Editorial: Michael Oren event at Northwestern should have better engaged community

Daily Northwestern

As the lines of protesters on both sides of Sheridan Road Monday night indicated, the on-campus speech by Israeli ambassador to the U.S. Michael Oren’s was not an uncontroversial event.

For this reason, we commend Northwestern Hillel and Chabad for bringing Oren to campus – and not just because the event made a good front-page story on Tuesday. We believe that there is value in student groups and campus organizations bringing speakers to campus who might incite segments of the community to protest, as Students for Justice in Palestine and other groups did Monday. Controversy is a sure-fire way to get people interested, and that interest can be used to engage the community in educational and constructive dialogues about important issues.

The Michael Oren event, however, did not accomplish those lofty goals.

Instead, the groups that made their presence known at Ambassador Oren’s speech were more or less what one could have predicted: student and non-student members of the NU and Evanston Jewish communities on the one hand, and pro-Palestinian and Muslim groups – including Students for Justice in Palestine, American Muslims for Palestine and members of Jewish Voice for Peace – on the other.

We believe that the event was much more heavily advertised, due to its sponsorship, to the Jewish community at NU and in the surrounding area than to others on campus who might have found the event interesting, including members and affiliates the numerous departments, programs and student groups on campus that concern themselves with foreign affairs. While literally dozens of e-mails about the event were sent over the Hillel and Chabad listservs, none were sent over the political science or international studies department ones.

Hillel Executive Director Michael Simon agreed that the event could have been better publicized and promoted to various segments of the population. He said that this event had to be organized on a tight timeframe while the sponsoring organizations were also preparing for Wildcat Welcome Week and working around numerous religious holidays. In fact, he said organizers would have liked to have co-sponsored the event with a wider variety of interest groups on campus, especially political groups, and to have planned accompanying events in the surrounding days.

We understand the special circumstances, but we still think the organizing groups made a mistake in their publicity.

Engaging the entire NU community is a crucial function of cultural groups in creating a vibrant and diverse campus. Achieving this function is twofold: first, groups must sponsor events that simultaneously express their culture and interests while also appealing to a wider audience, which this event certainly did. But second, they must promote and manage the event in a way that makes a diverse audience as aware of the event as the members of the sponsoring group and makes everyone feel welcome at the event.

Some attendees at Monday’s event, including within our newsroom, reported that the atmosphere was not especially conducive to dialogue, especially comments or questions expressing dissent. We believe that this is in part due to the fact that a significant portion of the audience had a vested interest in the topic, as well as the somewhat tense atmosphere created by the first question raised in the question and answer portion of the program. Additionally, students might have felt intimidated by the large numbers of adults from the community that attended the event.

Groups should certainly cater to their members first when planning an event, but other students, faculty and staff should be given the priority in a campus event over Evanston residents and other people lacking an NU tie. If an event is going to cater exclusively to a cultural group and its community supporters, there are more appropriate venues than a student center in which to hold it.

At the end of the day, as an ambassador to the U.S., Oren represents Israel to the entire American population, not just the American Jewish population. We appreciate that he specifically sought to speak at a college campus on his trip to Chicago; speakers come to college campuses to foster academic dialogue with individuals possessing a wide range of experiences and perspectives – a dialogue that is especially important in the environment of an institution of higher learning. The Daily encourages student groups and campus organizations planning speaking engagements to consider the successful and less successful aspects of the Michael Oren event in order to bring interesting, engaging and thought-provoking (and sometimes controversial) conversations onto our campus.