The Very Reverend Michael Prior, C.M., BSc, BD, LSS, PhD,
Chair of the Holy Land Research Project Editor of Holy Land Studies. A Multidisciplinary Journal
School of Theology, Philosophy, and History
St Mary's College
phone: 0208 240 4193
The Very Reverend Michael C. McFarland, S.J.
President, College of the Holy Cross
1 College Street
Worcester, Massachusetts 01610-2395
1 December 2002.
Very Reverend and Dear Father McFarland,
Now that I have returned to London I avail of the first opportunity of writing to you concerning the withdrawal of the invitation to me to give a lecture in the College of the Holy Cross on 19 November.
The lecture was to have been part of my visit to academic and Church institutions in the USA. I lectured in Notre Dame University, Calvin College (Grand Rapids), St. Mary Christian Antiochian Orthodox Church (Berkely), Central Methodist Church (Detroit), Christ Church (Dearborn), Memorial Christian Church (Ann Arbor), Hellenic College (Boston), Christ Church (Cambridge, MA), Weston Jesuit School of Theology, Boston University, Harvard University, North Park University, Methodist Church (Naperville, IL), The Holy Land Christian Ecumenical Foundation Chicago Symposium on Christians of the Holy Land (Cicero, IL), and the Lutheran School of Theology-Chicago University. Each institution invited me to give a lecture which it chose from thirteen topics I proposed (giving an abstract in each case). Your College alone withdrew the invitation to speak.
It is clear that there is an atmosphere in your College which seeks to control discussion on the issue of Israel-Palestine, and that, on this occasion, the College succumbed to being intimidated by persons within the faculty. Although the tactics of such people and the charges alleged against me 'amazed' my host, Professor David O'Brien yielded to their bullying and intimidation, considering such action to be prudent. I consider it to be shameful.
The subject on which I agreed to speak was 'The Christian Churches, Zionism and the State of Israel', with the abstract, 'This discussion will review the history of Christian Zionism and the impact that this movement in the Christian Community has had on the development of the State of Israel and the Israeli settlements in Palestine.' The text on which I had based my lecture had already appeared under the title, The "Holy Land", Zionism, and the Challenge to the Church' in the distinguished British Dominican publication, New Blackfriars 83(no. 980, October 2002): 471-89.
Professor O'Brien requested me (4 November) 'not to emphasize Zionism in the title', since his 'Jewish colleagues are justifiably concerned that we at the College have perhaps had many speakers they would regard as leaning against Israel.' 'Most of our Jewish faculty', he assured me, 'are among the strongest supporters of the college and its Jesuit mission.' He assured me also that 'the college community will benefit greatly from information about the Christian churches and the Middle East conflict, to learn something about Christian Zionism and about the complicated views of the Holy See and the US bishops.' In thanking me 'for coming', he asked if I would approve the change of title. I readily agreed (5 November), and thanked him for explaining the context of the audience, adding that his 'cautionary words will make me more reflective than didactic!'
Professor O'Brien then asked (6 November) if I would 'object if I invited a friendly local rabbi to join us and offer an initial comment after your talk?' I replied (7 November) that 'Since the session in Holy Cross will be open in some sense, I would, of course, be delighted if any rabbi were to come. However, I would not think it appropriate to invite any individual member of the audience to make an initial comment, but, of course, anyone who wishes to ask questions or make a brief comment will be treated by me with the normal courtesies on such occasions.'
Nevertheless, Professor O'Brien wrote (7 November), 'Politically it would be helpful if I could state that Rabbi David Coyne, Director of Hillel at nearby Clark University, would serve as a respondent. I can guarantee he would be modest and civil and smart---but if this seems offensive I will not do it--thanks for your patience with me.' I replied (10 November), 'It seems to me at this distance that you are in a sensitive spot. However, I would find it very odd indeed for an overseas speaker to be invited to give a lecture, which would be followed by a response from any invited respondent, from whatever interest group (Jewish Zionist, Jewish anti-Zionist, Christian Zionist, Christian anti-Zionist, Palestinian Christian, Palestinian Muslim, etc., and if one, why not the lot?). Such a procedure would be normal in a debate. I would, of course, be pleased to deal with questions or comments from any member of the audience, and will make sure that my presentation leaves time for the audience to participate in this important discourse.' Professor O'Brien thanked me (10 November), assuring me 'I look forward to meeting you November 19'.
Nevertheless, on 12 November, the eve of my departure for the USA, I received notification from Professor O'Brien that he was withdrawing the invitation to speak 'to save Holy Cross some further unnecessary division'. Professor O'Brien attempted to explain his rather pusillanimous decision in his not-altogether convincing apologia 'To: Interested Parties' (c. 13 November). It appears that the Kraft-Hiatt Committee (of the College?) would not accept Professor O'Brien's invitation to me, even though he gave it his assurance that 'I worked with him [Fr Prior] to shape a topic that would focus more on Christian and Catholic policies toward Israel than on his wider critique of Zionism', and that there would be plenty of opportunity for dialogue following my presentation. Rather, local Jewish leaders, he says, 'had been informed that the College had invited an anti-Zionist, perhaps anti-Semitic, speaker', and to prevent 'a campus and community media event that would bring further division to the College and faculty', he yielded to the pressure to cancel the invitation. It is a great pity that the suggestion of 'antisemitism', against which, with other forms of racism, I have fought for decades, was considered sufficient to stifle debate about the reality and morality of the Israeli occupation and Israeli policies, which are a grave source of embarrassment to many Jews. This is all the more alarming, since, according to its Mission Statement, the College of the Holy Cross commits itself to joining in dialogue about such basic human questions as, 'What is the moral character of learning and teaching?' and 'What is our special responsibility to the world's poor and powerless?'
The issues raised by the College's action go beyond the question of a personal insult to an overseas scholar, but this matter, too, should not be neglected. In addition to being a Catholic priest with a long experience of university teaching, I have a substantial record of publishing on the question of Israel-Palestine (including a number of books), which is widely available for academic discussion. Reviewers of my work invariably commend me for my courage in facing issues of profound concern, and publishing on them. In addition to the New Blackfriars piece, this year alone I have published 'Ethnic Cleansing and the Bible: A Moral Critique', in Holy Land Studies. A Multidisciplinary Journal 1: 37-59, 'The Israel-Palestine Dispute and the Bible', in Scripture Bulletin 32: 64-79, 'Antizionism = Antisemitism?', in Doctrine and Life 52 (July-August): 339-47, and raised some of the issues in Scripture in Church 128: 418-26. As a further indication by academic peers of the significance of my research I have won this year a grant from the Arts and Humanities Research Board of proportions unprecedented in my College, in open competition with all the British Universities. The awarding body, having consulted a range of experts in the field, awarded the proposal an 'A' ('an application to be funded as a matter of priority'). I am also founding editor of Holy Land Studies. A Multidisciplinary Journal (Continuum 2002), which has the support of some of the most significant scholars in the field, from a range of faiths and nationalities. Rather than provide a forum for the dissemination of my perspectives, Holy Cross has chosen to be swayed by the charges of what appears to be a certain pro-Israeli lobby which has earned a not-undeserved reputation in the university sector for chronic mendacity and altogether disedifying behaviour.
I am writing to you, Father, in your capacity as President of the only college, university, or church, which has prevented me from contributing to a discussion of critical issues which affect not only the Academy but the Church. You are, I trust, aware that on the question of Israel-Palestine the American public is singularly seriously misinformed. Part of the reason for such misinformation is the failure of academic leaders, religious leaders, and the media to address critical questions of justice and peace in the region. Rather than give a lead in such matters, your Church- and College-institution has submitted to intimidation from people hostile to the discussion of historical truth, justice, and academic freedom, issues which are a feature of my work. In so doing, your College has, in my estimation, betrayed its religious and academic mission in the interests of conformity to external bodies which have no such aspirations.
It is a further irony that the invitation was withdrawn by a Jesuit-led institution, and one dedicated to the veneration of the Holy Cross. One cannot fail to contrast the College's behaviour in this matter with the heroic witness to truth, justice and freedom exemplified by your martyred confrère, Fr Ignacio Ellacuría. Adapting the exhortation of St Ignatius, your Founder, who exhorted his disciples to go on their knees at the foot of the Cross and ask, 'What have I done, what am I doing, what will I do for Christ crucified?', Fr Ellacuría urged Christians today to reflect on the conditions of the poor and ask, 'What have I done, what am I doing for the people on the cross, and what will I do to uncrucify them, and have them raised?' It is such sentiments that motivate me in my pursuit of truth and justice, in a presumed atmosphere of academic and ecclesiastical freedom.
You may consider it appropriate to investigate the circumstances of the withdrawal of my invitation to lecture, draw lessons from it, and have the College send me and my hosts in the USA an apology for its discourtesy. It is the reputation of the College of the Holy Cross which is at stake, rather than mine, which is widely applauded by the academic community internationally. It would be a great pity if your College failed to resist a drift into a new kind of 'McCarthyism' which is the enemy of an open, democratic, and free society, against which Jewish intellectuals in the 1950s protested so energetically.
Michael Prior, C.M., BSc, BD, LSS, PhD
Sister Elaine Kelley
Friends of Sabeel--North America
2036 SE Jefferson Street
Milwaukie, Oregon 97222-7660