate director of the Women and Gender Studies Department, strongly disagreed that the statement was taken out of context, telling Salon that she was struck by the "horror of what Kedar is saying."

"There's very little nuance to what he was saying," Gaboury explained. "He's saying something incredibly racist and sexist... that Arab and Muslim men can't be reasoned with, and that one could only put out a threat of sexual violence or the killing of Muslim women to interrupt their violent tendencies and impulses."

"I would say that's incredibly ironic, given the brutal history of the IDF and patterns of disproportionate use of force," she added, referring to the Israeli military, the Israel Defense Forces.

Kedar, who is now a professor in the Department of Arabic at Israel's Bar-Ilan University, served in military intelligence for the IDF for 25 years.

Salon contacted the Hunter College administration, when it was announced that the event had been postponed, with a request for comment. Hunter's spokeswoman, Debbie Raskin, said she didn't know about the event or its postponement, but said the administration would reply. Salon has not received a response.

Nerdeen Kiswani, the vice president of Hunter Students for Justice Palestine, told Salon that she was "disgusted" that someone who "spews this misogyny — and not just this misogyny, but this blatant racism" would be invited to speak at a public university.

Kiswani said students in Hunter SJP only found out about the event less than a week ago, and asked themselves "how can we stand by and let this happen?" They contacted numerous faculty members and student groups and informed them of the event.

Coalition CUNY for Palestine, a coalition of students and professors who support Palestinian human rights, got involved, and members of the Women and Genders Studies Department "did a lot of the legwork" Kiswani said.

Activists got in touch with the administration, which has said little about the event. Kiswani noted, however, that the administration did say it was anticipating protests. Gaboury told Salon this is what she heard as well.

Neither of Hunter Hillel's offices responded to a request by Salon for comment. Salon also emailed Hunter Hillel, and its executive director, Lisa Pollack, who replied with a brief statement, in which she said the board had decided to issue "in lieu of speaking to the media further at this time."

"Until we feel that discourse can be held on the Hunter campus with civility, safety and respect we do not feel comfortable promoting an event, even though our speaker's previous statements were misunderstood and taken out of context," the Hunter Hillel board said.

"We pledge to work with administration to make Hunter a place where diverse opinions can be shared in a comfortable environment. We call on others to do the same," the board added in its statement.

Pollack also pointed to the statement Hunter Hillel wrote on its Facebook page, recommending the link to the Arutz Sheva article in which Kedar insists "that throughout the Arab world sexual violence and rape are an inseparable part of the many conflicts that are tearing the Arab world into shreds" and, "in the Middle East, rape is a weapon of war."

The Hunter Hillel executive director said the event with Kedar has been rescheduled for April 14.


"Repressive policies" toward pro-Palestinian groups

Students and faculty say the event underscores an atmosphere of repression of pro-Palestinian human rights work in the City University of New York, or CUNY, system.

In response to Hillel's accusations that Kedar's comments were taken out of context, Petchesky said, "I don't think it's a valid response at all."

Petchesky, who is a member of Jewish Voice for Peace and CUNY for Palestine, said the event "gives us an opportunity to really educate the CUNY community about the perniciousness of not only the Israel Defense Forces and the fact that they do systematically attack and assault Palestinian woman, but also the ways in which CUNY is implicated in supporting Zionist causes." Zionism refers to the nationalist movement and ideology that calls for a Jewish state in the land of historic Palestine.

Petchesky emphasized that she "strongly believes that criticizing Zionism is not the same as anti-Semitism, and that we have to absolutely separate those things."

"I am Jewish, and I absolutely and completely believe, and have my whole life, that I can be a critic of the policies of the state of Israel and still be a good Jew," Petchesky stressed. "Jewishness is not nationalism."

Petchesky said there is a "pattern and practice" of repression of pro-Palestinian groups at CUNY, of backlash and cancellation of events.

The NYPD's surveillance program that targets Muslim students in particular. Documents obtained by the New York Civil Liberties Union found that the NYPD is monitoring politically active Muslim students at CUNY. Rights groups sued the NYPD for, they say, "routinely violating the civil rights of Muslims across New York City by operating an unconstitutional religious profiling and suspicionless surveillance program."

"There's not an evenhanded policy with the CUNY and Hunter administrations when it comes to events planned by Hillel versus Students for Justice in Palestine," Petchesky observed. "It's very biased, in my opinion."

She says she wants the CUNY system "to stop its repressive policies," which she called "discriminatory."

CUNY faculty members have written two letters expressing their concerns, one in November 2015 and another in September 2014.

In 2014, Judith Butler, Columbia University professor Rashid Khalidi and more than 150 other scholars also published an open letter condemning American universities' censorship and intimidation of critics of the Israeli government.

The Center for Constitutional Rights and Palestine Legal documented the repression of pro-Palestinian activists in its report "The Palestine Exception to Free Speech: A Movement Under Attack in the U.S." Between January 2014 and June 2015, legal advocacy organization Palestine Legal responded to close to 300 incidents of suppression of Palestinian solidarity work, 85 percent of which was targeted at students and professors on more than 65 U.S. college campuses.

Jennifer Gaboury told Salon that, in the years since feminist scholar Judith Butler was invited to speak at Brooklyn College in February 2013, pressures around student programming have increased in the CUNY system.

Butler, who is on the steering committee of the Academic Advisory Council of the social justice group Jewish Voice for Peace, is a supporter of Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions, or BDS, an international grassroots movement that promotes nonviolent economic means to pressure Israel into complying with international law and respecting Palestinian rights. When she was invited to speak in support of BDS at Brooklyn College in February 2013, a political firestorm erupted. Pro-Israel organizations tried to cancel the event, and donors even threatened to defund parts of the university.

Since then, Gaboury recalls that the climate has been much more heated. "We want administrators to take a few steps back, and don't want heavy-handed control over student- and faculty-initiated events," she explained. She notes activists in Students for Justice in Palestine have had trouble getting spaces for events, and even her own department has sometimes met opposition.

Gaboury feels this event "was handled just fine," adding "administrators were being fairly good." "I don't think it was a heavy administrative hand that caught this," she said, but warned that it may "send a message in the wrong way." She says she has already seen memos going around that make her "increasingly concerned that things are about to get worse than they already were."

"I think it's incredibly bad judgment of students at Hunter Hillel to invite Kedar to speak," explained Gaboury, who said she has worked with Hillel before and organized events with the organization.

"They are of course free, in my opinion, to do that," she added, noting that she would rather err on the side of academic freedom and freedom of speech than stifling it, but Gaboury said she hopes Hillel decides not to reschedule it.

"In the past all they tried to do was antagonize us and get our group shut down," Nerdeen Kiswani told Salon, expressing frustration at the CUNY administration.

Kiswani said she's no longer surprised by events like this. "Hunter has a track record with these things," she said. "This is not inconsistent with CUNY's track record."

Hunter was one of the first 55 schools in the country to be put under investigation for Title IX violations for failing to address sexual violence and harassment complaints, Kiswani pointed out.

CUNY has also hired former CIA Director David Petraeus, whom she referred to as Gen. David "Death Squads" Petraeus, for his links to death squads supported by the U.S. in Iraq and El Salvador.

Petraeus was hired as a part-time visiting professor in 2013. He was at first offered $200,000 per year to teach just three hours per week, although his compensation was later reduced to a more modest $150,000.

"I know it's not normal," Kiswani said. "It's terrible."

By Ben Norton

Ben Norton is a politics reporter and staff writer at AlterNet. You can find him on Twitter at @BenjaminNorton.

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