Forum Features Controversial Speakers

MIT Students in Both Jewish and Muslim Communities Unhappy Over Choice of Speakers

35 americanprogress
Controversial figures Yisroel Dovid Weiss (left) and Mohammad al-Asi (right) greet each other before each giving an address to the crowd.
Christine Moran—The Tech

CORRECTION TO THIS ARTICLE: A statement in the Feb. 27 article “Forum Features Controversial Speakers” was inaccurate. “Issues addressed in the question and answer session included Weiss’s denial of the Holocaust …” should have read “Issues addressed in the question and answer session included whether Weiss had ever denied the Holocaust …”

Rabbi Yisroel Dovid Weiss and Imam Mohammed al-Asi, who both hold anti-Zionistic views concerning the formation of an Islamic state, were asked to speak at the Forum on American Progress last Thursday night, a choice which was viewed as controversial by both the Jewish and Muslim communities at MIT. The forum, titled “Foreign Policy and Social Justice: A Jewish View, A Muslim View,” began with prepared lectures from the two speakers followed by a question and answer session.

According to FAP President Ali S. Wyne ’08, members of the Social Justice Cooperative recruited the lecturers, then solicited the sponsorship of the FAP. The School for Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences co-sponsored the event, which was held in Room 10-250.

Abdulbasier Aziz G from the SJC said, “Both [speakers] had been getting flak from their own religious communities because of their understandings of justice: the Imam for his criticism of Saudi Arabia, and the Rabbi for his criticism of Israel. We wanted to give them a platform especially since they had been so demonized for speaking their mind in good conscience.”

Before the forum, Students for Israel President David E. Stiebel ’09 said, “What people fail to realize is that we [the Jewish community] are so upset, concerned, and insulted, not because of what he [Weiss] will say, but that he has been chosen to represent the ‘Jewish View.’”

Weiss and his sect Neturei Karta are widely publicized for their anti-Zionist sentiments. al-Asi is also anti-Zionist.

Members of the Jewish community distributed pamphlets to forum attendees posing the questions, “Does this man [al-Asi] represent true Islam?/Does this man [Weiss] represent true Judaism?” The presidents of many Jewish campus organizations also advertised a statement in Friday’s edition of The Tech.

Part of the advertisement read, “The organizers chose Weiss without consulting any element of the campus Jewish community. Furthermore, when we [the Jewish community] repeatedly expressed our concerns, all of the sponsors, including the MIT School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences, refused to take measures to rectify the problem.”

Aziz said that before advertising the forum, “We [SJC] made it a point to ask Hillel and MIT Students for Israel for sponsorship, we did speak in person, and agreed to change the title for the event to “ … A Jewish View … ”

The selection of speakers garnered the contempt of some members of the Muslim community as well. Abdulaziz Albahar ’10 said, “I know that some of my Saudi Arabian friends boycotted the event because of the Imam’s [anti-Saudi] views.”

Although the format of the forum was supposed to be two rounds of speeches followed by a question and answer session, the Rabbi’s first speech went over time and the speeches were cut short to one round.

Weiss primarily discussed how he was “against Zionism” and how he believes in “the peaceful dismantling of the Israeli state.”

Stiebel described Weiss’ speech as “disgusting rhetoric.” He said, “It was what I expected: at every chance he [Weiss] got he bashed Israel.”

al-Asi mostly discussed social justice in the lecture part. He said that “the common denominator among religions is justice” and that if the prophets were alive today, “they would be against Zionism and Imperialism.”

Sanusi A. Dantata ’07 said that it seemed as if al-Asi “came to talk about something different from what he said.”

Issues addressed in the question and answer session included Weiss’s denial of the Holocaust, the US and Israel’s involvement in Darfur, and the dismantlement of the state of Israel.

Faizan Ahmed ’08 said the question answer session “wasn’t productive” because the speakers provided “segmented answers and didn’t answer the questions.”

Despite the speakers’ anti-Zionist biases, “some of their theses regarding social justice came through,” said Nadeem Mazen G. “If we judge them by the content of their arguments, we find that they are very well-informed.”

“There’s always an excuse for either side to look past the topic and come up with salient excuses. One side will always boycott. But what’s important is will we continue engaging in dialogue, or will both sides walk away from the table?” Mazen said.

According to Wyne, “Understanding between different religious communities and, to be sure, all types of communities is best achieved through discussion. While we recognize that the Rabbi’s and Imam’s views are highly controversial, we were gratified to see that dozens of individuals stayed inside or right outside of the lecture hall either to converse with one of the two speakers or to talk amongst themselves. It was especially encouraging for us to see Jewish and Muslim students engaging in a post-event dialogue.”

The Dean’s Office for SHASS was unavailable for comment about the event.

MeiHsin Cheng contributed in the reporting of this article.