When a perceived injustice breeds injustice

Fighting against injustice means saying something that might be unpopular. Fighting against injustice means saying something that could—actually will—offend some. So today, I stand up to say that the anti-Semitism claim against Husam El-Qoulaq, although an understandable initial interpretation of a perceived injustice, should henceforth retire. Our community has irresponsibly relied on an isolated use of the word “smelly”—rather than on context, conversations, and attempts to discern the intent behind El-Qoulaq’s actions—to substantiate this claim. This faulty dependence is a threat both to our sense of community, and to the ethical standards to which we should hold ourselves as future lawyers and future leaders.

When I heard about the insulting remarks made at the Program on Negotiation event, I almost immediately categorized it as an injustice based on the facts presented in personal conversations, in remarks made at HLS’s 6th Annual Freedom Seder, and in Dean Minow’s initial email to the HLS community. Although I didn’t recognize the “smelly Jew” stereotype myself, my friends confirmed that the stereotype was widely recognized, and I was convinced that someone using this particular word in a public forum likely knew its derogatory context.

Still, I wanted to know more: Was he quoting this language? Was he referencing its usage in another context? I couldn’t completely wrap my head around the fact that someone in this community would hurl an insult like that without having some explanation better than being driven by pure malice.

Late last week I learned that Ms. Livni, the target of the insult, had a warrant issued for her arrest by a British court in 2009 for her key decision-making role in committing alleged war crimes during Israel’s Operation Cast Lead, in which over 1,400 Palestinians—primarily civilians—were killed in Gaza, and 13 Israeli civilians were killed. While I did not consider these revelations to be indisputable proof of her criminality, they did represent a perspective that was not previously presented to our community. These new facts spurred me to reach out to the man behind the controversy and to listen to his explanation for choosing those words at that moment in time. In doing so, I recognized the hypocrisy of omitting to seek this firsthand explanation from the start.

We had a fascinating conversation. El-Qoulaq enlightened me that not only did he use the word “smelly” as part of another spontaneous protest directed towards a Palestinian speaker earlier this semester, but he also used the word in a playful song posted on Soundcloud mocking his little sister in January 2015.

I gradually understood that El-Qoulaq simply regarded the word “smelly” as a silly, unserious method of critique. When I inquired why he had chosen this method, El-Qoulaq explained that he was very familiar with and weary of conventional activist tactics such as “gotcha” questions and angry cursing, so he adopted a tactic that was more nonsensical, and, to him, entirely fitting given the already ridiculous situation of having an alleged war criminal speak as an authority on peace negotiations.

As we continued our conversation, I began to understand El-Qoulaq’s impulse to disrupt the flow of respect, which many assume to be self-legitimizing. The more he explained, I realized that his motivations were not too far off from the humor that the Silverman-Roati duo brought to their Student Government presidential campaign just weeks ago:

“The world is filled with ‘serious’ people who pollute our environment, start unnecessary wars, keep all of the wealth concentrated among their friends, and turn a blind eye towards racial discrimination. It is also filled with ‘unserious’ people who speak truth to the complexities of being alive, the hypocrisy of far too many of our politicians, and the structural imbalances of our society.”

In principle, I support an HLS student’s right to ask disruptive questions at events as they see fit. Likewise, I also support Israel’s right to defend herself proportionately against Hamas’ attacks. Many may continue to believe that El-Qoulaq’s question went beyond disruption, and was unnecessarily offensive. Similarly, many may regard Israel’s 2008 Operation Cast Lead and 2014 Operation Protective Edge as having gone beyond self-defense, and representing unnecessary wars of aggression on the people of Gaza. These are both entirely legitimate matters of opinion worthy of debate.

El-Qoulaq certainly intended to be provocative and inappropriate (by what standard does one critique the “appropriateness” of protest anyway?); but what is clear to me is that this was not an attack on all Jewish people everywhere—the claim that has now been amplified in what is essentially an echo chamber of opinion on the Internet and social media. To automatically conflate El-Qoulaq’s remarks with anti-Semitism without looking beyond these actions in isolation is a slippery path, and one I’ve seen materialize far too often in relation to this incredibly politicized topic. There are a number of valid criticisms of what took place, but the claim of anti-Semitism causes individuals to lose jobs and friends. As members of this shared community, it would behoove us to be substantially certain of that assertion through, at bare minimum, actually conversing with an alleged perpetrator before allowing his or her name to be forever crystalized on the Internet as anti-Semitic.

Don’t get me wrong—I wish he would not have used those words regardless of what he intended; and clearly at this point he wishes he hadn’t used them either. As such, people may continue to take issue with the use of “smelly” as an insult in our educational community.

But what is odoriferous, if you will, is the fact that a dignitary can be partially responsible for the deaths of over 1,400 Palestinians in a contentious military operation without her respectability even being brought into question (note that Ms. Livni herself has referred to Israel’s disproportionate response leading to the death of over 1,400 Palestinians as “going wild,” adding, “and this is a good thing…”).

What is odoriferous is the oft-propagated myth that anyone who is fighting for the rights of Palestinians and social justice in Palestine is anti-Semitic.

What is odoriferous is the reality that if one so much as critiques Israel for its actions, one runs the risk of instantly being branded as an anti-Semite—a risk that I’m sure will actualize once the comment section to this article opens to the world, although I very much hope to be proven wrong.

What is odoriferous is the fact that another Muslim student who had no association with this incident whatsoever has now been attacked, berated, and targeted for merely existing at HLS in the midst of this controversy, as illuminated in Dean Sells’ recent email to the HLS community.

What is odoriferous is the predominant culture of an institution that accepts speakers into our hallowed halls while failing to consistently and critically evaluate whether they represent the values of justice we wish to see in the world.

Some may object that a few of these critiques address phenomena that extend beyond the walls of this community, but this evades the question of what our duties are as community members to proactively control the prognosis of a controversy when certain results are reasonably foreseeable upon escaping our grasp.

I’m not attempting to change the minds of those who believe that the Boycott Divestment Sanctions (BDS) movement or any iota of opposition to Israel’s actions is inherently anti-Semitic. I do not subscribe to those propositions, and I would sincerely hope that despite differences in politics my peers can discern between denouncing a state’s actions and denouncing its people. This is an appeal to those who fight for social justice, not only when it’s convenient or popular, but also when receiving some extent of disapproval is a near certainty.

I’m sure there are any number of individuals who will pass judgment on me for standing up against backlash directed towards someone who has been branded as a villain overnight. However, if it means directing some of the castigation away from El-Qoulaq so that he can productively reflect on this experience, then that’s the price I’ll have to pay. The peer I encountered during the course of this conversation was someone genuine and passionate, but also someone who wants to be able to learn from this.

What I’ve seen transpire in the past week and a half is a perceived injustice being used to breed more injustice, and that I do not stand for. We may not be able to fully control the consequences of what people do or say out in the world, and that’s a lesson I’m sure El-Qoulaq will never forget. However, following the public and pervasive condemnation that has ensued on the Internet and beyond, I think it incumbent on us to evaluate whether the response to El-Qoulaq’s comment reflects well on our local community and on our greater society.

Of course, if this had been the act of a fervent anti-Semite then that would be an entirely different story — but where is our impulse to ask more questions before alleging such a defaming claim that would foreseeably catch like wildfire across the Internet and communities to target one particular individual? Productive conversations did take place eventually, but not before the worst was assumed and a vilifying media frenzy ensued.

As a whole, my conversation with Husam evoked for me musings about neutrality. Here El-Qoulaq stands, trying to fight for the rights of his people, in a world that assumes the worst intentions prima facie, that invites alleged war criminals to places of higher learning, and at an institution whose dominant culture instructs us to sit down, behave, and ask polite questions. In a world like this, protest based on the humor of a critique so subjective that it, ideally, can’t be attacked on political grounds might be El-Qoulaq’s way of refusing to stand neutral, and of using whatever voice he has in his last few days at HLS to resist the grain, while still being true to himself.

As the clamor of controversy subsides, and HLS students descend into the bowels of libraries, local cafés, and student centers in preparation for exams, we should reflect on the original words of Dean Minow urging us, “to respect the dignity and feelings of all, even those with whom they disagree most strongly on any given issue,” but to apply them in a way that may not have been previously conceived after their initial reception. Further, as Dean Sells stated in a recent email, “[t]his needs to begin with each of us individually acknowledging each other’s humanity.”

In taking these morsels of advice, I’ve examined my initial reaction, paused, reflected on the person I wish to be, and recognized that I want to live in a community that understands that protest is a legitimate form of intellectual expression, and that it can be expressed in a variety of forms, some silly and some serious. I wish to live in a community that seeks to converse with individuals and to understand their motivations before rushing to make statements that may cause irreparable harm. I will certainly expect this of myself from now on.

Further, what I hope is for those of us who thought “there’s got to be another explanation,” upon hearing what transpired, that we hang onto that little glimmer of hope a bit longer, and be brave enough to explore sides of the debate that may not win us a popularity award. If this self-practice can reach a point of critical mass, we just might be able to chip away at one form of injustice in some small way.

(Special thanks to friends and new acquaintances for all of the conversations that have taken place over the past few days which have served as a sounding board for this article. I am particularly grateful as we are all currently in the midst of exam preparation. It reaffirms my belief that we’ve got to do better in seeking a wide range of opinions when controversies like this emerge. We are expected to approach our work at HLS from multiple vantage points, and we owe such diligence to each other as future leaders in this profession.)

Tyra Walker is a 1L and an Opinion Contributor at the Harvard Law Record.