Because I have a long and complicated history with Temple University (in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania), I have closely followed the story of the backlash against Temple Professor Marc Lamont Hill for the speech he delivered at the United Nations ‘International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People’.
I’ve never met Dr Hill, but I have read his speech and was moved by his careful cataloguing of the violations of human rights endured by Palestinians and his passionate embrace of justice and equality for all who live “between the river and the sea” in the land of Israel/Palestine.
Because, in my work, I have experienced much the same hostility, it didn’t surprise me that his appeal for justice and his efforts to humanise the Palestinian experience would rankle hardline supporters of Israel. Nor did it surprise me that some would deliberately distort the meaning of his words and claim that he was threatening the very existence of the Israeli people.
Dr Hill was denounced as an “Israel-hating, anti-Semite”. His speech was termed “malicious”, “ignorant”, and “an incitement to violence”. That much I expected. But what confounded and irked me were the reactions of some American Jews who said that they found his words “threatening”.
I was surprised that CNN acted as precipitously as they did in firing Dr Hill as a network commentator. I was also troubled by the denunciations that came from the Chair of Temple University’s Board of Trustees who termed Dr Hill’s remarks “hate speech” and the university’s president who said that he would explore the possibility of terminating Hill’s contract.
I am proud that in reaction to this uproar, Dr Hill has remained firm and received the support of many of his colleagues. In a beautifully written response to the attacks, he made clear his absolute rejection of anti-Semitism, reaffirmed his criticism of Israeli policies and his commitment to Palestinian rights, and apologised for words in his speech that may have served as “a dangerous and harmful distraction from my political analysis”.
Five decades ago, as a doctoral candidate in Temple University’s Department of Religion, I experienced some of the same intolerance and threats – but, in my case, without the protection of tenure.
Once while I was speaking at a campus Vietnam anti-war rally, someone shouted out “Why are they letting the Arab speak?” Shortly thereafter, I received a note at my apartment that began “Arab dog, you will die if you set foot on campus again”. I brought the letter to the attention of the administration and the campus police and was disturbed that my concerns were shrugged off as “boys will be boys”. A few days later, a group of shouting Jewish Defence League activists attempted to storm the classroom where I was teaching. I was blessed that a group of four African American students who were taking my class rose to my defence and confronted the demonstrators, who beat a hasty retreat.
These events were threatening. But troubling in a different way was what happened in 1971 after a series of articles I had written appeared in Philadelphia’s African American newspaper The Philadelphia Tribune.
I was pleased with the initial reaction to the articles from the Tribune’s readers, but was stunned a few weeks later when my academic department’s director of graduate studies published a letter in the Tribune, denouncing my work and, using bizarrely intemperate language, described me as a “neo-Bolshevik, neo-Nazi, anti-Semite”.
Given this personal history, I feel that I indeed have some understanding of what Dr Hill might have experienced when he was attacked and not defended by the administration of his own university. Someday, Temple University will recognise the prophetic words of Dr Hill and they will be embarrassed that they did not come to his defence. They will realise that he was right and courageous to speak out in support of human rights and to call for equality for all people – Palestinians and Israelis – who live “between the river and the sea”. I hope this recognition and their apology doesn’t take three decades. He deserves it now.