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Baker Institute’s ‘Israel at 75’ conference sparks controversy

Ndidi Nwosu / Thresher

By Hajera Naveed     4/18/23 10:18pm

The Baker Institute for Public Policy will host an ‘Israel at 75’ conference on April 27, featuring diplomats, subject-matter experts and stakeholders to analyze the relationship between the U.S. and Israel, among other topics. In response, the Rice Students for Justice Palestine group began a petition calling for cancellation of the event. 

The conference agenda includes recorded remarks from Israel’s President and speakers such as the current U.S. Ambassador to Israel and the former Israeli Prime Minister. The conference will include a panel discussion on the Israel-Palestine conflict, with a seat for the former prime minister of the Palestinian party.

SJP organizing member Alizay Azeem said that it was disheartening for her to see the conference platforming speakers, especially ones that she alleges have committed war crimes against Palestinian people. 

“[The conference is] basically legitimizing the violence that we see, especially this past month, against Palestinians by the Israeli government and forces,” Azeem, a Wiess College senior, said.

The Jewish Studies program at Rice is among a list of sponsors for the event. Matthias Henze, director of the program of Jewish Studies, said that because Israel has always been a controversial topic, it is important to host academic conferences to debate openly and critically.

Henze said he believes that although SJP has every right to express their opinion on Israel, calling for the event to be canceled is not helpful in promoting free speech on college campuses. 

“Canceling an academic conference at the Baker Institute on Israel at 75 because of its controversial nature would be a clear violation of Rice’s ideals of free speech and open academic debate,” Henze said in an email to the Thresher. “It would also have a chilling effect on the future of academic conferences at Rice.”

A Palestinian student, whose grandparents were displaced from their village during the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, said he finds Rice hosting the conference upsetting. The student emphasized the timing of the conference, which falls near the end of Ramadan and heightened conflict in the region. 

“I am a third-generation refugee by chance, by the same state that Rice University will be hosting,” the student said. “[Palestinian students here have] all seen videos recently of Israeli military occupation forces hitting people inside a mosque. I think these images are really frightening and upsetting [and instead of Rice] checking on us, [holding] a conference to enforce and celebrate … is really disrespectful.”

Leigh Gabriely, a Hanszen College senior, said she believes the conference is a unique opportunity for students to listen to and question speakers with different stakes in the Israeli occupation. 

“More than supporting the conference, I oppose its rejection,” Gabriely said. “Everyone has a right to criticize and to have an opinion, but it seems silly to do so when individuals won’t take advantage of an opportunity to engage more.”

Azeem said that she believes the conference does not reflect Rice’s mission statement, nor affirms any goals related to diversity, equity and inclusion. 

At the time of publication, SJP’s petition had 543 signatures. The conference is set to take place from 9:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. next Thursday.

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