The Middle East Institute’s Web site claims that it “provides a neutral atmosphere for scholarly and student exchanges of views on issues concerning the Middle East,” but one only needs to attend a handful of its events to observe its true nature. MEI provides a platform for speakers to spread inaccurate “facts” and skewed characterizations of Israel. MEI has hosted nearly 30 events at Columbia this past semester, and almost every event that discussed Israel was void of this promised “neutral atmosphere.”
A recent MEI event featured Israeli journalist Amira Hass. The event, titled “Goldstone’s Mistake,” implied a critique of the Goldstone Report, a controversial U.N. investigation into Israel’s alleged war crimes in the Gaza Strip during Operation Cast Lead at the end of 2008. As Hass is best known for her strong criticism of Israel, exaggerated numbers, and a complete disregard of testimonial discrepancies, the title of the event caught many students by surprise.
Hass attempted to apologize for the misleading title of her speech, explaining that she wanted an eye-catching title. Only five minutes into her event, though, she had already exposed herself as misleading and untrustworthy. Hass argued, “I’m not biased. Here I examine the two sides. No one agrees more than me that we need to criticize Hamas and the Palestinian side… However, it is two different-sized yardsticks with which we need to criticize both sides.”
This outlook on the conflict is the very definition of bias, and it is unfortunately shared by many of MEI’s speakers. Rather than letting the facts speak for themselves, Hass attempted to skew and simplify the Operation Cast Lead in a disturbing fashion. Hass stressed that, much like Y2K and swine flu, the rockets launched from Gaza were “meant to instill fear and confusion behind enemy lines… but without any military effect.” Hass’ accusations are not only incorrect but also extremely dangerous to make in front of an audience likely to accept her words as fact. Eight years of Palestinian rocket attacks have caused over 19 Israeli deaths and thousands of injuries; randomly fired into Israeli cities without any military presence, the rockets have often landed on civilian infrastructure, including kindergartens, religious buildings, and private homes. I urge Hass, along with all those who blindly promote her message, to visit Dr. Mirela Siderer, an Israeli physician who was brutally disfigured when a rocket landed in her Ashkelon medical clinic, and to try to figure out why a rocket that was intended merely to “instill fear” has changed her life forever.
Amira Hass’ blatant disregard for objectivity continued as she told a story about a note that was found in a Gaza house where Israeli soldiers had taken refuge for the night. Hass stated that on this paper, she found the peculiar Hebrew phrase, “Hachla’at Batim,” which she interpreted to mean “defecating houses.” She then explained that the note must have been an order from a general to his soldiers to dirty Palestinian homes with fecal matter and garbage. It does not take much to debunk this offensive and baseless accusation, and in fact, one needs only a Hebrew dictionary to do so. Not only does this phrase have no logical or syntactical meaning, whether in its slang or proper form, but even those with the simplest of knowledge of the law enforced within the IDF know that this is extremely backwards. Strict military law forbids Israeli soldiers from even sleeping on Palestinian mattresses, let alone “dirtying” them.
Rather than being the exception, the Amira Hass event hosted by the Middle East Institute is representative of a greater trend. Until now, few have challenged the MEI and the speakers it brings in, and because of this, it is disturbing to consider the number of minds that have been molded by speakers with one-sided agendas. The MEI often invites Israeli journalists and historians to speak in an attempt to appear even-handed. However, it is these guests who are often the most biased against Israel. Every group and institution at Columbia has the right to bring in whomever they want, regardless of their views, but it is when these biased speakers wave a false flag of neutrality that we must speak up.
The author is a senior in the School of Engineering and Applied Science. He is the Legacy Heritage CAMERA Campus Fellow for Columbia University.