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Nonie Darwish didn't speak at Brown University last week. She should have, after having been invited a few weeks earlier by the Hillel chapter of Brown to give a talk at the Ivy League school on November 30. But after coming under pressure from members of the school's administration and its Muslim student organization, Brown-Hillel rescinded the invitation. Then, in the latest twist to the story, Hillel again backtracked and re-invited Darwish for a later date.
It's too bad that Brown students haven't yet had the opportunity to hear Darwish. I say this as someone who both knows Nonie personally and arranged a speaking engagement for her in Jerusalem last summer on behalf of The Israel Project.
Nonie has an incredible story to tell, and only when one knows that story does it become clear that the episode at Brown says something very disturbing about the state of things at one of America's finest universities, and presumably many other campuses as well.
Nonie was born in Egypt and raised in the 1950s in the Gaza Strip, where her father, Col. Mustafa Hafez, was an army intelligence officer assigned to oversee the fedayeen - the Palestinian terror cells that struck frequently at Israeli civilians across the border. In 1955 Hafez was killed by an Israeli bomb, and Nonie and her family returned to Egypt, where she was taught to hate the Israelis who had killed her revered shahid (martyr) father.
As Nonie grew up though, witnessing religious prejudice against Coptic and Jewish Egyptian friends, and the oppressive attitudes toward women in her society (including her widowed mother), she began to question some of the values on which she was being raised.
AFTER MOVING to the US as a young woman, she came to appreciate and love the freedom and tolerance of her new country. Later on, after a family member was treated in a Jerusalem hospital in the 1990s, she visited Israel and was impressed by the warmth and respect she and her family were accorded by Israeli physicians and nurses.
After the 9/11 attacks, Nonie began to publicly condemn the radical Muslim hatred fueling terrorist violence directed at both the US and Israel, and authored the recently published book Now They Call Me Infidel: Why I Renounced Jihad for America, Israel, and the War on Terror. She joined the growing ranks of Muslim-born individuals - many of them not coincidentally women, including Irshad Manji, Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Wafa Sultan - speaking out against Islamic extremism at significant personal risk. Given her family background, Nonie's personal journey is in particular a real profile in courage.
THE LATTER quality, alas, seems to have been conspicuously missing at Brown. When Darwish was initially invited to the Rhode Island school, the university's Muslim chaplain, Rumee Ahmed, claimed that she had made anti-Islam comments, and her presence on campus would be a provocation to his congregation. His stance was supported by Brown Head Chaplain Rev. Janet Cooper Nelson, who ironically only last month lent her support to a "Palestinian Solidarity Week" event on campus that featured a bevy of anti-Israel speakers.
Hillel student president Yael Richardson said Cooper Nelson told the Hillel board "to think about the implications of what this would do with our religious communities on campus. She encouraged us to think carefully about whether we wanted to fund the event."
The Hillel board reacted by canceling out on Darwish. "Did the Muslim Students Association and the administration exert some influence? Yes," said Brown-Hillel director Serena Eisenberg. "Did our board cave? No. They made a thoughtful decision about constructive dialogue and about moving forward."
No they didn't. Any proper review of Nonie's work and statements would have clearly shown that while she is rightly critical of Muslim extremism, she is very careful not to attack the core of Islam itself.
Never have I heard such words from her; indeed, in contrast, I have several times heard her refer to "the beautiful religion of Islam which has been perverted by those who use it to justify terror."
Having also gotten to know members of Nonie's family, I can attest that this is not PC lip-service, as she clearly took pains to raise her own children in a spirit of tolerance and open-mindedness to all faiths.
Presumably, the university and Brown-Hillel board discovered just that when they got beyond their knee-jerk reaction and later re-invited Darwish. Still, it's troubling to read the original statement of Brown-Hillel Board of Trustees president Fred Horowitz: "Although I would enjoy hearing Darwish speak at Brown, or anywhere, we must remember that Brown-Hillel is not anywhere. Our student leadership has built a unique relationship with the Brown Muslim community. Some of us may perceive it as nai ve, but that urge to break the mold of Jewish-Muslim dialogue is what makes Brown-Hillel unique."
Naive? I'd call it delusional and disheartening. What kind of "relationship" is it when criticism can only go one way, when true debate is stifled, when university officials see no hypocrisy in blessing a Palestinian Solidarity Week designed to condemn the Jewish state while acting to silence a Nonie Darwish? What kind of "dialogue" is it when Hillel cannot stand up for someone who is standing up for Israel at the risk of their own well-being?
I'm glad Nonie will finally get her day at Brown, but that is not enough. What I'd like to see next is for the national leadership of Hillel to invite her to a speaking tour at Hillel chapters on campuses across the US.
Yes, it's likely that, as happened at Brown, objections will be raised at some of them, and Hillel members will have to contend with opposition from both administrators and fellow students. In that case, I can at least assure them of one thing: What Nonie has to say is worth listening to - and worth fighting for.
The writer is director of The Israel Project's Jerusalem Media Resource Center.
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