The Shame of Mary Robinson

In yet another display of the unfortunate double standard plaguing the current debate on the Middle East, former U.N. Human Rights Commissioner Mary Robinson spoke last night at the Institute of Politics after little pre-event fanfare and in total security. After a typically cordial introduction that emphasized her achievements as president of Ireland, Robinson delivered an uncontroversial speech entitled “Making Human Rights Matter: Eleanor Roosevelt’s Time Has Come.” It was a far cry from an earlier event that focused on Robinson’s leadership.

For those who don’t remember, Robinson presided over last summer’s infamous U.N. Conference on Racism in Durban, South Africa, which the American and Israeli delegations left in protest after it turned into the “U.N. Conference on How Much We Hate Israel.” It was a conference dominated by virulent, unrelenting anti-Semitism—not to be confused with anti-Zionism—replete with sales of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion taking place just outside the meeting halls. Ubiquitous flyers enthusiastically wondered, “What if Hitler Had Won?” The Arab Lawyers’ Union distributed books of cartoons featuring hook-nosed Jews. The conference itself was hardly better. Did you know that virtually all the world’s racism and intolerance is perpetuated in a country of six million with an area significantly smaller than Maine? That would have been the obvious conclusion for anyone who read the program and listened to the delegates.

That she presided over this did not matter, of course, when Robinson spoke last night. Her appearance at the Institute of Politics will go unnoticed by an overwhelming majority of Harvard students and the local media.

All of this stands in stark contrast to the furor generated in the last few weeks by those who seek to provide for an unbiased, respectful debate on the conflict in the Middle East. Two weeks ago, University President Lawrence H. Summers’ comments about acts that are “anti-Semitic in their effect if not in their intent” were met by some with the kind of outrage that might greet a Supreme Court which voted to nullify the First Amendment.

To be fair, Summers’ critics have a point, however small it may be. The connection between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism can be a problematic one. Keeping surveillance on professors and course content can evoke uneasy thoughts of censorship. Nevertheless, the debate over the Middle East conflict and free speech has been distorted to an absurd, grotesque level.

According to Summers’ critics, campuses should be a place for ideas and arguments to be exchanged freely. This message has been directed disproportionately at Summers. It should really go to those at Montreal’s Concordia University, whose riot on Sept. 9 ultimately got a speech by former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu canceled. Highlights included smashed windows, physical attacks on yarmulke-wearing speech attendees and the detainment of just five of the 1,000 “demonstrators.”

If professors and others are really so concerned about having an open, unconstrained debate on the Middle East, where was the moral outrage at Concordia University for letting such an important political figure be violently silenced? Short of outrage, where was the press coverage? The riot in Montreal merited exactly one brief mention in the New York Times, which referred to it as a “fracas” in the last line of an article about professors who have unified in opposition to a website which seeks to identify anti-Israel bias on college campuses.

Where was the outrage last spring, when pro-Palestinian “protesters” screamed “Hitler did not finish the job” at a much smaller group of San Francisco State University students attending a rally in support of Israel? When University of Manchester Professor Mona Baker fired three Israeli scholars from her “intercultural studies” journal solely on the grounds that they are Israeli, where were all the professors who are so consumed with protecting academic freedom?

Summers gave a thoughtful speech in a church and incited an uproar. An entirely fact-based website was created to fight bias, and professors united to battle the scourge of censorship. Yet, when physical violence and direct acts of censorship are used in the opposite direction, few seem to have a problem. It’s a double standard that should horrify everyone.

Of course, the solution last night was not to violently target Robinson’s speech, however controversial her role at Durban may have been. Free speech is vital everywhere, nowhere more so than at universities. Unfortunately, those who protest rational, measured contributions on one side but overlook violent tactics on the other have become tools of the censorship and restricted academic liberties they supposedly argue against. In this instance, free speech prevailed, and Robinson was able to convincingly distance herself from the chaos at Durban and highlight her achievements as high commissioner. Just as important as her condemnation of all forms of intolerance—anti-Semitism included—Robinson was given the chance to be publicly heard. Exchanging and considering opposing ideas is supposed to be the hallmark of higher education, and it is also what will ultimately lead to a lasting peace in the Middle East.

Nathan K. Burstein ’04, a Crimson editor, is a history concentrator in Leverett House. He is a member of the Harvard Students for Israel.