Tal Becker, peace negotiator for Israel and senior fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute, spoke at Occidental College in Choi Auditorium at 2:30 p.m. April 24 as the college’s 2018 Jack Kemp ’57 Distinguished Lecturer. Following President Jonathan Veitch’s introduction, Becker spoke on identity, justice and religion in relation to Jewish discourse surrounding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Fifteen minutes into the talk, seven Jewish Student Union (JSU) members stood at their back-row seats and displayed two posters that read “not our Jewish discourse” and “Oxy Jews against the occupation” in silent protest.
Becker opened his talk by explaining that he sees the conflict as more complex than merely Israel versus Palestine. He said his perspective is based on thousands of hours of negotiation.
“I live in the complexity of this conflict so much that the best I can give you is a window into my own experience,” Becker said.
Throughout his talk, he reiterated that the sense of victimhood characterizing both sides is destructive and not conducive to peaceful negotiation. He said that each side feeling like the victim only serves to validate their mutual sense of injustice.
“These are negotiations between two traumatized people,” Becker said.
Sophia Kauffman, an executive board member of JSU, was present for the beginning of Becker’s talk and participated in the protest. She and the other JSU members held up the posters for two minutes as Becker continued his lecture, then immediately departed from Choi Auditorium. They then taped the posters to the pillars in front of Choi Auditorium, visible to anyone exiting the venue.
Although Kauffman was not present for Becker’s entire talk, she said Becker’s equation of Israelis with Jews is in direct conflict with JSU’s position.
“He continually equated Israelis with Jews and talked about Jews versus Palestinians, like Jewish identity versus Palestinian identity, and we just really wanted to speak against that and make it known that he doesn’t speak for us,” Kauffman said. “The Israeli narrative and the Israeli discourse isn’t ours. It isn’t what we agree with. A state and a nation that occupies other people doesn’t speak to our Judaism and our Jewish values.”
Signs alongside the posters taped to pillars near the entrance to Choi Auditorium articulated JSU’s stance.
“We are here in opposition to the Jack Kemp Memorial Distinguished Lecturer, Tal Becker. We feel that he seeks to legitimize violence against Palestinians and silence members of the Jewish community. His work aims to erase diverse Jewish narratives in an effort gain [sic] political support without addressing the occupation in Palestine,” JSU’s statement read.
History professor Michael Gasper sent an email to Veitch April 23, expressing disapproval* of the college’s invitation to Becker. 36 other faculty members co-signed the letter.
“We find it unfortunate and even a bit troubling that Occidental College has invited another non-scholar to give a public lecture on a topic where think-tank driven advocacy and propaganda too often takes the place of considered exchange and debate,” the faculty members’ statement read. “Indeed, the invitee’s primary vocation since the late 1990s has been to serve as an advocate for the Israeli government in a legal capacity and in the area of public diplomacy.”
Montag said that the selection of Becker was inappropriate given recent conflict taking place in the Gaza Strip.
“The timing and the announcement of the speaker happens to coincide with what is going on at the border of Gaza in Israel, and there is outrage, and very much in the Jewish community, about the killing of unarmed demonstrators,” Montag said.
Montag also said that the selection of Becker to speak was probably a response to objections to the invitation of Steven Salaita, former Edward W. Said Chair of American Studies at the American University of Beirut, to speak earlier in the semester.
“I think it is a kind of response [to Salaita] but it is a completely sad and pathetic response which can’t lead to dialogue,” Montag said. “Salaita has scholarly work and if they disagree with it, they should get someone who’s a scholar who can debate that thesis, not this PR thing. It’s absurd.”
Gasper said he was not aware if there was a selection committee for the speaker or if faculty was involved in the selection process, and that he wished the process was more transparent.
“It’s a kind of vanity project for our president. He wants to bring what he considers conservative speakers on campus, which I’m all for, I just wish they would actually bring scholars and not PR people,” Gasper said.
Members of Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) and the Occidental Alliance of White Anti-Racists Everywhere (Oxy-AWARE) distributed copies of Gasper’s email in front of Choi Auditorium following Becker’s talk.
Matthew Reagan contributed reporting for this article.
* This email was published as a letter to the editor in The Occidental April 24.
This article will be updated throughout the week as new information becomes available.