Several weeks ago, I was invited to your university to provide my perspective on the Middle East peace process, the question of Iranian nuclearization and U.S.-Israel relations. Prior to assuming the role of ambassador I taught at several American universities – Harvard, Yale and Georgetown – and greatly enjoyed interacting with the students. For this reason, I chose to visit a number of campuses during my first diplomatic trip to California. I know that today’s students are tomorrow’s leaders and believe keenly in the need to provide these future statesmen with an Israeli perspective of Middle Eastern affairs.
I was fully aware that the climate on many American campuses is critical and sometimes even hostile to Israel, and that the University of California, Irvine could arouse debate. Yet for precisely that reason, I wanted to speak at UCI. While it would have been far easier to engage students who agreed with Israel’s policies, I much preferred an exchange with students of opposing viewpoints. I came not just to lecture, but to listen and to learn.
Unfortunately, my remarks were repeatedly interrupted by a group of students that declined my invitation to dialogue and instead assaulted me with cries of “war criminal” and “murderer.” Repeated urgings by Chancellor Michael Drake and Professor Mark Petracca for civility and respect for the freedom of speech went ignored. University administrators were finally forced to arrest a number of the hecklers, and I was able to finish my speech. The remaining rabble-rousers stormed out to the applause of the many other students and community members who had come to hear me out. But I did not applaud. Rather, I was saddened by the loss of this opportunity to exchange ideas with those who disagreed with me and, at the very least, to introduce them to different perspectives.
Since then, videos of the incident at Irvine have proliferated on the Internet and attracted significant media attention. I have received heartfelt apologies from UC President Mark Yudof and Chancellor Drake. The response has been overwhelmingly favorable in defense of my right to free expression on campus and the students’ right to hear those remarks.
Still, I am not satisfied. I came to UCI for the opportunity to exchange ideas — a reasonable intention that was hijacked by a minority of students. The disruptive measures exhibited by these students only underscore the importance for dialogue, especially on the frontline of higher learning. The tragic fallout from this lecture is that those impassioned individuals most needing exposure to the Israeli perspective — and also needing to address their concerns in an appropriate manner — chose not to listen but rather to disrupt the event. Their methods, though championed by some, undermine the democratic principles on which the university system rests.
I have not given up hope on Irvine. I would willingly return to your campus and meet with those individuals whose views may not agree with mine as long as we respect the decorum of dialogue and free speech. Middle East issues are not devoid of emotion or nuance. Only with respect and sensitivity from all sides can we attain the conditions necessary to tackle one of the great issues of our time and realize the vision of peace.