Students from a variety of ideologies are coming together in protest of the Undergraduate Student Government’s decision to provide funding to help bring a controversial speaker to campus Thursday.
Students for Justice in Palestine has arranged to host Norman Finkelstein as part of Palestine Awareness Week. Finkelstein has argued that some Jews have exploited the Holocaust and his appearance on campus has raised eyebrows. Students are more concerned, however, about the source of funding for the event than about the event itself.
SJP submitted an application to USG’s Discretionary Funding Board for money to help bring Finkelstein to campus. The application met USG’s guidelines, and SJP was granted the requested funds. The Discretionary Funding Board money comes from the student programming fee — the $55.50 fee each student pays every semester.
Student organizations, including ’SC Students for Israel, College Democrats, College Republicans and several others, wrote and submitted a letter to USG expressing concern that USG was using student activity money to fund as controversial a speaker as Finkelstein, who they called a Holocaust-denier outside the realm of academia.
“We’re very opposed to him receiving USC money for his visit,” said Lauren Korbatov, director of public relations for College Republicans. “It’s like bringing a guy that said slavery never happened in the United States.”
Korbatov and others noted that they are not against freedom of speech; they simply disagree with the use of student funds in sponsoring some events.
“We support freedom of speech but we don’t support funding a speaker like this,” said Aaron Perman, vice president of College Democrats.
Shanel Melamed, president of ’SC Students for Israel, echoed this sentiment.
“My concern is that we go to a truly amazing school,” she said. “The money that we pay for the school and the student activity fee should be going toward civilized academic discussion … how can the school fund a speaker that supports violence against Israelis?”
Ashwin Appiah, USG’s treasurer, said USG makes funding decisions based on a set of guidelines, and Finkelstein’s visit met all the requirements.
“We stay neutral in the events that we fund,” Appiah said. “We do not judge on content. Every student deserves this money as much as the other.”
The issue was brought to the attention of the Office of Student Affairs, but Vice President for Student Affairs Michael Jackson said he was not involved in the decision to fund the event.
“It is not up to me, for example, to censor a program that our student government has agreed that they want to support,” Jackson said. “I’ve never censored a student event, and I’m not going to start now … Students would be very mad at me.”
Marwa Katbi, a member of SJP, said the group considered a number of speakers before choosing Finkelstein.
“He’s a speaker who can provide students with a different perspective on the [Israeli-Palestinian] conflicts from what people normally hear,” she said.
Finkelstein will speak about the contents of his latest book, This Time We Went Too Far, about the most recent massacre in Gaza and the different pressures within the Jewish community that challenge racist policies in Israel. Katbi said she hopes students will come out to hear the talk.
“With issues of controversy, it would be unfortunate if this opportunity to learn was bypassed for the comfort and convenience of the community,” Katbi said.
SJP expects about 100 attendees and has talked to university officials about preparing for any protests or acts of opposition, Katbi said. Though Finkelstein requests security not be present at his lectures, Department of Public Safety officials are aware of the situation and are prepared to intervene as needed.
Students not involved in the event or the protest expressed mixed feelings about whether or not USG should use the student programming fee to fund controversial events and speakers.
Melissa Gish, a junior majoring in chemistry, suggested that USG sponsor a debate to ensure views on both sides of the issue are heard.
Others, however, said they do not think USG should judge the content of events looking for funding.
“I think you can’t discriminate based on a person’s opinion,” said Swade Geiger, a sophomore majoring in mechanical engineering. “It’s up to us whether or not we listen to what he says. We give [USG] our right to decide who comes.”
USG has since responded to the letter from the student groups, explaining in an e-mail USG’s procedure for granting student organizations funding. But Melamed felt the e-mail was an “informal response” to their letter and did not address her concerns.
“For the school to fund an individual who is going to stand there and say that it’s OK for me to be killed is really, really scary, and I myself, I’m getting scared for my security,” Melamed said.
Correction: The original version of this article included an unattributed claim that Norman Finkelstein is said to be a Holocaust denier. Finkelstein has argued that some Jews have exploited the Holocaust, but he is not a Holocaust denier.