Dear AUB faculty, students, staff, and friends,
You will have heard that Sir James Wolfensohn has decided not to attend the Commencement ceremonies on June 25, during which the university had intended to award him an honorary degree of Doctor of Humane Letters and had anticipated hearing him give the keynote speech at graduation.
His decision was taken in the aftermath of a petition that was organized by several faculty members at AUB, then circulated to the faculty and student community, as well as to our alumni, who were specifically encouraged not just to sign the petition but to write letters of protest. In the wake of predictable coverage by the media, the press in Lebanon have given wide notoriety to the issue as well, apparently based primarily on the wording of the petition, which is highly selective in the information it provides. The coverage has been mostly, and unfairly, critical of James Wolfensohn.
Neither the petition nor the media will inform you of Wolfensohn’s long and devoted record of work on behalf of the Arab world. I believe a more accurate picture, based on facts rather than insinuations is required. Please note the following:
The petition does not mention that:
- On taking office as president of the World Bank, Wolfensohn initiated semi-annual meetings with the finance ministers of Arab countries, creating a dialogue that built greater understanding of the region’s problems. He traveled dozens of times to the region and was received at both official and community activist levels; many of these contacts remain his close personal friends, including Palestinian and Lebanese leaders.
- As Special Envoy for the Middle East for the Quartet (the United Nations, the European Union, Russia, and the United States), Wolfensohn was given the delicate task of coordinating Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza and leading reconstruction efforts in the area. After one year in office, Wolfensohn resigned from his position, protesting the Quartet’s decision to boycott and freeze aid to the Palestinian Authority following the Hamas victory in the January 2006 elections.
- In an article published in 2007 reflecting his support for strengthening Palestinian sovereignty, Palestinian institutions, and a sustainable Palestinian economy, he explains his reasons for opposing the Bush Administration’s policies towards Palestinians after Hamas won the elections in 2006: “The reality is that you have 1.4 million Palestinians living in Gaza and you can’t wish them away, you can’t leave Gaza as a place where the rich and the intellectuals and the powerful can get out, and leave just people who can’t make a living – or can make a living if they could but have no leadership. And military use of subjugation doesn’t solve the problem, it seems to me.”
- In recognition of his efforts to rebuild Gaza, Wolfensohn received, in 2007, the Palestine Prize for Excellence and Creativity by the Palestinian Authority.
- Following his retirement as Special Envoy, Wolfensohn devoted significant attention towards issues related to the youth in the Arab world. He personally contributed a donation of more than $1 million towards those efforts, the main part of which was located at the Dubai School of Government as a joint venture with the Wolfensohn Foundation. Over 30 monographs and books have now been published on the topic of Arab youth, and the Foundation is looking for institutions that could house this research effort more centrally in the Arab world. Ironically, before this week, AUB might have been regarded as a natural collaborator.
- Wolfensohn was part of the founding Board of the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, headed by Maestro Daniel Barenboim and the late Edward Said, an orchestra that promotes intercultural dialogue, trains Arab musicians and creates opportunities for them to perform around the world.
- Wolfensohn has, on record, criticized Israeli military operations in the Palestinian territories and, in support of the Palestinian people, has often voiced strong criticism in Israel and the United States against their policies. In an article published in 2004, he was quoted as saying, “Israel’s military operations pertaining to the demolitions of thousands of homes in Rafah are reckless, and leave tens of thousands of people without a roof over their heads… As a Jew, I am ashamed of this kind of treatment of people.”
As an institution devoted to critical thinking and the judicious weighing of evidence, however, AUB is not well served by petitions that are deliberately slanted to serve narrow interests regardless of facts. Co-opting the opinions of fellow faculty, students, and alumni by a pretext of authority, such campaigns are fundamentally dishonest and diverge from our university’s commitment to the pursuit of knowledge as grounded in intellectual integrity.
Let us acknowledge that ours is a complex region that is undergoing unprecedented change, and that it needs people, like James Wolfensohn, who have the ability to reach out across cultural and political boundaries to improve the human condition. We are saddened by the fact that AUB will not be able to honor him this June, when we had hoped we might bring his many positive contributions on behalf of the Arab world to the attention of a wider audience, especially here in Lebanon.
Sir James Wolfensohn needs no personal defense from me. Thoughtful people who know his record honor this dedicated public servant, who has taken a courageous stance in defense of Palestinian rights and in support of a just resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict. The Arab world needs more friends like him.
American University of Beirut