Campus Anti-Israel Group Berates Holocaust Survivor

Activist says existence of Israel is 'ethnic cleansing,' compares own experience to Holocaust

Dr. Harold Kasimow
Dr. Harold Kasimow / Grinnell University

A Holocaust survivor invited to speak at Benedictine University about his childhood experience avoiding Nazi death camps was berated by an activist from anti-Israel campus group Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP).

Dr. Harold Kasimow was confronted during a campus event by student activist Ayah Ali, a member of Benedictine's SJP chapter. Ali attempted to draw a parallel between Kasimow's Holocaust experience and the experience of Palestinians since Israel was formed in 1948. She further said Israel is guilty of the same "ethnic cleansing" performed by the Nazis.

Dr. Kasimow, now a religious studies professor focusing on inter-religious dialogue at Grinnell University, was brought to Benedictine for an event titled "Bearing Witness: Memories of a Child Holocaust Survivor." He was 3 years old when German forces took over his Lithuanian town, he says, and lived for 19 months in a pit his father dug underneath a horse barn to escape capture.

"I wanted to draw a parallel between a very similar occurrence that's happening in present day and history that's been happening for around 71 years now," Ali said. "I'm sure you know about what’s happening in Palestine, and my question to you is do you support or do you condemn the establishment of the Zionist, Israeli state, and whether it's okay to exile and complete ethnic cleansing of the Palestinian people, the way that the Jewish people were exiled and ethnically cleansed."

Kasimow told Ali that while he is not happy with the current Israeli government, he does think "Israel should exist." The religious studies professor also said he is not an expert on the "very complicated" issue and expressed support for the many people on both sides working for a peaceful two-state solution.

Ali argued that Kasimow's belief that Israel should exist means he is in favor of the ethnic cleansing of Palestinian people.

"Do you support or condemn the ethnic cleansing of the Palestinian people, because the establishment of the Israeli state and the idea of Zionism ties back to the right of the Israeli state, at any cost, and that cost is the Palestinian people," she said.

Ali also equated her own experience as a Palestinian to his in the Holocaust. "I am a result of experiences that you have been through," she said.

"It's disappointing to know that a Holocaust survivor would remain neutral in a situation of injustice," she said. "I'm honestly so sorry to hear what happened to you, but I'm honestly very hurt by the fact that I cannot gain your support."

Ali left the event at the end of the interaction. Benedictine's SJP chapter posted the full video of the interaction on Twitter, and said it was "surprised" to learn "Kasimow was in full support of the Israeli state that is built upon the genocide and ethnic cleansing of the Palestinian people."

"If we are against oppression, we need to be against ALL oppression, and if Mr. Kasimow stands against ethnic cleansing, then it is expected that he be against ALL ethnic cleansing, and he has failed to apply his same principles to the victims of the Palestinian Occupation," the group wrote.

Ali says she received a "personal invitation" from the university to attend the event.

"I received an email from [Benedictine] earlier this week with a personal invitation to this event saying that it was ‘relevant to the aims of SJP,' and so I made it relevant to the aims of SJP," she wrote. "If you stand neutral in a situation of injustice, you're taking the side of the oppressor."

Benedictine professor Peter Huff, who hosted the event, confirmed in a Wednesday email that "special invitations" were sent to Ali as well as other "members of groups that are either faith-based or related to issues that would make these talks thought-provoking."

"These invitations were in addition to the emails sent to the entire student body," Huff said. "We encourage all our students to broaden their horizons by listening to different perspectives."

Kasimow has previously said he carried the pain of his Holocaust experience with him to this day.

"My memories of the Holocaust never really go away," Kasimow said earlier this year on Holocaust Remembrance Day. "I live with it every day of my life, with the painful knowledge that nearly 1 million Jewish children died. I am one of about 5,000 who survived."

He says his family lived on potato peelings and bread while in the underground pit, and the farmers who gave them scraps risked their lives to do so.

"We shared the underground hideout with mice, frogs, and worms," he said. "The entire time we were in the dark, and we did not wash. We were all infested with lice. We lived there for one year, seven months, and five days. We were buried underneath the earth."

SJP is a vocal anti-Israel force on college campuses across the country and has emerged as a top advocate for the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement, which aims to eliminate the Israeli state through economic means.

The group is a project of American Muslims for Palestine, a deeply anti-Semitic group whose leadership has been tied to the funding of radical terrorist groups.

Benedictine's SJP chapter was recently given the "2019 Campus Champions for Palestine" award by the Chicago chapter of the American Muslims for Palestine.

In a statement, Huff declined to directly condemn comments made by Ali, but said the university "does not support nor tolerate speech that is hateful to any group."

"We believe hosting guest speakers on campus is a way to open the lines of communication for civil discourse and productive discussion around potentially polarizing topics," Huff said. "During these events and throughout all interactions on campus, we expect students, faculty, staff, and guests to adhere to the Benedictine values upon which we were founded–including hospitality, community, and love of Christ and neighbor."

UPDATE Oct. 30, 11:45 a.m.: This piece has been updated with comment from Benedictine University professor Peter Huff.