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LEBANON: Former World Bank president shunned by students and faculty, withdraws from ceremony

June 12, 2011 |  9:19 am

Picture 6 What has been coined the "Arab Spring" has gained momentum, this time in the region's most well-reputed and prestigious university, the American University of Beirut. The campus has been a scene of protests ever since the university decided to grant Sir John Wolfensohn, former president of the World Bank and member of the advisory council for the Israeli Democracy Institute, an honorary degree during this year's graduation ceremony. 

Ninety-five faculty members and hundreds of students have signed a petition in opposition to the university's plans to ask Wolfensohn to deliver the keynote speech to the graduating class of 2011 later this month.

The signatories stated that honoring Wolfensohn "symbolically undermines AUB’s legacy in the struggle for social justice and its historical connection to Beirut, to Palestine and beyond."

In response to the petition, Wolfenson informed the AUB community on Saturday of his intention to skip the ceremony “out of concern that his presence would distract from the celebratory nature of the event."

The tension between the university administration on the one hand and the faculty and student body on the other reflects an impasse between American policies and the Middle Eastern setting of the university.  

"AUB is not an American University. It is an American University in Beirut," said Mayssun Sukarieh, a professor and proponent of the petition. 

The buzz created by the petition has been the subject of much controversy.

The petition tied its objections to Wolfensohn’s work as president of the World Bank from 1995 to 2005, his membership in the International Advisory Council of the Israel Democracy Institute, which according to its website, "acts to promote the values and norms appropriate for Israel as a Jewish and democratic state," and his investment in Better Place, a company that according to the petition, "intends to build infrastructure to serve Israeli settlers in the West Bank."

Moshe Kaplinsky, chief executive of Better Place Israel, previously served as commander of the Sayeret Golani, Golani and Galilee Brigades in the Israel Defense Force. During his tenure, he was promoted to the prestigious rank of major general and appointed military secretary to the prime minister in 2001. In 2005 Kaplinsky served as deputy chief of the general staff. 

Lebanon technically remains in a state of war with Israel.

"Israel has been a longtime strategic enemy of Lebanon and has launched several aerial and ground offensives in Lebanon," said Mohamed Ghotmeh, one of the petition's organizers and an engineering student of this year's graduating class.

"Even if we want to forget that we have been historic supporters of the Palestinian struggle, we can't forget that Israel occupied Lebanese territories for years," he said in reference to the Israeli occupation of southern Lebanese towns from 1982 to 2000. 

The president of AUB, Peter Dorman, who will now be delivering the keynote address himself, expressed his disapproval of the petition in a biting email sent to university students and faculty on Saturday, in which he expressed regret over Wolfensohn's decision not to attend.

Dorman denounced the petition, stating that it was "highly selective in the information it provides" and "deliberately slanted to serve narrow interests regardless of facts."

In the email, the office of the president conveyed “saddeness” for not being able to honor Wolfensohn in June, stating that his "ability to reach out across cultural and political boundaries to improve the human condition" was beneficial to the region. 

According to student and faculty reports, Wolfensohn's nomination for the award was not shared with the university community until the final decision was made. 

"I believe faculty and students should have a say in whom is to be honored by AUB in their names," said Fawwaz Traboulsi, professor in AUB's Center for Arab and Middle Eastern Studies, explaining his reasons for signing the petition. 

Some students refused to sign. 

"Wolfensohn strived to assist Palestinians even though he was indirectly involved with companies associated to Israel," said Elias Ghanem, alumnus and former vice president of the university's student-faculty council.

Other faculty members also disagreed with the petition, stating that possible sympathy for Israel was not reason enough to shun Wolfensohn. 

But students were not opposed to merely hosting the businessman and diplomat.

"Sir Wolfenson is welcome to come to our campus. Our ears aren't closed. We don't have a problem talking to him. But I certainly wouldn't go so far as to honor this individual," said Ghotmeh. 

According to Sukarieh, her decision to sign the petition was based on the severe blow World Bank policies have dealt developing countries, especially between the years 1995 and 2005.  

"The Arab world was severely affected by World Bank policies, specifically those adopted under Wolfensohn's mandate, which called for things like structural adjustment. Then, with further research we found that Wolfensohn has substantial investments and connections to Israel," she said. 

"We are doing the university a favor. Since the graduation ceremony is a media event, Wolfensohn's unprotested presence would have created a scandal," said Sukarieh. 

According to the Lebanese Daily Star Newspaper, former Prime Minister Salim Hoss addressed the issue Thursday, supporting the petition and urging AUB to withdraw its decision to honor the former World Bank president. 

Hundreds of graduating students anticipate the commencement address each year. The Arab-Israeli conflict is usually the subject of the keynote speaker.

Last year's commencement speaker, Dr. Walid Khalidi, a Palestinian scholar and historian, addressed the ongoing struggle by criticizing Israeli policy, American indifference and Palestinian discord, and called on the graduates to remember that their "foremost moral duty is to the disinherited and less privileged among our people." 

Wolfensohn, an Australian-born naturalized U.S. citizen, international investment banker and financial adviser, is currently chairman of his own firm, Wolfensohn and Co.

Several graduating students are displeased with the selection of Wolfensohn, citing their lack of identification with him as a reason.

"What kind of advice is Wolfensohn going to give us?" said Ghotmeh. "What is he going to say that families of Lebanese martyrs murdered by IDF sitting in the crowd are going to find credible?"

Although Wolfensohn is not going to partake in the ceremony, students still fear that he will be given an honorary degree nonetheless. However, bylaws of the university state, "an honorary degree recipient must be present at the award ceremony to receive the degree in person."

Also being honored at the graduation ceremony are Lebanese composer Marcel Khalife, journalist Anthony Shedid, historian Owen Gingerich, former U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson and cancer researcher Mostafa El-Sayed.

-- Roula Hajjar in Beirut

Photo: AUB students assembled for graduation ceremony. Credit: American University of Beirut 

 



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