Daniel Kurtzer: Letter to the Editor

Photo courtesy of American Friends of the Hebrew University

Editor’s note: The March 28th article in question has been amended and a correction has been issued.

To the editor,

I just saw your article on my talk at Swarthmore – “Former Israeli Ambassador Kurtzer Faces Pushback During Lecture”– published on March 28, 2024. I would like to add a few corrections to your reporting. 

First, your headline was not correct: I was the American Ambassador to Israel, from 2001 until 2005, not the “Israeli ambassador.” I represented American foreign policy and national security interests. Before that I served as the American Ambassador to Egypt (1997-2001) and in a succession of senior positions in the State Department. 

Swarthmore students may have been misled, as was your reporter, when a dishonest and malicious flier distributed at my lecture listed Israeli military actions against Palestinians during my time as U.S. ambassador, implying I was somehow responsible for those actions.

Before my lecture, when the school administration learned via Instagram that a protest was planned, I asked the administration to post a response on Instagram that I would be willing to have a discussion with the protestors after my presentation. There were no takers then, and none when I went into a room where about 40 protestors were gathering and asked if they wanted to talk.

The protesting students held the flyers in front of their faces throughout my talk, indicating they were uninterested in listening and learning. They came with questions unrelated to what I presented, all of which were filled with factual inaccuracies and unfounded charges in general,  directed against me in particular. It was clear that they were uninterested in my responses. Also, as opposed to what your article reported, I did not cut off the Q&A “abruptly”; the decision to end the Q&A was taken by the college hosts.

The students brought a professionally-prepared sign accusing me of complicity with genocide, which they held in the front of the room during the Q&A. Having devoted more than thirty years of my professional life to the search for Arab-Israeli peace, I did not deserve this malicious, false, and poisonous accusation. The students showed total disrespect to a guest professor invited to the campus to discuss an important issue.  

My experience at Swarthmore was, thus, quite sad, much different from what I had expected at a serious college. The day after the event, I sent a note to the administration that, I believe, is worth pondering within the entire Swarthmore community:

“Among the many takeaways from yesterday, perhaps what bothers me the most is the sense that those students have stopped thinking critically, have stopped challenging assumptions they hold or have been fed, have been too influenced by what they have read on slanted platforms or from biased teachers, have resorted to the awful practice of vicious ad hominem attacks rather than strong argumentation, and have stopped listening altogether.”

I hope this can become a learning experience for those involved.

Daniel Kurtzer


  1. Don’t you think it’s ad hominem to accuse students of having “stopped thinking critically?” People can conduct themselves in ways that are inconvenient and unpleasant for you, personally, but still be thinking critically. You supply no evidence that the students you encountered were not thinking critically or that they were “too influenced by what they have read on slanted platforms or from biased teachers.” Why make such unsubstantiated claims? That’s, frankly, the type of tactic used by the State Policy Network and it’s ilk, and you contradict yourself when you opine that students must be listening too much to slanted platforms or biased teachers while also claiming students have stopped listening altogether. You should really stick to facts when you’re accusing someone else of ad hominem, not resort to ad hominem yourself.

  2. Ben,

    Sitting in the front of a room with a piece of paper on your face while an invited speaker, who has spent his professional life on these issues, is presenting – somehow that doesn’t seem like it suggests a willingness to engage, to think critically. A sober back and forth would be better, no?

    This brief passage from John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty should be required reading for all Swarthmore students:

    “First, if any opinion is compelled to silence, that opinion may, for aught we can certainly know, be true. To deny this is to assume our own infallibility. Secondly, though the silenced opinion be an error, it may, and very commonly does, contain a portion of truth; and since the general or prevailing opinion on any subject is rarely or never the whole truth, it is only by the collision of adverse opinions that the remainder of the truth has any chance of being supplied. Thirdly, even if the received opinion be not only true, but the whole truth; unless it is suffered to be, and actually is, vigorously and earnestly contested, it will, by most of those who receive it, be held in the manner of a prejudice, with little comprehension or feeling of its rational grounds. And not only this, but, fourthly, the meaning of the doctrine itself will be in danger of being lost, or enfeebled, and deprived of its vital effect on the character and conduct: the dogma becoming a mere formal profession, inefficacious for good, but cumbering the ground, and preventing the growth of any real and heartfelt conviction, from reason or personal experience.”

    Were the students with the papers on their faces willing and able to defend their view – or even articulate it coherently? If they were so certain of the correctness of their views, why not take the time to listen to Daniel Kurtzer, consider and analyze his arguments, and engage in a respectful back and forth?

    That’s what we did at Swarthmore in the late 70s and early 80s. What is going on there now is tragic and disgraceful.

    • You have conflated “willingness to engage” with “think critically.” Free speech includes the freedom to not speak.

      And as for noted East India Company colonial administrator, John Stuart Mill, and his ‘On Liberty,’ I don’t believe Kurtzer has been compelled to silence. The Phoenix published his opinion. He has been published all over academia and in major media outlets such as The Atlantic. If some students don’t want to talk to him, that’s their prerogative.

      I cannot tell you why the students in question did not want to engage in what you might deem “a respectful back and forth.” But I will not leverage my own ignorance of their strategic reasoning to then jump to the conclusion that it must be because they cannot defend their views or that they are uncertain of the correctness of their views, and certainly not because they were not thinking critically. This was the tactic they decided to employ. Maybe you don’t like it and believe a “sober back and forth” would be better, and I do not begrudge you that opinion, but these students evidently disagree, and are autonomous human beings who do not require either of our approval.

      Protest often takes forms that people do not fully comprehend or approve, myself included. That’s why I prefer to just stick to the facts, and conjecturing on motives or attacking the character of students based on things I project onto them would not be in accordance with sticking to the facts.

  3. Ben, they are autonomous human beings. And, autonomously, in my opinion they have made a bad choice. If they are thinking critically, then they ought to have the backbone to display that capability when a speaker comes to campus.

    With respect to John Stuart Mill, are you suggesting he is wrong because he worked for the East India Company? He’s either wrong, right, or somewhere in between. When you attack the person rather than engage with the content, you engage in nothing more than demagoguery.

    • I think protest requires backbone. Protestors do not have to act in a way I approve of for me to respect their critical thinking abilities. Besides, do you know how much harder it is to get into Swarthmore now than it was back in the day? It’s much harder. These students aren’t intellectual lightweights.

      And, interestingly, you have been in here attacking people, not the content. You have used these protestors’ refusal to provide you any content that you find digestible or understandable to claim they’ve made a bad choice and that they have refused to think critically.

      With respect to John Stuart Mill and the East India Company, I have a hard time taking someone’s free speech assertions seriously who was simultaneously participating in the perpetration of genocide, war, and colonialism. How many people died at the hands of the East India Company in the period he was a part of it, in the very region where he was an administrator? How many people died in the First Opium War, also perpetrated by the East India Company at the same time he served them as a colonial administrator? Where was the opium being grown that was shipped to China and resulted in the First Opium War? This is like citing Pablo Escobar’s opinion on free speech.

      One thing that is certain about free speech is that dead people can’t speak at all. They have truly been compelled to silence. And that’s one of the major issues at hand right now, and has been when it comes to free speech discourse in the US at least since the Ferguson protests. Michael Brown’s free speech was abruptly ended by police violence. Who else can you think of that has had their free speech trampled by death of late?

      Why is the finality of death vis-à-vis free speech so often overlooked and abstracted? Probably because of centuries of dehumanization, promulgated by racists like John Stuart Mill, who in fact did opine that Indians were inferior to British. Was he just a product of his time, or was he a producer of his time, an active participant in a racist imperialist project whose reverberations are still felt today, and in fact underpin the very protest we, two grown-ass adults, are discussing deep in a college newspaper’s comment section?

      And if the opinions loudly put forth by this project of which Mill was a participant led to death and disenfranchisement on a massive scale, and if Mill’s statements were wielded to justify the circulation of those opinions, was he really right in what he said? This remains quite the conundrum for the academy, and a major component of why we see protest today, and unfortunately, nothing you or I have to say on the matter is likely to advance this discourse.

      Anyway, if we’re going to sit here and play fantasy curriculum committee, maybe Edward Said’s “Orientalism” should be required reading at Swarthmore if we’re going to say John Stuart Mill’s “On Liberty” should be.

  4. Ben,

    I am definitely objecting to some of the behavior of which I am aware that has happened on the campus, and therefore believe that the people responsible for that behavior made grave errors of judgment. I think what But protest as such is not wrong, of course it isn’t. When I was 8 years old in 1968, I went to many protests against the Vietnam War with my mother, who was very active in that anti-war movement. I think those protests were for the most part appropriate and necessary (but not all of them, for sure).

    But protest that at times includes anti-semitism – which, by the way is the oldest example of racism, including state-sponsored racism, in the history of human civilization – is in my opinion wrong. Believing that someone is wrong about what they did, and saying so out loud, doesn’t usually rise to the level of constituting an “attack.”

    John Stuart Mill was by all accounts a brilliant thinker and writer. He did things in the 19th century which, when viewed through the lens of many of our current moral conventions, were clearly wrong. If we are supposed to ignore the ideas of anyone who lived during a time when things happened that we now think of as anathema, then we must ignore almost every important idea that anyone ever articulated. Plato, Aristotle, St. Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, Kant, Mill, Kierkegaard (all of whom I read at Swarthmore) – were all wrong because they all lived during times when things we now view as obviously wrong were accepted as normal? Is that what you think?

    Ideas are ideas. You admit that you think Mill had to be wrong because of all of his 19th century sins. That’s just not the case. It makes no sense.

    I want to hear the ideas, on both, or all sides, of the debate, any debate. I don’t know the Said book, but if it is relevant, I’d be happy to read it. John Stuart Mill would suggest I do so, because otherwise I wouldn’t have any way of knowing whether it made any sense to me. I’m all for reading, and reading everything. I think everyone should read On Liberty. It counsels that we think about everything, all ideas, and continually do so. Otherwise over time ideas become dogma, and some of those will be bad ideas that yield bad consequences.

    So far, I have heard or seen very little about the ideas, the reasons for the ferocity of the current protests. Mostly, it seems a highly stylized and naively conceived notion of the oppressor (Israel) and the oppressed (the Palestinians). That notion trivializes and grossly oversimplifies a conflict that has roots that are thousands of years old. A full-blown pacifist would likely say that the war is bad as such, and that would be enough for them to condemn it with non-violent ferocity. For most others, it would depend on the concept of “just war” that you accept. Most people I knew in college, when we studied this question, found that there were contexts when wars could be considered just. And people die in all wars.

    Ben, the fact is that you don’t know everything you would need to know to make any kind of credible judgment about what is going on now. Arguably, neither do I. We should talk, we should all talk. I’m never going to a lecture or a presentation so that I can put a piece of paper on my face, the message of which is that I already know that the presenter is wrong.

    I strongly object to Israeli policy with respect to the conduct of the war. I also think that trying to completely destroy Hamas was a fool’s errand, even if it could be achieved. Iran and their friends (North Korea, Russia, and some others) would (will) quickly recreate new organizations similarly ok with terrorism and useful to their political ends (which include the destruction of Israel). I think Israel needed to retaliate in some way, but I can’t say I know what that should have been.


    PS. You guys aren’t smarter than we were. I guarantee I could put together a debate team that would clean your clock!

    • I’m also an alum, so I don’t know why you “you guys”ed me right there. I’m saying it’s harder to get into Swarthmore now than it was in the past. I’m saying this as an alum who attended Swarthmore in the past.

      I explained exactly why I think Mill’s opinions are wrong. I did not say he’s wrong because of his 19th century sins. More that the wrongness of his ideas led to his sins.

      Again, he was a producer of his time, not just a product. He participated in shaping the 19th century, which included perpetrating mass death and disenfranchisement. He was not simply overlooking others’ sins or buying into propaganda that justified them. He was committing the genocidal acts and penning the propaganda. Thus we cannot absolve him because we have the benefit of a modern lens and he did not. Plenty of people in his era knew that it was wrong to engage in cruel and racist colonialism and war. In particular, people in India who had their territory stripped from them by the East India Company and were forced to produce opium, and people in China whose families were destroyed through opium addiction and the subsequent opium wars.

      This is the problem with uncritical analyses that lean into “the marketplace of ideas;” every bad act started as a bad idea, and it’s never the John Stuart Mills of the world who shoulder the consequences of those ideas. Utilitarianism is content to abstract that away behind cowardly notions of a “greater good” (whose fruits, conveniently, are enjoyed by Mill and his peers), but I am not. Millions of anonymous Indian and Chinese people died at the hands of the company he worked for, whose actions he wielded his opinions to defend. We will never hear their counterargument to his ideas because they toiled and died. They resisted and died. They bore the consequences of his ill-formed ideology; he did not.

      Or, to bring it back to the 21st century, it’s almost never the white people who say, “I support Kaepernick, but he should not protest like that. Football is no place for politics. He should stand for the National Anthem. He should respect the troops. He’s being anti-American,” that face the consequences of racist police violence. They bear only the inconvenience of being asked to think about their privilege and place in the world. Rather than do that, many would rather circumvent thinking about the reasons behind a protest, and instead criticize the methods employed by protestors.

      And that’s before we even get to Flat Earth and demand a vigorous debate about whether it should be included in astronomy curriculum. After all, we wouldn’t want Round Earth to become dogma, would we?

      You brought up antisemitism, which I think is poignant in the context of responses to this opinion piece. Kurtzer claimed the protestors had a “professionally-prepared sign.” That exact accusation has served as an antisemitic dog whistle by white nationalists to disparage Black Lives Matter and antifascist protestors for years, by way of linking them to George Soros, whom they of course accuse of funding protestors, “evidenced” by such things as their professional signs.

      Was it really a professionally-prepared sign? What does that even mean, and what is he trying to communicate with such a claim?

      As for your time at Swarthmore, that’s an interesting list of white guys from the liberal canon you list as having read. I’m sure they provided a diverse array of ideas to ponder. Anyway, regarding “Orientalism,” Said writes with erudition about antisemitism and its continued development alongside Islamophobia under the intellectual projects that bolstered British and French imperialism from the 1700s to the 1900s. Projects of which Mill was an active participant (as was Rousseau). Projects whose effects are still felt.

      And getting back to the protestors and why they’re protesting, it’s because, in their words, “WE DEMAND that Swarthmore College DIVESTS all of its finances, including its endowment, from companies that profit off of the Israeli apartheid regime. This requires that the college first practices full transparency with its finances.” Amnesty International (among others) has labeled Israel an apartheid state. Nelson Mandela, a guy who knew a lot about apartheid, said the same years ago. Whether you agree with this assessment or not (some do, some don’t, and the arguments are endless), it’s not an aberrant opinion that emerged from pure naivete.

      This appears to be the crux of the issue for the students, that they do not want Swarthmore College to finance apartheid.

  5. Ben,
    A fundamental problem here is that the protestors are operating based on grossly flawed information that appears to be promoted by a combination of age-old antisemitism combined with extremist propaganda. The push to delegitimize Israel and protest in favor of a true genocide of Jews in the Middle East (and beyond) is both astounding and horrific.

    There currently are widespread humans rights abuses being perpetrated in Sudan, Russia, China, Iran, Syria, and myriad other countries that are not being held to account by protesters. Why are the protesters not incensed by the news this week that Mobina Rostami, an Iranian national volleyball player, is being held in an Iranian prison because she made a public declaration of support for Israel and against Iran? https://www.newageislam.com/islam-women-feminism/iranian-volleyball-mobina-israel/d/132172

    One of the central pillars of antisemitism is the double standard applied to Israel, that is not applied to any other country on Earth. The protestors would be well served if they would engage in some deep thought and introspection before continuing to focus their vitriol on Israel and the vast majority of Jews who support the continued existence of Israel, their ancestral homeland.

    • Fair point. It’s not like students at Columbia University protested Ahmadenijad’s visit. Oh wait, they did. Because he’s a Holocaust denier. Do you know who else opposes Holocaust denial? JVP, who supports the current protest at Swarthmore.

      But even still, the US is for sure supplying Iran with arms and hasn’t air struck Iran or issued sanctions against Iran, right? Oh wait. The US has air struck Iran and continues to issue new sanctions against Iran.

      Good point about Russia. Arguably our most famous international ally, whom the US has been supplying with missiles in their invasion of Ukraine, right? We didn’t just pass a $61 billion aid package for Ukraine, did we?

      As for China and Syria, you’re correct. Many people in the US simply do not care about the Uyghur genocide. Many people in the US do not want to accept Syrian refugees. The US by no means has cozy relations with either of these countries, and Sinophobia is at an all-time high in the US right now, but yeah, the victims of Syrian and Chinese state violence don’t get a lot of love here, do they? I wonder why. Any guesses about that?

      You understand that the protestors are protesting the administration of Swarthmore College, right? Do you think they should demand that Swarthmore College, I don’t know, go out and bomb Iran or something? Are you aware one of Iran’s largest exports is natural gas and natural gas derivatives, and that protestors at Swarthmore have been calling for divestment from fossil fuels for almost a decade at this point? Do you support that?

      Or perhaps you think the protestors should broaden their scope and protest until the US government just outright declares war on Russia, China, Iran, and Syria? If not that, then what exactly do you want these protestors to get fired up about with regard to countries that are already on the US foreign policy shit list?

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