Honors for Firing Sami Al-Arian
By John Berlau
Insight | January 23, 2004
The Florida Holocaust Museum has bestowed its highest honor for courage upon the president of the University of South Florida (USF) who fired Sami Al-Arian, an alleged ringleader in the financing of international terrorism. USF President Judy Genshaft's move to dismiss Al-Arian, who taught computer science at the school, began in late 2001 but was opposed by the faculty union and still is being criticized by radical Islamic groups. Al-Arian's arrest and indictment in 2003 is seen by some as a vindication of Genshaft's action.
The museum is honoring Genshaft because her courage in the Al-Arian incident inspired and prodded others to action, including the federal government, museum Vice Chairman John Loftus tells Insight. "She fired him and took the heat," says Loftus, a former Justice Department prosecutor who once held some of the highest security clearances in the world. "What Judy Genshaft did was to make a tough, gutsy call that prodded the national conscience, particularly the federal government, that they had to do something."
Militant groups such as the Council on American Islamic Relations have attacked Genshaft, and there was a small group of protesters outside the Tampa hotel where she received the award on the evening of Jan. 17. But the ceremony, which Insight attended, went smoothly. Vice President Dick Cheney sent a congratulatory note to Genshaft and the other award recipients, and the ceremony was emceed by Academy Award-winning actor Jon Voight, star of such films as Midnight Cowboy and Deliverance.
In an interview with Insight, Voight praised Genshaft for deft handling of the Al-Arian matter. "I'm very grateful for people who stand up and do what is necessary to protect our nation in these times," he said. Located in St. Petersburg, the Florida Holocaust Museum is the third-largest state holocaust museum in the country. It is home to acclaimed art, traveling exhibitions and a large library that lends material to classrooms. Its "To Life" award is a bonded bronze sculpture designed by Holocaust survivor Alfred Tibor.
Al-Arian's name was not mentioned in Genshaft's speech nor at the dinner. Instead, she was praised in simple terms for standing up for what was right. When asked by Insight about specifics of the Al-Arian case, she politely declined comment. Said one audience member, "She doesn't want to give Al-Arian anything with which to impeach her" likely testimony at his trial.
Indeed, Genshaft has handled the situation very carefully. Initial comments from the school's board in late 2001 that Al-Arian's presence was "disruptive" and hurting fund raising caused confusion and led even some conservatives to defend Al-Arian on the principle of academic freedom.
But Genshaft soon would make clear that the issue was not the inflammatory comments Al-Arian had made - such as his cry of "Death to Israel" at a rally - but that he was using his position at the university to help raise funds for terrorists. In 2002, USF filed suit asserting its right to fire Al-Arian and alleging that he had maintained ties to terrorist groups for 14 years. In announcing the lawsuit, Genshaft said, "After all I have seen and heard, I believe Dr. Al-Arian has abused his position at the university as a shield to cover improper activities." In February 2003, Al-Arian was arrested on charges that he was laundering money to the officially cited terrorist group Palestinian Islamic Jihad through a charity he had been running. A few days later the USF board made final its decision to fire him. The distinction made by Genshaft between advocacy of terrorism and alleged funding of it is crucial, experts say. "How can you have academic freedom to blow up school buses?" Loftus asks.
Genshaft's action was made even more difficult because of the fact that she is Jewish, friends and associates say. "The whole Al-Arian thing was probably a little harder because she was Jewish," said Debbie Sembler, a member of the USF board who, along with her husband, also was a recipient of the "To Life" award for philanthropic activities. A 2002 story in the St. Petersburg Times brought out the fact that Genshaft sat on the board of a family foundation that gave money to "Jewish causes" and bought Israeli development bonds. "They published that as if it were some sort of heinous admission of some Jewish conspiracy," says Loftus, who is Catholic.
But Genshaft shrugged off these slights and impressed many with both her courage and her fairness, Loftus and others emphasize. Noting that Al-Arian currently is awaiting trial without bail, Loftus adds, "The bottom line is that Sami Al-Arian is sitting in prison, and Judy Genshaft is beloved and respected" by Jews and non-Jews.