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U.N. speech by Temple prof draws fire from university’s board chair

Marc Lamont Hill, a Temple professor, delivered a speech that has stirred a furor. He was highly critical of Israel for its treatment of Palestinian and called for "a free Palestine from the river to the sea."

Dr.Marc Lamont Hill, shown at a rally, wsa fired by CNN over a speech.
Dr.Marc Lamont Hill, shown at a rally, wsa fired by CNN over a speech.Read moreJames Blocker / Staff Photographer

The chairman of Temple University's board came out firing Friday against professor Marc Lamont Hill for a speech he made at the United Nations this week criticizing Israel and its treatment of Palestinians.

Patrick O'Connor called Hill's remarks, which cost him his position as a commentator on CNN,  "lamentable" and "disgusting."

"It should be made clear that no one at Temple is happy with his comments," said O'Connor, a prominent Philadelphia lawyer. "Free speech is one thing. Hate speech is entirely different."

In the speech Wednesday as part of the U.N.'s International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People, Hill, a Philadelphia native who holds an endowed chair in Temple's Klein College of Media and Communications, accused Israel of rampant discrimination against Palestinians.

The furor was triggered primarily by one sentence — the last in the lengthy address. In it, Hill endorsed "a free Palestine from the river to the sea," a catchphrase of the Palestinian cause that critics associate with its most militant wings.

Critics said Hill was in effect calling for an end to Israel. After CNN dismissed him on Thursday, Hill called the criticism "absurd" and noted that elsewhere in the speech, he supported Israel's borders, or at least those that existed before it occupied the West Bank and Gaza after the Six-Day War in 1967.

"No part of this is a call to destroy Israel," Hill wrote on Twitter on Thursday.

He added: "I do not support anti-Semitism, killing Jewish people, or any of the other things attributed to my speech. I have spent my life fighting these things."

In the speech, delivered to a panel called the Committee on the Exercise of the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian People, Hill explored numerous ways that he said Palestinians had been mistreated, ranging from their treatment in the courts to restrictions on their ability to travel. He also said violence by Palestinians could be justified as self-defense.

Hill, a 2000 graduate of Temple who holds a doctorate from the University of  Pennsylvania, joined the Temple faculty last year, occupying a chair established with a $2 million grant from a donor, Steve Charles.

Hill declined to comment for this article. In an interview Friday with Inquirer and Daily News columnist Jenice Armstrong, he said he had not been "talking about getting rid of Israel" in the reference to "the river to the sea" line, but rather calling for equal rights for Palestinians throughout the Israeli state.

Nor, he said, was his use of the river-to-sea phrase a "dog whistle" to convey his endorsement of more radical groups in the Mideast.

For his part, O'Connor said that Hill's speech had hurt Temple. It "blackens our name unnecessarily," he said.

"I'm not happy. The board's not happy. The administration's not happy. People wanted to fire him right away," O'Connor said. "We're going to look at what remedies we have."

Temple president Richard M. Englert issued a statement Friday, the university's second since the firing — and one mildly more critical of Hill.

While not as harsh in his remarks as O'Connor, Englert noted that Hill's speech "sparked strong responses from those who were offended by his language" and that the speech's reference to a Palestine  from the "river to the sea" was seen by many as a "perceived threat."

Hill has tenure, making it very difficult for him to be dismissed. Long-established tenure rules exist to protect academic freedom, the right of a professor to say unpopular things.

If Hill worked in private industry, O'Connor said, he and others would have moved to "fire him immediately." O'Connor said he had instructed Temple's legal staff to explore its options in response to Hill's remarks.

Also Friday, lawyer Leonard Barrack, a Temple trustee and major donor to the university, said he, too, was outraged by the speech.

"He called for the destruction of the State of Israel in code words," Barrack said. "I am very upset about it. I think it was anti-Semitic."

Also Friday, the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia called for Temple to officially condemn Hill's remarks, calling them "anti-Israel and anti-Semitic." The group stopped short of urging his dismissal.

Morton A. Klein, president of the Zionist Organization of America, said his group wanted Temple to fire or suspend Hill from his endowed chair. Klein said Hill's words amounted to an endorsement of "violent genocide" of Jews in Israel.

Omar Baddar of the Arab American Institute in Washington said that perhaps Hall could have been clearer in his speech, but that his critics had badly distorted his meaning.

"Honestly, I think Marc Lamont Hill was the victim of a smear campaign," Baddar said.  "His comments were completely misrepresented."

Witold Walczak, Pennsylvania legal director of the ACLU, said his group took no position on the substance of Hill's speech. But Walczak said Temple could not discipline Hill over his remarks.

"His speech seems to be unrelated to his job as a Temple professor," he said. "Since Temple is a public university, the Constitution applies. Under the First Amendment, Temple cannot punish an employee for making off-the-job statements that it might disagree with. It's not complicated."

Even if the words were offensive, he added, "hate speech is not a recognized exception to the First Amendment."

The controversy is reminiscent of two recent furors involving local university professors.

George Ciccariello-Maher, a Drexel University professor of politics and global studies, resigned from the university last year after nearly a year of threats and protests triggered by a Twitter post that read: "All I Want for Christmas is White Genocide."

He said the tweet was a joke, a "satirical jab at a certain paranoid racist fantasy and that white genocide does not exist."

Amy Wax, a professor at Penn Law School, became a similar target for calls for her dismissal after she disparaged the abilities of black students. Penn removed her as a teacher of a mandatory first-year law class, but she remains a tenured professor.