Speaker triggers controversy

Ra’anan Gissin, Foreign Press and Public Affairs Advisor to Israel’s Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, spoke to students at UM’s Storer Auditorium on Wednesday, Oct. 30, as part of the Caravan for Democracy, a lecture series that is a collaboration of Media Watch International, Hamagshimim and the Jewish National Fund.

Student organizations protested Gissin’s presence at the University as they felt he played a part in the Israeli government’s closing of Birzeit University in Israel.

“We just want to keep everyone safe,” said Capt. Russell A Clusman, assistant director of public safety. “We were told that Islamic and Arab students as well as Israeli and Jewish students were planning protests,” Clusman said. “We tried to accommodate the protestors as best we could given the circumstances.”

According to public safety, several groups followed UM policy and provided 24 hours advance notice for the right to protest the event and were allotted designated areas for protesting. Among the groups present were Muslim organizations CAIR [Council on American-Islamic Relations] and the March For Justice as well as Jewish anti-Zionist groups.

Amir Zaher, president of the OASIS [Organization of Arab Students Instituting Solidarity of UM] issued a statement to the public which read:

“I would like to extend an olive branch to you and all the people of Israel hoping that one day peace will be achieved, not for the good of Israelis or Palestinians, but for the sake of humanity.”

Organizers supported the peaceful protests but said that interruptions during the speech would not be tolerated.

“I’m all for protests – everyone has the right to their opinions,” Marc Rabinowitz, Caravan for Democracy Student Leader, said.

Some groups were reported as traveling from as far as Orlando to protest.

“We’re here because we feel that, despite the fact that UM has an open door policy, it is an affront to academic freedom to invite this speaker,” Saif Ishoof said.

“As an academic institution, we should stand in academic solidarity with other academic institutions throughout the world and country,” said Minal Ahson, president of ISUM.

“We want to protest this presentation because of the one-sidedness of the event and that only one school of thought is being heard,” Ahson said.

“A lot of media focuses on certain issues more than others. This leads to severe media bias,” Rabinowitz said. “We are only one side of the issue. We have been told that other organizations, including OASIS released, are planning on bringing pro-Palestinian speakers to campus.”

“These issues are an ongoing concern,” Rabinowitz said. “They are getting a lot of recognition – we are aiming to encourage peace.”

“We’re trying to promote dialogue and give students opportunities to make their own decisions,” he said. “Lots of college kids walk around not knowing what is going on in the world,” Rabinowitz said. “We try to lay it out for them so they can make educated decisions.”

“The event was about providing a unique opportunity of having a dialogue with an Israeli official from the Middle East,” said Tara Harned, Caravan for Democracy campus coordinator.

According to organizers, the goal of Caravan is to encourage discussion on campuses about the Mid-East crisis and the struggles Israel faces being the only democracy in the Middle East. Caravan aims to bring speakers with a variety of political and philosophical backgrounds from Israel to college campuses throughout the country.

“Most people only see what is on television, and this is an attempt to spark their interest so that they might seek out the information regarding the real situation,” said Dove Wilker, Caravan for Democracy intern.

According to the Caravan for Democracy press release, it is imperative that students in the United States understand the bond between the U.S. and Israel in that both countries are based on freedom and democracy and that both face continuous threats of terrorism.

“The event is about the shared democratic values between the United States and Israel,” Wilker said. “We want people to understand the connections between America and Israel and to begin self-education.”

The program was coordinated by Greater Miami Hillel, the UM Judaic Studies Program, the Sue and Leonard Miller Center for Contemporary Judaic Studies and the FIU Judaic and Middle Eastern Studies Department.

Two students from UM, Marc Rabinowitz and Dove Wilker, were selected by Caravan for Democracy to be student leaders in coordinating the event and implementing it on campus.

During the press conference, Gissin spoke about the shared values of freedom and democracy that connects Israel and the U.S. as well as the challenges that Israel faces being the only democracy in the Middle East and how the war with Iraq is affecting Israel and the rest of the Middle East.

“Israel is a peace-seeking country,” Gissin said. “We are fighting for the way of life of a democracy.”

“Just like the U.S. had Ground Zero on 9/11, we have Ground Zero, but one stage at a time, one story at a time,” Gissin said. “Every week we have a Ground Zero event.”

According to Gissin, 450 deaths in Israel would be equivalent to 36,000 killed in the U.S.

Some claim that Israel’s government issues can at times be sensationalized and presented in a biased manner.

Prior to Gissin’s speech, various news sources were reporting the collapse of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s national unity coalition. According to reports, the collapse was caused by the resignation of Labor Party ministers.

“The government is always changing,” Rabinowitz, said. “It gets kind of crazy because they have so many political parties.”

The audience at the lecture was under tight security. Attendees had to RSVP in advance and provide their name, address, email address, university or college and year in school, as well as how they heard about the lecture and whether they had ever been to Israel. They also had to present their valid student I.D. and have their bags searched.

UM public safety worked in conjunction with the Coral Gables Police Department to provide security for all attendants.

Gissin had four bodyguards with him at all times and other security personnel were present throughout the event.