Defend Free Speech, Not Academic Dishonesty
Ali S. Wyne’s Feb. 27 opinion article, “Defending Free Speech at MIT,” misses the point made by numerous students and alumni who protested the event “Foreign Policy and Social Justice: A Jewish View, A Muslim View.” Mr. Wyne states that “we cannot claim to support free speech if we only invite individuals whose views fall within an acceptable continuum.” While it is true that Dovid Weiss’ views fall far outside the views of any member of the MIT Jewish community — and indeed more than 99 percent of the world’s Jewish population—that is not the reason for opposition to Weiss speaking at the event. The MIT Jewish community so greatly opposed Weiss because he was brought under the guise of presenting a Jewish view, not the skewed, radical view he presented that is condemned by nearly every sect of Judaism worldwide.
At MIT, freedom of speech must be protected and honored, but so must academic honesty. Mr. Weiss most certainly has the right to speak at MIT, but it is wrong and an insult to Jews everywhere to present him as presenting a Jewish view. In fact, it’s not just wrong, it’s simply dishonest. Mr. Wyne writes, “Falsehood is a far better lubricant for our mind’s engines than truth, for it compels us to remain ever vigilant.” This statement embodies the danger Weiss poses. At the event, Jews present knew the falsehoods in what he was saying, but many others in attendance did not. Speaking with other students following the event, it became clear that Weiss had succeeded at imparting his view as a credible Jewish view. It is not the fault of the students for thinking this way, but it is the fault of MIT for sponsoring such a speaker under such a pretense.
There are two simple analogies to bringing Weiss to MIT to present a Jewish view that show where the line between freedom of speech and academic dishonesty is crossed. First, consider the Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan being brought by MIT to speak as a representative of Christian values. Sure, students who know about the KKK know that this is ridiculous, but those who are not informed may very well be fooled. Secondly, consider a suicide bomber being brought to represent mainstream Islam. Many students at MIT are unfamiliar with Islam and could easily be fooled by his rhetoric, no matter how out of line it is with the real mainstream Islamic views. This is how the Jewish community felt when Weiss was brought to speak at MIT as a representative of Judaism. It was an insult and MIT, specifically the School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences, should be ashamed to have sponsored such an event.
Responses to Controversial Forum Are Misleading
While I am gratified to see that last month’s forum, “Foreign Policy and Social Justice: A Jewish View, A Muslim View,” has elicited such vigorous discussion and debate, I feel compelled to respond to several items that have appeared in the past three issues of The Tech:
1. Rabbi Weiss does not deny the Holocaust. His grandparents perished in Auschwitz, as did many of his aunts and uncles. While The Tech noted this fact in the “Corrections” section of its March 2 issue, I am disappointed that the author of the news story in question, “Forum Features Controversial Speakers,” did not exercise greater care with her language.
2. While the rabbi’s views on the Holocaust and the Arab-Israeli conflict are diametrically opposed to those of mainstream Jews, they do represent a Jewish view. The “Institute Wisdom Watch” section of The Tech’s Feb. 27 issue discounted this fact.
3. No members of the Forum on American Progress (FAP) were involved with the selection of the speakers. It was not until after the speakers and the event date had been finalized that FAP’s Executive Board was approached. Furthermore, the School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences (SHASS) was not approached until after FAP had become a co-sponsor, meaning that no member of SHASS played a role in selecting Rabbi Weiss or Imam al-Asi to visit MIT. Clarifying this chronology is not an attempt to attribute greater or less responsibility to any of the involved parties, but rather, an attempt to present crucial context.
4. The event organizers and co-sponsors did seek the opinions of Jewish, Muslim, and Christian student groups before the forum took place, contrary to the paid advertisement that appeared in the Feb. 23 issue of The Tech (“Dishonest Portrayal Undermines Dialogue”). Several members of the Jewish community were particularly vocal in airing their concerns about last Thursday’s forum. In response, the event’s title was changed, and it was agreed that the rabbi would be introduced in a manner that illuminates the rarity of his viewpoints. He was never branded as an “ambassador of the Jewish faith.” Furthermore, we offered (and continue to offer) to co-sponsor events that feature more mainstream religious figures; encouraged (and continue to encourage) the publication of their advertisements, letters, opinion pieces, and petitions in The Tech; and otherwise invited (and continue to invite) them to join us in nurturing interfaith and political dialogue at MIT.
5. The co-sponsors’ sole motivation was to facilitate vigorous discussion of an important set of issues. FAP and SHASS did not co-sponsor Rabbi Weiss or Imam al-Asi because we espouse their viewpoints. Indeed, I fiercely disagree with most of their arguments: Rabbi Weiss’s wish to see Israel dismantled and Imam al-Asi’s crude anti-Semitism are alarming. The imam’s sentiments, in particular, should disturb everyone at MIT. Sadly, anti-Semitism is a real phenomenon the world over, and we can understand it by confronting it directly; this forum offered MIT students precisely this opportunity. I am not in a position to assess the motivations of the Social Justice Cooperative, which approached and confirmed the appearance of the rabbi and imam.
6. At the beginning of their Feb. 27 letter to the editor, several MIT alumni claim that the event organizers and co-sponsors “abused their academic right to free speech to spread horrible lies.” They repeat this argument near the end, saying that we “abuse[d] [our] freedom of speech to spread serious misunderstandings to the broader community.” These strident accusations recall perhaps the most fundamental value of educational institutions: Everyone is entitled to free speech. Event organizers and co-sponsors should never have to defend this proposition. One cannot properly form one’s own opinions if one is not permitted to objectively appraise arguments in support of and in opposition to a given stance. It is the most radical and trying views that help us to challenge and mold our own belief systems.
Indeed, as MIT students, we have chosen to learn in one of the world’s most rigorous academic environments to grow and test ourselves as greatly as possible.
Vice-President of Forum on American Progress