Adozen men wearing black suits and secret service earpieces loitered next to the front door of a New York University lecture hall. A pack of gum with Hebrew lettering on it lay on a desktop next to a camcorder stand.
Clearly there was something out of the ordinary going on in Professor Caroleen Marji’s International Politics of the Middle East class.
Nonetheless, the 45 or so undergrads enrolled in the seminar seemed taken aback when, in their professor’s place, Israeli vice premier Shimon Peres strode up to the lectern last Thursday with an MTV microphone clipped to his lapel.
By consenting to appear on the MTV show “Stand-In,” Peres has joined an august list of celebrities-turned-surprise-substitute-professor. Goth-rocker Marilyn Manson appeared on the show to teach a philosophy class, country singer Ashley Judd did a lesson on HIV awareness, hip-hop artist Snoop Dogg coached the University of South Carolina’s football team for a day and Senator John McCain lectured Naval Academy cadets on military policy.
“I was so surprised that I had tears in my eyes,” said Sharon Gilon, an NYU junior born in Israel and raised in Massachusetts. She described Peres as “kind of a celebrity.”
Peres spoke with optimism about Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza. “This is the first time the Palestinian people have ever had a piece of land to govern themselves,” he said.
In response to questions from students about Israel’s separation fence, the Nobel Peace Prize-winner compared the barrier between Israel and Palestine to the Berlin Wall.
“When the Cold War ended, the Berlin Wall came down,” he said. “When the peace is warm between Israel and Palestine, we will take down the wall.”
Though many of the students called on by Peres were critical of Israeli military policies, the discussion proceeded without incident.
After the 82-year-old statesman and his guards shuffled their way out of the crowded hall, Marji returned to her place at the front of the class. A hive of students gathered around her to dissect the various points established in the previous hour’s made-for-television discussion.
“He always sticks to that old modern idea of the East and West being separate,” said teaching assistant Ayda Erbal, a doctoral candidate from Istanbul.
“People don’t talk enough about the divisions within Israel,” Marji said. “I would have asked about those ideological polarizations.”
In the interest of equal time, the show has asked Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas to appear. And according to one MTV executive, “He’s definitely considering it.”