The Phoenix’s Coverage of Hussein Aboubakr Event

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.

A Reaction to Hussein Aboubakr Event

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.

Sincerely,

The Swarthmore Students for Israel

The Straw Man: A Politics of Sound and Fury

This article originally appeared in the Fall 2014 print issue of the Swarthmore Independent.

By Philip Decker

One of the most banal pronouncements in contemporary political discourse is the need for a “conversation.” We are told that we need a “conversation” about immigration, economics, race, gun control, and innumerable other issues. Similarly tiresome is the critique of “polarization” and “excessive partisanship,” by which it is usually meant that the two parties disagree on major policy questions and are unlikely to change their positions without exacting concessions in return. It is often the case that those who call for “conversations” also seek complete surrender from their opponents. The word “conversation” might be better termed “monologue”—a declamation with little regard for the response. If we are to break free of political gridlock, we must resolve this contradiction.

Part of the political game has always been to pretend to make concessions, and to position the opposing party as “extreme” because it does not offer concessions of its own. Although this is a dishonest approach to politics, it is attractive because it bestows on the user a feeling of intellectual or moral superiority without the cumbersome task of facing an opponent’s argument. Politicians mold a narrative for voters in which they are tireless negotiators who make reasonable overtures to the other side, only to be rebuked by “obstructionists,” “radicals” and, naturally, “extremists.” It is a specific tactic to bill oneself as diplomatic by calling for a conversation, then demanding that the other side accept in full one’s own worldview, knowing well that it will not. Those who behave this way are not demonstrating ideological purity but intransigence. They engage the weakest expressions of their opponents’ positions—sometimes straying from any reference to those positions at all—and in so doing create a line of straw men to be shot at and ridiculed. These politicians regress from logic into a vituperative stalemate, reciting self-aggrandizing platitudes instead of argument. In essence, our political system is plagued by intellectual laziness.

The individual politician sees many advantages in the straw man technique. Straw men offer great rhetorical material; they are usually realistic enough to pass as an actual stance but exaggerated enough to be mocked. If he or she is a skilled peddler, the politician can convince a low-information voter that the other side’s ideas consist of straw men. Effective as such posturing is for people seeking election or reelection, it is a grossly parasitic and unproductive feature of our body politic. Legitimate debates are subsumed to finger-pointing and self-righteous accusation, sophisticated views to a set of crude caricatures, and much-championed “conversations” to ideological catfights.

There are many examples to choose from, but the most vivid ones relate to President Obama’s various statements on the campaign trail. The futility of the straw man approach to politics will be amply displayed.

In 2011, the president proposed a set of new environmental regulations and had recently overseen the passage of the Affordable Care Act. Republicans objected to regulations on the grounds that a larger regulatory state would stifle growth and limit the expansion of business in an already poor economy. They protested the Affordable Care Act on the grounds that the law would cause millions to lose their health insurance and would raise premiums, among other concerns (in hindsight, we know that these predictions about the health law ultimately came true).

Yet President Obama seldom contested the conservative counter-arguments in any meaningful way. In October 2011, he made the following remark at a campaign event: “My plan says we’re going to put teachers back in the classroom, construction workers back to work rebuilding America, rebuilding our schools. That’s my plan. Then you’ve got their [Republican] plan, which is, let’s have dirtier air, dirtier water, less people with health insurance. So far at least, I feel better about my plan.” The president twisted sensible objections to his ideas—to the extent that he even noticed them at all—into evidence of the right’s callousness, punching into empty air. He accomplished nothing but producing a vitriolic sound bite.

The right is not exempt from this kind of behavior either. During his campaign for reelection, President Obama frequently discussed the role of government investment in facilitating economic expansion. He argued that the use of public funds to build or improve roads, bridges, and other works allows private business to expand. This point is neither controversial nor new:  it was the position of Henry Clay in the early nineteenth century, who advocated for “internal improvements,” or publicly funded infrastructure projects to stimulate agricultural markets.

Yet President Obama’s infelicitous phrase from July 2012, “You didn’t build that,” which in context referred to the fact that private businesses do not build public infrastructure, was swiftly converted into a straw man. Republicans seized on the sentence and billed it as a proclamation that individual entrepreneurs owe their entire success to government. While I agree wholeheartedly with Republican objections to President Obama’s policies, there is no long-term benefit in distorting a badly-worded statement to confirm accusations. It panders to the conservative base and makes for a few decent campaign ads, but all it does in the greater scheme of American politics is perpetuate intellectual lethargy. Instead of providing a cogent argument for why infrastructure spending is an inferior stimulant to tax cuts or loosening of regulation, Republicans took the easy route and turned a reasonable assertion into an emblem of Obama’s affinity for big government. A poor choice indeed—there is other, better proof for this.

The reasons for the use of this political tactic are understandable. It requires self-discipline and courage to properly engage an opponent’s argument, because one runs the risk of being outmatched. Losing debates is bad publicity; having an ideology dissected is even worse publicity.  It is not in the interest of politicians’ careers to step on stage and be exposed as wrong. It is much simpler to slip into an ideological echo-chamber.

But—as we have seen over the past years—this is the road to stagnation and decline. Sociopolitical blindness has existed as long as there have been politics, but what distinguishes our era from others in recent history is that few prominent figures in government have resisted the temptation that lies in the straw man. Economic and social reform rarely occurs when both sides’ arguments are skirted, changed, or flatly ignored. If we are to have an honest “conversation” in this country, we must move past the impulse to view our respective ideologies as inviolable absolutes. It is hard, but it has been done before and can be done again.

There is nothing wrong with having a philosophy or specific worldview. But to maintain a healthy political culture, these must be presented clearly and must be able to withstand disagreeable scrutiny. If you believe something deeply, you should be able to defend it.