BEIRUT: James Wolfensohn, former World Bank president, has pulled out of the commencement due to honor him at the American University of Beirut following a petition from students and faculty members over his links to an Israeli think tank and businesses.
An email sent from the office of AUB president John Dorman to staff and students Friday said Wolfensohn, who was set to give the keynote speech at the ceremony awarding him and five other honorary doctorates later this month, had decided not to attend “out of concern that his presence … would distract from the celebratory nature of the event.”
The email gave no indication whether Wolfensohn would still be receiving an honorary degree.
According to his office, Dorman is out of town, and the office of acting president Ahmed Dallal said it had no comment to add to the email statement at this time.
The petition began circulating Monday in protest at the university’s decision to grant Wolfensohn an honorary degree. By Thursday it had garnered the signatures of 95 faculty members. Its organizers said hundreds of students had also signed the petition.
The petition said the decision to grant Wolfensohn an honorary degree “symbolically undermines AUB’s legacy in the struggle for social justice and its historical connection to Beirut, to Palestine and beyond,” citing his links with Better Place, a company that it says “intends to build infrastructure to serve Israeli settlers in the West Bank,” and his membership on the International Advisory Council of Israeli think tank The Israel Democracy Institute.
Charles Harb, an assistant professor of social psychology at AUB, told The Daily Star he signed the petition because of “the role of the World Bank and its [negative] influence on certain economies of the world, and the position of Wolfensohn with respect to Israel.” Harb said the fact Wolfensohn will not attend the commencement is “a first step,” but said “we still have the issue of the honorary doctorate.”
Harb added that aside from the political issues involved, the controversy over Wolfensohn is about “internal AUB affairs.”
He said that despite reports that AUB faculty are part of the selection process for honorary doctorate recipients, “we [the faculty] don’t hear about this, all we hear is a statement from the administration [announcing the nominees].”
“University bodies, for example the University Senate, are [also] not consulted on these matters,” Harb said.
Despite the widespread support for the petition, one AUB professor, who declined to be named, dismissed it as an “illusion of victory” for the Palestinian cause, given what he termed the “moderate” position on Israel often espoused by Wolfensohn, who served as Quartet envoy to Gaza between 2005 and 2006, and who opposed the United States and Israeli decision to block economic aid to Gaza after Hamas’ 2006 election victory.
“We cannot afford to have this kind of high moral ground of not talking to anybody who has some kind of sympathy with Israel,” the professor said. “That’s not beneficial to the Palestinian people.”
The professor added that fear of being labeled anti-Israeli made it difficult to defend figures such as Wolfensohn. “This kind of case is easy to win [on campus],” he said.
“The tendency is to go with views in favor of boycotting people like Wolfensohn,” he said.
“It’s hard to talk … because it has repercussions, you don’t want to be accused of being pro-Israeli.”
AUB said it would be releasing a detailed official statement on the issue at a later point.
The commencement speech will now be given by Dorman, according to the email sent from his office.
Wolfensohn himself was not available for comment.