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Blogger Shayna Zamkanei comments in the Presidential Conference (Times of Israel, June 22, 2012)

“Gabi Ashkenazi, former chief of Staff of the IDF — military; Dennis Ross, former US Ambassador to Israel — Israeli-American relations; Leon Wieseltier, editor of the New Republic — Diasporic Jewry; And Ayaan Hirsi Ali — who is she, again? (…) So the question remains: why was somebody who is so clearly anti-religious offered a prominent position at the Jewish State’s Presidential Conference?”

Zamkanei asks a question I’ve heard several times by now. Including at the Presidential Conference last week (where I attended one of the sessions with Ayaan Hirsi-Ali) and here are my two cents: First of all, it’s ethnocentrism at its best asking “who is she, again?” simply because Hirsi-Ali is not a house hold name in the States. She is in Europe, and because many of the American attendees didn’t know her hardly disqualifies her. She is rather well-known in Europe (the blogger neglects to mention that she served as an MP in the Netherlands in a time of turmoil covered widely in the European press). And yes, she is associated with anti-Islamist views. So I figured: better go hear her speak. Which proved to be incredibly interesting. Something many of this year’s panels sadly were not. Secondly, what she said in the panel I attended – when asked directly to comment on Judaism – was the following: “I don’t know as much about Judaism as I do about Islamic fundamentalism. And I don’t feel comfortable giving analysis of subjects I have not studied”. BAM! That right there made me like her. A lot. Wishing other panel members had the same sense of self-awareness. But that also explains why the blogger’s criticism is inconsequential. Hirsi-Ali wasn’t invited to speak about Judaism, neither was the President of Cote d’Ivoire (I also enjoyed his clear although depressing analysis of African economy). The Presidential Conference was not only about the Jews, which is a good thing. Finally, the blogger — and others — say that if one substitutes “Islamist” with “Jew” in Hirsi-Ali’s statements, it would be antisemitic. Such claims ignore the central point: She is a Somali born woman, talking about her own culture and analysing how it systematically exploits women. She can do that in those terms precisely *because* she is a Somali woman. There is no shortage of Israelis or Jews who speak identically harshly about Judaism or the state of Israel. And some of them even appear on panels at the Presidential Conference… Welcome to the open debate. It cannot be PC all the time. But personally, I don’t mind as long as people voice opinions based on their field of knowledge and welcome criticism.

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