For about three hours Monday, Kwame Ture spoke to Oberlin audiences. His messages, however, have resonated throughout the week.
Reaction to Ture has come in several forms: a silent protest at one of his speeches, post-speech discussions, two all-campus mailings by President Nancy Dye, posters around campus, graffiti on some of those posters, heated Snack Bar discussions and a teach-in.
Most of the organized response dealt with Ture's anti-Zionist views. Ture's supporters have said that in addressing Zionism so critically, Oberlin has missed other components of Ture's thought.
"People can't seem to get past the `only good Zionist is a dead Zionist' statement," said sophomore Nakisha Heard. "He was talking about a whole lot of other stuff...[such as] Pan-Africanism and advice to the black community."
"Things that divide and offend will inevitably overshadow the positive and constructive things," senior Ben Temchine said, "because it's a lot easier to be hurt than it is to cooperate."
A loosely-organized group of students, mostly Jewish, handed out two flyers to people entering each of Ture's speeches. One was a one-page explanation of Zionism and the other, entitled "Challenge to Think," and commented on quotations attributed to Ture. The flyer warned readers "See through his word games" and "Do not let yourself be fooled by his web of linguistics."
Temchine expressed confusion about Ture's "word games."
"He's obviously very smart. He recognizes that even if he isn't an anti-Semite, using the language of an anti-Semite is very inflammatory," Temchine said. "There are too many people in opposition to the ideas of his that are right for him to say things that alienate people who could be on his side. If you are an anti-Zionist but not an anti-Semite, you have to be very careful what language you use, if you don't want to be misunderstood."
Moments into Ture's 4 p.m. speech on Zionism, students began rising from their pews and turning their backs to Ture. Within a few minutes, about 25 students - most of them Jewish - had turned their backs toward Ture.
"Everyone conducted themselves in a civilized manner," said Heard. "I appreciate how the Jewish students handled the protests...[Ture] is a revolutionary. He has extreme ideas as to how change should come about...[I think a lot of people were] ready to use his presence as a platform to advance whatever agenda they had."
"The Jewish people and the Zionists were not the only ones who had their backs turned," Temchine said. "A lot of other people had their backs turned to the Jews ... communities had their backs turned to each other."
The protest echoed events which took place when Ture last spoke at Oberlin in 1989. That year, students also turned their backs to protest Ture's views on Zionism.
A teach-in Wednesday afternoon organized by students brought together a speaker, Israeli emissary Zohar Raviv and around 100 students, faculty and staff members.
Raviv began his speech by giving an overview of Zionism and Judaism, ideas he said are difficult to define because they're personal concepts. He also gave reasons that Israel is the Jewish homeland.
"Israel is the only place in the Bible God promised to a specific group of people," Raviv said.
At the brief question period after Raviv's talk, tensions rose much as they did in the question period after Ture's speech.
Junior Hozefa Lokhandwala said, "I'd like to note an inconsistency in your speech that shows you're a racist."
Lokhandwala questioned Raviv's use of the phrase Ethiopian Jew.
Raviv responded, "Since when is nationality a race?"
Following the hour-long talk, about 30 students stayed and discussed Zionism and Ture's message.
Ninety minutes after Raviv's talk ended, several people remained in King 306 talking about the messages they had heard over the past few days. The discussions were not all calm. In clumps, students and staff talked and sometimes shouted ideas at one another. Tears were shed during some of the discussions.
Many of those who stayed to discuss Ture had been among either the approximately 30 protesters at Ture's speech Monday afternoon or the students who sat near the front of Ture's speech and led the standing ovations for Ture.
Senior Avi Lipman stood near the back of King 306 during the teach-in, "It's really too bad it takes something like this to get students who ordinarily wouldn't talk to each other to interact with each other," he said. "This is what it's all about."
"I'd say it was a start," Rabbi Shimon Brand, Oberlin's Jewish chaplain, said after the discussion. "I think the whole thing was just very good."
During the week, President Nancy Dye sent two all-campus mailings describing the way the talks were funded, free speech issues and her personal disdain for Ture's views.
In her first letter, sent Monday, Dye stated that she did not invite Ture to campus herself, but that students had invited him.
In the second letter, dated Tuesday, Dye condemned many of the ideas Ture presented in his talks. She called Ture's speech "hurtful to all of us," and described Ture as "a man consumed by rage."
"I personally deplore Kwame Ture's hateful speech," she wrote, "and emphasize that Oberlin College in no way condones anti-Semitism or the advocacy of violence."
Dye said this week that she had been considering sending an all-campus mailing about Ture's visit for several weeks.
"Finally, the concerns I've been hearing from so many people suggested to me that there was so much concern I should put out a letter," she said.
The letter upset many students. Heard said that she thought Dye's words represented Jewish students, not all students.
"As president, you would think she would exercise a little more judgement in what she signs her name to. [The letter was] biased and very unfair. I think she owes the Black community, and the People of Color community… a written apology in everybody's mailbox."
"I can respect a president who's not afraid to express her personal opinions," said junior Diepiriye S. Kuku, "… but I feel that [the letter] just contributes to the further polarization of the campus."
Temchine said, "I don't think this is `a man consumed by rage'… I'm not sure what the point [of the letter] was."
In Dye's first letter and in earlier comments, she described Ture's visit as a classic academic freedom question, an area where a balance has to be struck between community standards and free speech rights.
Professor of politics Marc Blecher said he does not think Ture should have been invited to campus, in part because he does not regard Ture's views as logical.
"People ought to bring to campus analyses which are intellectually well-wrought and intellectually defensible," Blecher said. "He's someone who offers us polemics based on an almost non-existent logic."
Blecher said that while he didn't support the choice of Ture as a speaker in the series, he did support the right of Third World House to invite any speaker.
Heard thought that students should be able to hear Ture speak and form their own opinions.
"We don't have to agree with everything," she said, "but we do have the right to hear him and judge what he is saying."
"Even though I disagree with everything he said about Zionism, I'm really glad he came," said Temchine.
To some Ture supporters, the amout of opposition seemed unreasonable.
"He's one man. If students here allow one man to cause that much controversy, that's sad," said junior Ryan Maltese.
A group of students organized a meeting for Jewish students Monday night. That meeting was closed to the press. Students said it worked as a support group and gave them a chance to vent and discuss their frustrations about Ture's words.
Tuesday morning, high-traffic areas of campus were covered with posters that read "There is no excuse for anti-Semitism." On at many such posters, the "anti-Semitism" was crossed out and replaced with "anti-Zionism."
Two other forums are scheduled for Saturday. The Office of Chaplains is sponsoring a dialogue on issues raised by Ture's visit at 3 p.m. in Wilder Hall.
"We want to give space for a dialogue," Brand said.
Making his point: Kwame Ture, the Black Power activist formerly known as Stokely Charmichael, during his controversial speech at Finey Chapel. (photo by David Reeves)
Copyright © 1996, The Oberlin Review.
Volume 124, Number 18; March 15, 1996
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