Hillel Director, Students Defend Tactics at Carter Speech

By Beth Schwartzapfel

Published March 22, 2007, issue of March 23, 2007.
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Pro-Israel critics of former president Jimmy Carter have accused him of avoiding debate over his new book in several recent appearances on campuses across the country. Now, however, one Hillel director and several Jewish students are being accused of attempting to control the microphone during the question-and-answer session following Carter’s talk at George Washington University.

Brian Hennessey, vice president of the Vineeta Foundation, which is making a documentary on Carter, alleged to the Forward that he witnessed G.W. Hillel director Robert Fishman and several Jewish students conspiring to control the Q&A session. According to Hennessey, a handout was distributed with negative questions and then the students strategically grabbed the seats closest to the microphones. Hennessey said that he overheard people in the group saying that the point of their strategy was to make sure that Carter, whose book, “Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid,” faced only tough questions.

In the end, most of the eight questions fielded by Carter at the March 8 event took a pro-Israel tack in challenging the former president. Four of the students read their questions off of the sheet distributed beforehand.

“You know how we did it, honestly?” Fishman, the Hillel director, told the Forward. “We said, ‘Let’s sit near the microphones.’ They each had a copy of the questions, and then they stood on line.”

Hennessey asserted that the maneuver ended up influencing media coverage of the event. “This small group successfully outgunned the microphones and managed to give some journalists this totally erroneous impression that that was how the student body felt about Carter,” he said.

A video of the event, posted to the G.W. Web site, shows that Carter received several standing ovations and long stretches of applause. But an Associated Press story that ran immediately after the event characterized the audience as “polite but mostly critical.”

Jack Stokes, an A.P. spokesman, told the Forward that the article’s description of the audience “was based on [reporter Barry] Schweid’s observation of the speech, as well as the subsequent Q&A Carter engaged in with the students. The A.P. story stands as written.”

The sheet distributed to students listed five questions. Among the issues raised were Carter’s refusal to debate Harvard Law School professor Alan Dershowitz and former U.S. Middle East negotiator Dennis Ross; continuing Palestinian violence in Gaza; Carter’s assertion that Israel did not accept President Clinton’s peace proposal; whether donations from the Saudi royal family explains the failure of the Carter Center to criticize human rights abuses in Saudi Arabia, and Carter’s decision to use the word “apartheid” in his book’s title.

One of the students involved in distributing the handout, Aviva Berman, said that four of the five questions came directly from a list prepared by Deborah Lipstadt and other professors at Emory University, prior to Carter’s appearance at the school’s campus in Atlanta. “When Carter came to speak at Emory, they had those questions made up, so they just forwarded them to me,” she told the Forward.

Hennessey, who described Carter’s book as “very courageous,” contended that the G.W. students “very successfully stood up and blocked anyone else from asking a question.”

Berman insisted that she and her fellow pro-Israel students did nothing wrong. It wasn’t his group’s responsibility “to let other people ask questions,” she said. “If they wanted to get to the microphone quicker, they could have.”

Fishman also rejected the assertion that the students’ tactics were improper.

“There was nothing done in there to stop anyone from asking questions,” Fishman said. “It’s important that, when you have that many people in the room who may not be familiar with the Israeli-Palestinian situation, those people have the opportunity also to hear those areas that are questionable in the book.”

In that sense, Fishman said, his group’s approach “is what dialogue is about.”






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