If Sir James Wolfensohn, the cofounder of Edward Said’s West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, doesn’t deserve to be honored at the American University of Beirut (AUB), then who does? Recently, the former World Bank chief found himself in the midst of controversy after AUB had announced that he would receive an honorary doctorate and deliver the June commencement address. Faculty members and students signed a petition in protest, arguing that honoring Wolfensohn “undermines AUB’s legacy in the struggle for social justice and its historical connection to Beirut, to Palestine and beyond.”
In a statement, an embarrassed AUB president Peter Dorman argued that Wolfensohn was “on record” for having “criticized Israeli military operations in the Palestinian territories,” and had extensive pro-Palestinian credentials. For instance, Wolfensohn resigned his position as quartet chief after the international boycott of the Hamas government in Gaza, and in 2007 he was rewarded with the Palestinian Authority's prize for excellence and creativity. Apparently AUB agitators have tougher standards than the PA.
The Ramallah-based Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PCACBI) was part of the campaign, as was Al Akhbar, a Hezbollah-affiliated newspaper where the anti-Wolfensohn crowd was given free rein to vent against the university for daring to honor him. On the other hand, another Beirut newspaper, the Daily Star, which has no ties to Hezbollah, was much more circumspect in its criticism of the boycott. One AUB professor, who felt compelled to comment without attribution, dismissed the campaign “as an ‘illusion of victory’ for the Palestinian cause, given what he termed the 'moderate' position on Israel often espoused by Wolfensohn.”
The problem of course is that Hezbollah, through its media outfits, is setting the ideological tone in Beirut these days—even on the campus of the American University in Beirut. Accordingly, AUB activists conveniently give Hezbollah allies a pass. For example, no one had any problem last year when the AUB awarded an honorary degree to comedian Doreid Lahham. Of late, Lanham has distinguished himself for his unwavering support for Syrian president Bashar Assad, even as the Damascus regime’s security forces have been targeting the unarmed peaceful Syrian opposition. AUB professors and students keen to protect “AUB’s legacy in the struggle for social justice” are in the headlines only when it comes to the Arab-Israeli conflict. When it comes to calling attention to the repression and violence of the Syrian regime, AUB's social justice advocates are nowhere to be found.
It appears that, for some, the long arm of Syria and Hezbollah extends even across the waters. Months before Dorman had to deal with the Wolfensohn issue, there was already some indication that the AUB president wasn’t the man to face down a campaign of intimidation. At an AUB alumni event in Washington in March, Dorman delivered a speech about the Arab Spring and avoided naming Syria—even as the mostly Lebanese crowd shouted, “And Syria!”
Hussain Abdul-Hussain is the Washington bureau chief of the Kuwaiti newspaper Alrai.