What The …

You may or may not have heard about this. It was picked up quickly in the Jewish community press and then later in the right-wing press. Two weeks ago, former Israeli Foreign Minister and acting Prime Minister Tzipi Livni was speaking on a panel at Harvard Law School when a student, during a Q&A session, asked her why she was so “smelly.” (Now, to bring you up to speed if this is new to you, Jews being ‘dirty’ or ‘smelly’ is a centuries old anti-Semitic stereotype, roughly comparable to the same bigoted stereotypes about African-Americans.) From most accounts, everyone was caught off guard and a bit stunned. The student restated the question. Later various other student groups issued statements condemning anti-Semitism. And the student in question issues an apology, sort of.

Here’s the transcript of the brief exchange …

STUDENT: OK, my question is for Tzipi Livni, um, how is it that you are so smelly?

(panel looks confused)

STUDENT: Oh, it’s regarding your odor.

MODERATOR: I’m not sure I understand the question.

STUDENT: I’m question (sic) about the odor of Tzipi Livni, very smelly

Inevitable context: the student in question is the head of the Justice for Palestine chapter at Harvard Law School and a major BDS activist on campus.

The Jewish Law Students Association issued a statement condemning the remarks. The Middle East Law Students Association issued a statement “in solidarity” with the Jewish students group, condemning the statements as anti-Semitic. The apology was in a way contrite but insisted that he was “entirely unaware of” the ‘smelly Jew’ anti-Semitic stereotype before the controversy broke out. Martha Minnow, Dean of the Law School sent an email to students calling the comments “offensive” and not “appropriate” but stopping short of calling them anti-Semitic.

So far, yet another hothouse campus controversy: abhorrent statement, denunciations, apology. Wake me up when something’s new.

But from the start, two big things stood out to me about this incident.

We all know that words can be a minefield and people can stumble, unknowingly or unconsciously, into racially charge or bigoted statements. But I am not aware of any instance ever where anyone has commented on a foreign dignitary’s personal odor in a public setting. Ever. Like not ever. In a way, it would almost be better if it were simply an anti-Semitic slur since then at least there would be some logic to it. Otherwise, it’s simply inexplicable.

(As a side note, the comments are stated in a awkward almost stilted way that makes me wonder if the questioner may have been buzzed or drunk. This wouldn’t excuse the remarks. But it might explain some level of disinhibition. It is hard to know since the published video of the panel discussion has this incident edited out.)

The only conceivable explanation is that of course it was an anti-Semitic slur. Imagine Kofi Annan or Jesse Jackson speaking on a panel at Harvard and a student asks a question about why they smell so bad. Racist? Of course, it’s racist.

Now, the second thing. As I watched articles come out on this last week, I noticed something. None of them printed the student’s name. Eventually several articles said that the University and even the Jewish Law Students Association had agreed to keep the students name anonymous. Again, this struck me as highly odd. This wasn’t a victim of a crime or a controversy that arose out of a private incident. It was in a public setting with almost 200 people in attendance. I was surprised that it could be kept secret, let alone that anyone would try. (As it happens, the student’s name has now been published. The student is a third year student named Husam El-Quolaq. As I noted, he’s the head of the Justice for Palestine chapter at HLS and a BDS activist.) All we were told was that the student was the head of the Justice for Palestine chapter at the law school.

Again, less a matter of outrage than something that is just totally out of the ordinary.

Somewhat like calling a foreign dignitary ‘smelly’, I can’t think of another comparable instance where a student’s name is withheld. I can think of some rationale if we’re talking about an 18 year old, for instance – technically an adult but basically a kid who needs and deserves some buffer from the full force of public controversy. As I wrote in a different context last year, derp and even offense are hard-wired into student activism. And generally it’s a good thing. College is a good place to experiment, learn. Some ability to fall on your face, even fall on someone else’s face, without the full burst of national media attention is warranted. But this is a third year law student at one of the two most prestigious and high profile law schools in the country. And it is a rank, inexplicable anti-Semitic slur from a student leader at the center of BDS activism on the campus.

Now, I think I can understand the Law School’s motivation, and it’s not a matter of being soft on anti-Semitism. Institutions like this almost always like to keep their controversies internal, private. They’ve got or want to have their own ways of dealing with these things. They don’t want 1000 articles in The New York Times or god forbid The Boston Herald.

Still, what?

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