Former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, criticized by some for the Israeli crackdown on Hamas militants in the Gaza Strip, is coming to speak at Union College next week.
Olmert will be speaking on Thursday at 7 p.m. at the Memorial Chapel. The event is organized by the Speakers Forum, a student-run club. It is not open to the public but is just for the school community.
Will Friedman of the Speakers Forum, a senior, said the campus is excited about the visit. “The Israeli-Palestinian topic is always a very hot topic where people have strong opinions. Hearing directly with the prime minister of Israel who dealt with the conflict on a daily basis, was too good an opportunity to pass up.”
Friedman said the college has a long history of bringing controversial speakers to engage students. It brought Mike Huckabee, a 2008 Republican candidate, to what he described as a liberal campus. It also had Frank Lucas, an admitted former 1970s drug lord in Newark and Harlem to speak . “I really encourage everyone who is upset, to listen Olmert speak, submit a question, challenging him on his actions.”
Friedman said the decision to restrict the event to the college is partially because of security and also the fact that a couple years ago, students were shut out of a speaker’s event because so many people from the community attended.
Stephen Berk, the Henry and Sally Schaffer professor of Holocaust and Jewish studies, said the visit has generated some controversy among the faculty. Berk said maybe a dozen faculty members oppose the visit because of Olmert’s policies.
Olmert served as prime minister from April 2006 until February 2009. He was in charge when Israel launched a military offensive into the Gaza Strip to stop Hamas rocket attacks. An estimated 1,400 Palestinians were killed in the assault, which took place over several months in 2006. Olmert also faces a corruption scandal for activities before his tenure as prime minister, having been indicted for allegedly receiving illegal campaign funds and double-billing for trips abroad.
Berk said he personally believes the Israeli incursion into Gaza was justified. Olmert was defending his people. “Hamas had shot thousands of rockets into [the city of] Sderot and other places,” he said. “Hamas was responsible for the death of thousands of Israelis and the maiming of thousands more from suicide attacks.”
Berk rejects the notion of genocide, stating that Hamas terrorists are killing innocent civilians by using them has human shields.
He also shared Friedman’s view that Union has a long tradition of bringing controversial speakers. Berk said the leader of the American Nazi party was invited to speak at Union in the late 1930s and the secretary general of the American Communist party was invited in the early 1960s.
Berk said the decision to close the speech to the community is out of a concern for security and that Olmert’s talk would be disrupted by protesters.
“Union has a long tradition of being hospitable to the idea of free speech. There is a long tradition of civility and we do not want that to be jeopardized,” he said.
The only other former head of state that Berk could recall having spoken at Union is former British Prime Minister Harold Wilson in 1967.
College spokesman Phil Wajda said attendance will be limited to those with a Union College identification card plus one guest per cardholder. Campus Safety personnel will be checking identification at the entrance to Memorial Chapel. Metal detectors will be posted at the entrance and attendees will not be permitted to bring backpacks or bags into the event.
Albany resident Tom Ellis, who is a member of the Palestinian Rights Committee, said he believes bringing Olmert to speak is a mistake because of what happened in the Gaza Strip. He said Israel has allowed very little medicine, spare parts or food to come into that section of the country for 21⁄2 years.
“It’s like Union is saying to these million and half Palestinians — more than half of whom are children: ‘We don’t care about your suffering, by inviting this man who imposed this on you,’ ” he said.