Plotzing in New Paltz

Israel Sparks Fresh Controversy for a SUNY Women’s Studies Conference

In the land of academe, what makes administrators more squeamish than a women's sexuality conference where dildos, anal beads, and s/m tools are openly displayed and discussed? One thing only: criticism of Israel.

That, at least, is the conclusion drawn by organizers of an October 19 conference at SUNY-New Paltz—"Women and War, Peace and Revolution"—whose keynote panel features Dr. Ruchama Marton, the president of Israel's Physicians for Human Rights, and Nadia Hijab, a Palestinian writer and consultant who authored Womanpower: The Arab Debate on Women at Work and Citizens Apart: A Portrait of Palestinians in Israel. For the first time in more than 15 years, the college administration has denied funding to the annual women's studies conference, asserting that it would not serve "the best interests of the university." Though SUNY-New Paltz has not experienced the dueling campus activism of pro-Palestine and pro-Israel students that erupted at colleges all over the country last year, conference organizers are finding that to take on the topic at all these days is to enter a fractious, mine-studded territory.

In 1997, New Paltz's women's studies conference—that year bearing the theme "The Challenges of Women's Sexual Freedom"—drew heat from SUNY trustee Candace de Russy and tabloid editorialists for including sessions on s/m and sex toys among its 25 panels. De Russy, an ardent conservative and longtime anti-tax activist, seized on the event to launch a highly publicized assault on the university's "misuse" of the state coffers.

Five years later—during which SUNY has suffered steady cuts in government funding—women's studies finds itself in the crosshairs again. This time, though, critics are taking aim at the event before it even happens—and on the basis of a three-paragraph description of one of its participants.

Retired professor Sheila Schwartz volunteered for this year's conference planning committee, then resigned in protest, objecting to Ruchama Marton's inclusion after reading a short bio of the Israeli psychiatrist. It described Marton as devoting three decades of activism to "exposing, analyzing and challenging the systematic and individual acts and policies of Israeli repression toward Palestinians including the employment of torture, house demolition, denial of access to basic services, and political exclusion." To Schwartz that signaled that the keynote panel would be a fest of "Israel-bashing." In a phone interview, Schwartz asserted that Marton's biography "should be more balanced." It should "put things in context" and condemn Palestinian attacks on Israeli civilians. Schwartz suggested that Marton was implicitly endorsing suicide bombings by referring in her bio to her lifelong work against Israeli human rights abuses without saying a word about Palestinian atrocities.

For organizers of the conference, that leap of logic—even in these increasingly polarized times—was absurd, and they insisted that Marton was a perfectly legitimate choice. The recent recipient of the Jonathan Mann Award for Global Health & Human Rights from the Global Health Council, an international alliance of health organizations and professionals, Marton has held fellowships at the University of Chicago and at Harvard. "We specifically invited speakers who are examples of people working" toward "transnational cooperation," says women's studies professor Amy Kesselman, one of the key organizers, citing Marton's and Hijab's long-standing efforts to work jointly among Arabs and Jews. (A third keynote panelist, the journalist Amy Goodman, will give an overview of the effects of war on women in general.) "We don't think every program has to provide every perspective on a complicated issue," Kesselman adds. "We want to highlight the perspectives of dissenting women working for peace from both sides."

Schwartz's demand to replace or at least balance Marton with a more pro-government Israeli speaker went unheeded. So Schwartz shared Marton's bio with Jewish studies faculty, college administrators, the local Jewish Federation office, and the Anti-Defamation League in New York City. "I don't know anyone who wasn't alarmed by it," she says.

One of those she contacted was ADL regional director Joel Levy, who says he "made our views known" to university officials. He says he told them, "Some people on the campus contacted us because they think the presentation will be biased. We don't know that. We believe in a free and far-ranging discussion. We're assuming that will happen."

Even so, New Paltz's dean of liberal arts and sciences, Jerry Benjamin, would not commit university foundation funds to the conference, whose budget is about $4000. (Organizers were hoping for $1500 to $2000 from the school, according to Kesselman.) Benjamin declined to discuss his reasoning, but says he made "an independent judgment." Critics of the move charge that just knowing that the ADL and others are watching, he fears any public censure—and is willing to do anything, even sacrifice academic freedom, to keep a critical spotlight from fixing SUNY-New Paltz in its harsh beam again.

Ever since '97, says Kesselman, "our public activities have been seen as a potential liability all the time." Nevertheless, the conference planners were stunned by the denial of funding. They are now scrambling to raise private donations to fund Marton's trip from Tel Aviv. (Hijab lives in the U.S.) Distinguished professor of history and of Jewish studies Gerry Sorin—who has "no objection to Marton, per se; she is a bona fide professional"—regards the keynote panel as inappropriately giving the left a "monopoly of viewpoint." But he agrees that women's studies "is more heavily scrutinized" than other groups on campus "because of their history."

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