The following is an open letter to the Swarthmore community submitted by Swarthmore Students for Israel.
Today, the Swarthmore Students for Israel held an event with an invited speaker, Hussein Aboubakr. Hussein was a victim of torture (both physical and mental), repression, and hatred from his own government in Egypt. His only crime: studying Hebrew in his native country. We brought him in to speak because we believed his story was interesting and offered an important and original perspective on issues in the Middle East.
Our intention was to open a dialogue. Yet some students who attended behaved contemptuously from the very beginning. They opened textbooks and pretended to read while Hussein spoke. They talked amongst themselves. They interrupted and scoffed at him when he told the most harrowing parts of his story. As he tearfully recalled painful experiences in a military prison of being assaulted and cursed at, our peers prepared to yell at him and say that he “can’t f***ing say that.”
Understandably, Hussein reacted negatively to this rude treatment. The students who had come to interrupt now escalated. Soon our question-and-answer session degenerated into a screaming match. Instead of asking the speaker questions, these students yelled at us for bringing him to campus to spread “hatred” and claimed that his lecture “[didn’t] belong here.” One student stood up and proclaimed that he was shocked to hear such opinions at Swarthmore. We thought people attended college to hear new opinions. We expected people to disagree with him politically. What shocked us was that a survivor of sustained torture could be treated in such a way on our campus.
We should all be able to agree, at a minimum, that guests to our campus, especially those who have suffered extreme physical and mental abuse, should be treated with respect and dignity, regardless of whether we disagree with what they have to say. Alternative opinions should be listened to, not shut down. Unfortunately, those who most fervently advocate diversity seem to be the ones least tolerant of it when it is presented to them, especially in a civilized forum.
We had hoped to open up a dialogue here at Swarthmore, and the inability displayed here to do so only shows how necessary this is. We are cautiously optimistic that there may still be a space for a conversation on Israel and its neighbors here on our campus.
We as a group are committed to holding more events and bringing in more speakers, and we hope many of you will attend.
The Swarthmore Students for Israel