On Tuesday, Swarthmore Students for Israel brought Hussein Aboubakr to campus to speak. After some students who attended began shouting at the speaker, we were contacted by the Swarthmore Phoenix to be interviewed about the event. Perhaps unsurprisingly, none of our quotes made it into the article. Now, we’re not going to argue with the claims made in that article – that freedom of speech is dangerous or that a Swarthmore student who screamed at a former victim of torture can justify herself by complaining that his discussion of his torture was a “triggering incident” for her. Instead, here are our answers to the interviewer’s questions that somehow failed to make it into print:
Who is Aboubakr?
Hussein Aboubakr was born in 1989 to an Arab Muslim family in Cairo, Egypt. Hussein studied Jewish and Middle Eastern history and Hebrew literature at the Faculty of Arts and Oriental Studies Department at Cairo University. Persecuted and tortured by state police for his research at the Israeli Academic Center of Cairo, Hussein participated in the Egyptian revolution until he was forced to depart Egypt as a political refugee. He now lives in the United States. He is a member of JIMENA: Jews Indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa an organization based in San Francisco.
Who made the decision to bring Aboubakr to campus and why?
Swarthmore Students for Israel decided to bring Aboubakr through Stand with Us, a pro- Israel advocacy and education organization. We believe it is important to bring in speakers with alternative viewpoints to Swarthmore and have had success with Stand with Us in the past.
How many students attended tonight’s event?
Considering how contentious of an issue this is on campus, I was disappointed at the small turnout we had. There were only seven students there, including myself.
What exactly happened at the Aboubakr event tonight? What did the students who interrupted him/insulted him/the group during the question/answer session say?
I will not write what the students who interrupted the speaker said, because I cannot directly quote them. I can, however, speak to their behavior. From the very beginning of the event, they acted in a manner that I found to be very disrespectful to the speaker. One of the students had a book open on his desk at the time that Aboubakr began speaking and clearly seemed to be still more invested in reading than listening. Relatively early in Aboubakr’s telling of his story, the students were whispering to each other under their breath, and one specifically interrupted him in the middle of his speaking. Aboubkar and a member of Stand with Us asked the student to please wait for the end before asking questions, but the student persisted. When Aboubkar was finally able to continue speaking, he did answer the question the student had interrupted with. It quickly dissolved from discussion to screaming match when Aboubkar opened the floor for questions at the end.
How did Aboubakr react to the students?
Aboubkar clearly endures a great deal of pain each time he tells this story, and understandably so. He was visibly upset by the lewd and vulgar words that were thrown at him, but did attempt to continue to answer the “questions.” I put questions in quotation marks because I did not feel that those students who were angrily yelling at Aboubkar really cared for his answers. Despite claims that these students were interested in dialogue, the hostility that I felt signified that this may not have been entirely the case.
How did you feel about what happened?
I was very upset by what occurred at the talk, by comments made by students both towards Aboubkar and towards myself. I will speak on this a little further in the next two questions, but I was frustrated by the inability on the part of other students on this campus to acknowledge another human beings lived experience. I did not agree with everything that Aboubkar said. I felt that he made a few sweeping generalizations that were in fact potentially harmful. This does not, however, justify the behavior of the students, the attacks that occurred, or the intolerance that was displayed. I would hope that on a campus that preaches values such as acceptance and respect, something like this would not happen.
Do you think that tonight’s event is representative of the general Swarthmore intellectual climate around issues such as Israel/its neighbors, or as though this was an isolated incident?
It disheartens me to say that this is representative of the general Swarthmore intellectual climate surrounding Israel, but this was by no means the first time that I have witnessed or experienced this kind of behavior. I attended another speaking event last spring, and was again dismayed at the lack of turnout and at the attitudes of many of those who did attend. The intolerance that I have seen is something that is beyond my realm of comprehension. I very often strongly disagree with people on this campus to the point where I am emotionally affected, just as some in our audience were today. That does not mean that I would scream vulgarities at someone and deny their lived experiences. It is a clear display of intolerance that I have personally had to deal with numerous times on this campus. I make a point of listening to the other side, of reading anti-Israel literature and listening to other groups’ lectures. I do this because I feel that is my intellectual and moral responsibility to acknowledge with and grapple with the ideas of those who oppose my own beliefs. On this campus, I have not felt that this same respect has been given to me. Instead, I have been forced to deal with heavy criticism and even blatant anti-Semitism on far too many occasions.*
* To clarify, I do believe that you can criticize Israel without being anti-Semitic.
Do you feel as though constructive dialogue about Israel/its neighbors can take place on campus?
If the goals of this university are moral and intellectual excellence, then it is necessary that constructive dialogue about Israel and its neighbors take place on campus. I do not mean to change anyone’s mind, nor do I intend to force my opinions on others. My intent is simply to present the other sides of a multifaceted argument in a setting where I very much only feel that one side has been exposed. I am cautiously, and likely foolishly, optimistic that constructive dialogue is possible.
Do you/your group plan on bringing similar speakers in the future?
We plan to bring pro-Israel speakers to campus. There were likely be more speakers coming through Stand with Us, but we have other plans as well. I hesitate to say that we will bring “similar” speakers to campus only because every individual who speaks on this issue has a slightly varied opinion or experience. It is unlikely, really impossible, that we would bring another speaker to campus that is exactly like Aboubkar to campus.
Do you have further actions planned around the events of tonight?
At the moment, we are planning more speakers and events, but unless necessary we do not have anything further planned concerning Aboubkar’s lecture.
Thanks guys. I really appreciate this. We will be sure to link to the Independent piece in our web version as well.