Harvard Law School professor Alan Dershowitz said Jewish students may have gone too far in their objections to the title of a speech to be delivered by a Muslim-American student at the university's June 6 commencement.
Dershowitz, a vocal critic of anti-Israel efforts on campuses, said that the original title of Zayed Yasin's commencement speech, "My American Jihad," was "deliberately provocative." However, rather than seek to censor or alter the speech, Yasin's critics would have done better to leaflet the speech itself and educate listeners about his support for a controversial Muslim charity.
"The title was deliberately provocative," Dershowitz said. "Clearly his critics fell into his trap. No one would have known about it had he not used that title, which was intentionally designed to get exactly the kind of reaction that it did, to make it a story.
"The response was understandable," he said, "but the wrong response."
Jewish students led the charge last month after it was announced that the speech by Yasin, the former president of the Harvard Islamic Society, would include the word "jihad" in its title. Although Yasin maintained that the word "jihad" refers to spiritual struggle within oneself, his critics said it also connoted "holy war" and launched a petition drive to demand that Yasin change the title and condemn violence. More than 3,000 signed the petition, and at least two students who lost close family members in the bombing of the World Trade Center have said that they did not plan on attending commencement.
In an attempt to stave off the controversy, Yasin announced earlier this week that he changed the name of his speech to "Of Faith and Citizenship." "My American Jihad" was added as a subtitle, but was not to appear on the commencement program.
"I'm assuming that the speech itself is fairly innocuous," Hilary Levey, a graduating senior who led the petition drive, said Saturday. "But it's as important what's not said as what's said."
According to Levey, Yasin does not make the distinction between a spiritual jihad and a violent jihad.
Levey also said Yasin was among the more active supporters of an effort to get Harvard and other institutions to divest themselves from Israeli companies. The Harvard Crimson reported, meanwhile, that as president of the Harvard Islamic Society in November 2000, Yasin held a dinner to raise money for the Holy Land Foundation, a Texas-based Islamic charity. In December 2001, the Treasury Department froze the Holy Land Foundation's assets when the Bush administration claimed that it was acting as a front for the terrorist group Hamas.
Yasin defended his support for the foundation in a December statement in the Crimson. "I think that this attempt to criminalize the care of widows and orphans is a very underhanded way of pursuing a political agenda," he said. The Holy Land Foundation "takes care of the poor, the sick."
Yasin did not return the Forward's requests for an interview by press time.
Michael Shinagel, one of the university deans who judged the commencement oration competition, defended his panel's decision in The New York Times.
"His 'jihad,' like ours, is to promote justice and understanding in ourselves and in our society. The audience will find his oration a light of hope and reason in a world often darkened by distrust and conflict," Shinagel said.
This is not Harvard's first brush with Middle East controversy. Last month, several pro-Palestinian groups circulated a petition around the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard campuses, urging the universities to divest themselves from Israeli companies. While 411 students and faculty at the two schools signed the petition, a counter-petition launched by Harvard Hillel students collected more than 5,800 signatures. Harvard president Lawrence Summers, himself Jewish, rejected the divestment campaign.
Dershowitz, who was active in opposing the divestment campaign, said the Yasin controversy was "an occasion for education."
"I would hope that students would leaflet graduation and present an alternative point of view, explain who [Yasin] is and that he supported charities that are a front for terrorism. Censorship is never the answer," Dershowitz said.
"On one side show how jihad has in fact been used, certainly in recent years, and second, show something about this young man," he continued. "He has emerged as a free speech hero, so people should know what he supports, what the Holy Land Foundation is."