Controversial Israeli lecturer speaks at DePaul on Zionist representations


Bianca Cseke | The DePaulia

DePaul University Lincoln Park campus.

On Oct. 27, Israeli guest speaker Iddo Ginat presented the lecture, “Nation Building by Design: Representations of a Zionist Landscape at World’s Fairs.” The virtual event was free and open to the DePaul community, hosted by the Department of History of Art and Architecture, Critical Ethnic Studies, Islamic World Studies and History and Geography departments at DePaul.

Ginat is an architect, historian and co-curator of the 2020 Israeli Pavilion for the Venice Biennale, an international architecture exhibition. He graduated from the Bezalel Academy in Israel. He also began his doctoral studies at Tel Aviv University and worked for the Visual Culture Project of the Israel National Library.

 He is currently conducting research for an exhibition on the unprecedented work of architect Richard Kaufman, who was the first architect of the Zionist Organization. Additionally, his doctoral dissertation at Tel Aviv University deals with the question of representing the Zionist space in international exhibitions during the British Mandate.

The event was promoted online including Instagram and Twitter where students and members of the DePaul community responded with criticism.

One tweet responding to the event said, “This is blatantly racist propaganda and I am extremely disappointed in the HAA department for this. As a Palestinian HAA major at DePaul I’ll be attending and voicing my concerns,” one user said.

The same user tweeted, “I don’t pay out my ass in tuition for [DePaul] to be putting this [presentation] out. The extremely apparent racism in this is so baffling. The History of Art and Architecture department at DePaul should be ashamed.”

A main point of contention among the critical comments online were directed towards the flier used to promote the event. The flier includes images from the catalog of the Jewish Palestine Pavilion at the 1939 World’s Fair. 

A closeup of a quote featured on the event flier for Ginat’s talk, featuring racist descriptions of Arabic people. (DePaul Art History’s Twitter)

The text adjacent to a photo of Palestinians describes them as “primitive” and left behind “by the march of civilization.” 

Mark DeLancey, professor and chair of the Department of History of Art and Architecture at DePaul, invited Ginat. 

Despite negative feedback from the DePaul community on whether it was appropriate to have a Zionist present on campus, the event persisted and Ginat was offered a standard honorarium with funds allocated for guest lecturers. 

“I did not cancel the lecture firstly because any time there is an event dealing with Palestine and Israel, somebody will be unhappy,” DeLancey said. “If we canceled an event whenever somebody was displeased by it, then we would never be able to have an event dealing with this material. That would be an unfortunate shirking of our duty as an educational institution to explore difficult and complex issues, and from different perspectives.”

“Being born an Israeli does not make one incapable of taking a critical view of Israeli history or its current policies. The assumption that all Israelis necessarily represent a single viewpoint, as suggested by some of the comments on social media, frankly smacks of bigotry,” he added.

DeLancey emphasizes that intellectual discourse transcends nationality. 

Ginat started the lecture by addressing some of the criticisms he received online. 

“There seems to be a misunderstanding about what it’s promoting on social media,” Giant said. “My lecture will present archival material around the efforts of Zionist organizations to promote the Jewish colonization of Palestine in the early part of the twentieth century. Specifically, I will discuss the ways in which Zionist organizations have represented their colonization activities at World’s Fairs as part of their efforts to justify the Jewish nationalist agenda on the world’s stage.” 

“In the promotional material I sent DePaul University that was published [online], there was an image of a page taken from the catalog of the Jewish Palestine Pavilion at the New York World’s Fair in 1939,” Ginat said. “This image is certainly provocative, and there is not doubt that the captions as they originally appeared next to the images contained disturbing racist references.”

“I do not support or condone these messages. They are part of the material I investigate. There might be other images presented here today that are disturbing and contentious, but they are part of what I am analyzing as evidence of a historical process, as problematic as it may be,” he added.

Before starting the lecture, Ginat also said, “I wish to clarify that my lecture does not promote a political agenda. Although I definitely construct a specific reading and narrative of consequential events of Middle East history. I am a historian — I am bound to the research, collection, documentation and weighing of evidence designed to understand political, social and cultural processes and phenomenon.”

On Nov. 5, the DePaul Student Government Association hosted a Q&A event with President A. Gabriel Esteban where he was questioned on a number of issues. Esteban was asked if holding the event with an Israeli guest lecturer was appropriate amid the illegal military occupation, colonization, ethnic cleansing, apartheid and oppression of Palestinians. 

“In terms of academic freedom, faculty have been historically allowed to [invite] guest lecturers, whoever they see fit,” Esteban said. 

Esteban was also asked, “Do you believe there should be space on campus to include Zionist lecturers and their experiences?”

“The one thing which concerns me in the things I hear across campus is that it’s ok to have one speaker but not another, and there is a strong desire to censor one speaker. Who is supposed to make that call?” he said in response.

Esteban continued, bringing up his personal experiences from living under a totalitarian regime.

“I have very strong feelings [about] the freedom to speak,” Esteban said. “Now there’s a line you cross with hate speech among others, and if that’s [evident], then we have a process to go through that. If a university is not a place to have a dialogue… then where else are you supposed to have this dialogue?” 

Some attendees of the SGA meeting mentioned DePaul’s past with inviting controversial speakers, most prominent being Milo Yiannopoulos in 2016

Esteban mentioned another controversial speaker who visited DePaul, Charles Murray, who like Yiannopoulos, was invited to campus by the DePaul College Republicans.

“I was questioned [about the controversial selection] at a meeting and my response was this. First of all, I disagree with [Murray],” Esteban said.

“This is where we’re supposed to have these discussions. It’s not about shutting people out. It’s not saying I don’t agree with you so you can’t speak. There are a lot of people I disagree with… but unless you can have that dialogue and at least say, you know what I’ll listen to you, then you’ll have to listen to me,” he added.

Esteban was then asked if he believes in the liberation of Palestine.

“I’ll say this as a Catholic, the way I was brought up and the way I read the [Vincentian] mission is to believe in the dignity of every person, and that unequivocally it has to be every person,” Esteban said. “I don’t care if you’re Palestinian or Isralei… I believe in the dignity of every person.”

Esteban also mentioned the Vincentian mission, and how the teachings of St. Vincent DePaul taught him to value the dignity of every person. 

“We see God in every person we meet, and that’s actually the toughest part — being able to forgive people and being able to look beyond who they are and who they might represent,” Esteban said. I believe that at [DePaul] University, there should be spaces to hold difficult conversations.”