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Sunday, April 14
The Indiana Daily Student

campus student life

IU Hillel hosts Hollywood producer Betsy Borns in place of postponed speaker


IU Hillel hosted an event featuring former “Friends” writer and producer Betsy Borns at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday in place of the postponed speaker event with Mosab Hassan Yousef. Borns, executive president of IU’s Borns Jewish Studies program advisory board, spoke on Yousef’s cancellation and Jewish presence in Hollywood.  

Borns’ talk was originally planned for 12:30 p.m. Tuesday but was rescheduled following the Yousef event’s cancellation. Yousef was scheduled to speak at 7:30 p.m. in Wilkinson Hall about Hamas and Israel, but IU asked Hillel to postpone due to credible security concerns. 

The controversy surrounding Yousef revolves around his stance on the war in Gaza. A Palestinian defector to Israel and the son of one of the founders of Hamas, he has campaigned against a ceasefire in Gaza and made derogatory comments about Islam and its followers. 

On Dec. 14, 2023, Yousef posted a video to X in which he said “If I have to choose between 1.6 billion Muslims and a cow, I will choose the cow.”  

Yousef’s invitation to speak brought criticism from student groups such as the Palestine Solidarity Committee and the Middle Eastern Student Association, which advertised a community-led rally against Islamophobia as a counterprotest measure Tuesday.  

IU asked the PSC and MESA to postpone the rally so it could go through IU’s official registration process, saying the organizers would be in violation of polices regarding sponsored student organization events if it occurred as planned. The organizations posted statements Tuesday saying they were not affiliated with the rally. 

A crowd of around 40 students and local members of the Jewish community attended Borns’ talk. They expressed frustration with the way Yousef’s event was handled.  

Before Borns spoke, IU’s Vice President of Public Safety Benjamin Hunter and Vice President of Events Doug Booher offered initial comments on the cancellation of Yousef’s talk. Booher expressed disappointment in the pushback against organizing events meant to “challenge and stretch our minds.” 

“I think the learning lesson is to plan better, have a committee, have a structure,” Hunter said in a speech. “We all were thinking ‘OK, this is going to be a small event,’ and it turned into a larger issue and so putting that structure, committees in place — all of that is good moving forward.” 

The postponement of Yousef’s event comes following a series of cancellations of events surrounding discussion of the war in Gaza. In November, the Palestine Solidarity Committee was denied its room reservation due to issues with the way the event was represented on a signup form. Faculty adviser Abdulkader Sinno was suspended after they hosted the event regardless of IU ruling. 

Then, in December, IU canceled Palestinian painter Samia Halaby’s art exhibition scheduled to take place in the Eskenazi Museum of Art, again citing security concerns. This cancellation came despite three years of planning from Halaby and the university.  

Both Borns and Rabbi Sue Silberberg, executive director of IU Hillel and Borns’ first cousin, said they were caught off-guard by the widespread criticism from pro-Palestine groups around IU over Yousef.  

“Never, ever, ever in a million years occurred to me that was controversial,” Silberberg said about the postponed speaker event in a speech. “I really, honestly didn’t think it was controversial because he’s been to some other campuses and all he’s doing is speaking about terrorism and why terrorism is bad and his experience as the son of a terrorist. So, when it became a controversy, I was frankly shocked, and I know Betsy was very shocked because we talked about it.” 

This was not the first time Yousef had been criticized for his appearances at academic institutions. On March 21, when Yousef spoke at Columbia University, the New York chapter of Muslim civil rights and advocacy organization Council on American-Islamic Relations condemned Yousef as Islamophobic. They cited two other X posts made by Yousef, one of which stating he has “zero respect for any individual who identifies as a Muslim” and the other saying that he would place Islam on the “bottom rung” when judged against other religions. 

Paul Sterbcow, father of Hillel’s student president Leah Sterbcow, agreed there was a real threat against student safety, but he asserted that claims against Yousef were untrue.  

“All we wanted to do was allow him to tell his story and allow you to hear his story and allow truth and the importance of the rule of law as opposed to lawlessness to come forward,” he said in a speech. “Know that we understand that it’s very important that the Jewish students at IU feel safe, feel secure, feel a part of a vibrant university, and we’re going to do everything that we can to make sure that we support you going forward.” 

Borns, who was initially scheduled to speak on her experience as a Jewish woman in Hollywood, dedicated much of her talk to the disappointment and frustration she felt over the postponing of Yousef’s event. 

“It’s harder to do comedy after Mosab was canceled and what’s going on,” she said. “There weren’t many stand-up comics working in Japan the day after Hiroshima.” 

While the Hillel event took place, another group expressed their own anger and disappointment about the Yousef event and his Islamophobic comments. Around 100 students, many of them tied to the PSC and MESA, took to Dunn Meadow and marched on the streets of Bloomington in a rally against Islamophobia and an end to the violence in Gaza. 

Borns, commenting on pro-Palestinian protest on campus, said by putting the word “justice” in their name, Students for Justice in Palestine has been able to attract more attention to their cause. She emphasized that both sides are looking for a just resolution, and that supporters of Israel could benefit from adopting a more universal cause.  

"Who doesn’t want justice? I want justice,” she said. “We’re not anti-justice. We are for justice. That’s another thing, and that’s why messaging is important.” 

Borns also said that freedom of speech and inquiry on campus is important, no matter which side is lobbying for it.  

“We’re in America,” she said. “You’re allowed to say what you want, and I believe in that 100%.” 

Despite the postponement, Silberberg was excited about upcoming Hillel events and the prospective rescheduling of Yousef’s talk. Hillel executives and IU officials plan to bring Yousef back to IU this fall.  

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