Mary Lou Smith thought the timing was just right. Less than a week after terrorist attacks hit New York City and Washington, D.C., Smith was hosting a series of talks featuring three women peace activists from Jerusalem--a Christian, a Muslim and a Jew.
The three articulate women, all of whom have worked diligently to advance peaceful coexistence between Palestinians and Jews in the Middle East, had been scheduled for several venues throughout the Triangle for panel discussions titled, "Three Faiths, One Shared City."
In light of the terrorist attacks, Smith felt earnest discussions about peace would offer people an excellent opportunity to channel some of their grief and anger. Response was, in general, favorable.
But just before the women were to arrive for the Sept. 17-19 events, Smith, who works with a group called Partners for Peace, learned that groups of Jews in Raleigh, Chapel Hill and Durham were expressing opposition to the program being scheduled during Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, which is one of the highest of Jewish holy days. Moreover, site hosts, nervous in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks, were expressing concerns for the safety of the women.
All of a sudden, a program committed to peace was producing a war of words. Organizers at three locations where the women had been scheduled to speak--one each in Durham, Raleigh and Chapel Hill--chose to cancel. In Durham and Chapel Hill, alternative sites were found at the last minute.
But at N.C. State, Smith said she was hit by a triple whammy. In addition to a Sept. 18 afternoon panel in the student center, the three women were slated to speak to a gender studies class and on a radio show. All three events, on the first day of Rosh Hashanah, were canceled by order of Chancellor Mary Anne Fox, in part because of a passionate protest letter sent out by N.C. State faculty member Barbara J. Risman, who is Jewish.
"Mary Anne Fox intervened after I personally asked her to do so," Risman wrote in a letter explaining herself to her N.C. State colleagues. Risman, who said she was overwhelmed with grief at the insensitivity of the scheduling of the event on Rosh Hashanah, said she consulted with other friends and colleagues before asking Fox to intervene.
"Everyone I spoke to in this regard urged me to make my feelings known, and supported them," Risman wrote. "The political reality is that if this event had happened, and it was perceived to be disrespectful by some significant number of Jews in our community, it would be NCSU perceived in a negative light, and Mary Anne Fox, as its leader, that would be held responsible. Once requested to intervene, she had no choice but to make an independent decision on the issue.
"This is not the first time I have brought issues of religious insensitivity to Chancellor Fox, and probably not the last. She has always been very sensitive and responsive to them--for this we should all be grateful, even if there is disagreement in this case about her decision."
Fox's sensitivity was seen as censorship by others. Palestinian-American Sami Halaby, a vocal critic of Israel, tried to get the university to allow the women to speak, arguing that N.C. State held classes on Rosh Hashanah, so why would it cancel an educational program?
"I'm disgusted with it; I think it's outrageous," said Halaby, who lives in Raleigh.
Smith said holding the panels after the terrorist attacks was an act of courage."My point to them was, 'That's all the more reason why we need the program.' But that's not where they were coming from. They were coming from a point of fear."