Free Speech, Pamela Geller and the Loomis Chaffee School

Loomis Chaffee recently found itself in the middle of a fierce global debate concerning free speech, religious expression, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Though it seems a far cry from the peaceful calm of spring on the Island, a controversy sparked by a speaker series on campus put Loomis in the epicenter of some of the thorniest issues of intense international interest.

It all started when Naomi Paiss, the vice president for public affairs of the New Israel Fund, agreed to visit the Center for Global Studies as part of the Bussel Family International Lecture Series. The New Israel Fund is a U.S.-based organization that strives to “advance democracy and equality for all Israelis.” In the past, Paiss been critical of Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territories and supports a two-state solution to the ongoing conflict. Paiss’s attendance-optional lecture was titled “After the Israeli Election: Prospects for Progressive Change,” and was scheduled take place on April 29th.

Just a few days before Paiss’s talk, Pamela Geller, a right-wing blogger and president of the American Freedom Defense Initiative (AFDI), posted a blog titled “Loomis Chaffee School to Host Anti-Israel Event.” Geller called the New Israel Fund “a radical anti-Israel organization – that should not be allowed at the Loomis Chaffee School” and posted Loomis’s main phone number, alongside a list of Board of Trustees, urging readers to call to petition for the cancellation of this event. She described Loomis as “quintessentially preppy” and, in all caps, “WASPY.”

According to the AFDI, Geller’s organization’s mission is to act “against the treason being committed by national, state, and local government officials, the mainstream media, and others in their capitulation to the global jihad and Islamic supremacism.” Geller is also the author of “Freedom or Submission: On the Dangers of Islamic Extremism and American Complacency” and “Stop the Islamization of America: A Practical Guide to the Resistance.”

Geller’s blog regarding Loomis started a social-media firestorm, garnering more than 100 comments on her website, both supportive and critical of her view. One of Geller’s primary accusations was that the New Israel Fund supports the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) Movement, which intends to destabilize Israel’s economy – a movement that Geller describes as “standing against Israel.” Paiss has gone on record numerous times reiterating the same point: “We don’t fund organizations with global BDS programs.”

In a school-wide email following Geller’s blog, Alec McCandless, Director of the Center for Global Studies, which sponsors the lecture series, defended the school’s position on welcoming Paiss. McCandless acknowledged the “viewpoints of the organization that she represents, are subjects of strong, heated debate within a number of communities deeply interested in the future and the policies of Israel.”

Rather than cancel the talk, McCandless argued that “our invitation to Ms. Paiss is appropriate,” stating, “one of the goals of a Loomis Chaffee education is to introduce students to the important issues of our day. By their very nature, these issues are complicated, and parties concerned with them can and often do hold multiple, nuanced, and contradictory perspectives.” The note also said the school would hold a follow-up event to Paiss’s.

The debate about free speech and Middle Eastern politics might have ended there if not for Geller’s more recent celebrity. On May 3 the AFDI hosted a “Draw Muhammed” event in Garland, Texas that ended in violence. What the group called a ‘Freedom of Speech’ assembly included a $10,000 contest to see who could draw the best Muhammad, a prophet whose depiction is considered sacrilegious to Muslims. Two gunmen, who were both killed on the scene, stormed the event, resulting in the injury of one person.

The incident recalled the storming of the offices of French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in January. The publication was attacked for depicting Muhammed, resulting in the deaths of 11 Hebdo cartoonists and writers. The tragedy spurred a global debate over free speech.

After the Texas shooting, Geller said, “Clearly what happened is indicative of how very vital this conference was needed. The idea that there is a violent war – a violent assault on freedom of speech, clearly was brought home last night.”

Next week, Rabbi Craig Marantz, from Congregation Kol Haverim, and Jewish History Professor Dr. Avinoam Patt of the University of Hartford will be on campus as an addition to the Bussel Speaker Series.