Qatar universities have a lot of work to do

Qatar universities have a lot of work to do
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I was recently invited by the Qatar Foundation to give an academic lecture on the law and the media to students at Northwestern University campus in Doha, Qatar. The auditorium was packed — at least at first. But as soon as I began my talk, several students rushed past me. One shouted “Zionists aren’t welcome.” Her shout was greeted by near unanimous cheers. A dozen or so other students walked out in protest. I urged them to stay and listen to what I had to say. They refused. 

The protest was not about my ideas: They didn’t wait to listen. Indeed, my talk was not about Israel, Zionism or the Palestinians. The protest was directed at me personally because I am a Jewish Zionist.

I responded to the shout about not wanting Zionists there by proclaiming that I was a proud Zionist who believes in two states for two peoples. The students appeared shocked that anyone would admit to being a Zionist to a Qatari audience. It was as if I had admitted being a Nazi or a murderer. I later learned that I may have been the first openly pro-Israel speaker to have been invited to address a Qatari audience on any subject. I may also be the last. 

The dean of Northwestern University quickly dissociated himself and his school from the invitation, saying that the announcement had mistakenly identified Northwestern as a sponsor of my talk but the dean wanted the students to know that the university was not sponsoring a talk about the law and the media by a Zionist. Heaven forbid! No university official was even willing to shake my hand in front of the students when my talk was over.


The protests were organized by a group calling itself Qatar Youth Opposed to Normalization. Its goal is to prevent any dealings between Qatar and Israel and any recognition of the nation state of the Jewish people. It opposes any solution that accepts two states if one of them is Israel. 


The protesters accused Israel of genocide and the deliberate killing of children. When I pointed out that Israel has killed fewer Muslims during its 70-year history than Syrians have killed in the past few years, they didn’t want to hear that. Neither did they want to hear about Hamas’s double war crimes of firing rockets at Israeli civilians using Palestinian civilians as human shields. That is because the core of their opposition is not what Israel does but what Israel is. 

The final question was about the right of a government to present a singular narrative without allowing dissenting views. It was highly relevant since it was clear that these students had never heard anything but the biased anti-Israel narrative they were espousing. They could not accept my pro-Israel, pro-Palestine views that advocated a two-state solution. Despite their attendance at Northwestern University, most of these students had not been educated about the complex Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Instead, they had been propagandized. I commend the Qatar foundation for inviting me to speak, albeit on a topic unrelated to Israel. But if they are to educate their students, they have lots of work to do.

The fact that the Qatar Foundation was willing to invite me to speak, knowing there would be protests, demonstrates the complexity of Qatar. I doubt that any other Gulf country would invite me to give a talk on any subject. When Qatar allowed an Israeli tennis player to compete in the Doha Open, it was roundly condemned by neighboring nations as well as by local students. 

Qatar is somewhat more open to not discriminating against Israelis and Jewish Zionists. But that’s not good enough. It must expose its students to all sides of the complex issues that separate the Israelis from the Palestinians. If its fails in this effort, there will always be opposition to any degree of normalization with Israel. 

Qatar has a lot of work to do. It will not be enough to welcome Jewish leaders and Israeli athletes. It must educate its students, and education requires that students be exposed to different narratives. My experience speaking at Northwestern University shows that, at the moment, it is failing in this regard and that it must try harder. 

Alan M. Dershowitz is the Felix Frankfurter Professor of Law, Emeritus, at Harvard Law School and author of “The Case Against BDS: Why Singling Out Israel for Boycott Is Anti-Semitic and Anti-Peace.” Follow him on Twitter @AlanDersh and on Facebook @AlanMDershowitz.