November 18, 2005

Backspace: Lance Benner '87

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Backspace appears biweekly in commemoration of The Sun’s 125th Anniversary. Honoring not only the history of The Cornell Daily Sun but also the role it played in major campus events throughout the years, each column features a different writer chronicling a different era of Cornell’s lively past. Lance Benner ’87 is an astronomer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, CA, where he specializes in radar imaging of near-Earth asteroids. He was a Sun photographer and photography editor. -MK

I approached working at The Sun from a different perspective than many of the other writers, editors and photographers. Although I had been interested in journalism and photography since elementary school, I was a physics major planning to become an astronomer, not a journalist. My primary reason for joining The Sun was to do photography, which is still one of my biggest passions.

Because photographers in the mid-1980s had to cover stories, develop film and print pictures, I was often at the office until well after midnight. Consequently, the most pronounced effect that The Sun played in my career was the struggle to maintain grades good enough for admission into graduate school. Had I not spent so much time at The Sun, my grades probably would have been better and I may have gotten into more prestigious graduate schools. However, I ended up in one of the most exciting fields in planetary science, so things have worked out very well and all the late nights I spent in the darkroom instead of doing physics problem sets didn’t cause lasting damage. I photographed protests, rallies, speeches by prominent visitors, all of the major sports, interviews, concerts, student events and campus candids.

One event, however, stands out as particularly noteworthy because it nearly resulted in a riot.

In November of 1986, Jewish Defense League founder and former Knesset member Rabbi Meir Kahane spoke in Ives Hall at the invitation of the student group Push for Campus Awareness. Kahane was the leader of the militant Kach Party, which advocated the removal of all Arabs from Israel. His appearance at Cornell was one of the most controversial events of the year.

About 200 people attended, most of whom were opposed to Kahane. The speech quickly descended into a shouting match between Kahane, several groups of student protesters, and a few supporters. Kahane yelled at the audience and called Arabs “pigs.” He denounced protesters as “you sicknesses.”

The behavior of some students was also appalling: many screamed obscenities at him, and one held a poster showing a gallows with a caption that stated “the only platform a fascist deserves.”

Dean of Students David Drinkwater warned the audience that students who heckled Kahane were in violation of the campus code and would be pursued under the campus judicial system.

The shouting got so ugly that several fights broke out between protesters and Kahane’s small number of vocal supporters. Ultimately Kahane stopped his speech and offered to take questions, but only from people who had not been criticizing him. Dean Drinkwater announced that everyone should be allowed to ask questions, but after Kahane refused to take a question from a student in Arab clothing, Drinkwater told him he would have to stop speaking and leave. Kahane was then escorted out of the room by several Public Safety officers.

A Public Safety officer videotaped the speech and the University later attempted to identify students to charge with violations of the campus code. The University asked The Sun to provide copies of my photos to help identify the protesters, but we refused to provide them.

This was a shocking example of mob behavior. Having been brought up in a Protestant family in central Maine, I had never heard of Meir Kahane, the Jewish Defense League, or the Kach Party, and I had no idea what this assignment might mean. I photographed the speech from the perimeter of the room in case tension in the room boiled over and I had to get out quickly. It was by far the most volatile event I covered for The Sun and the only one where I was concerned for my own safety.

The University found other means to identify students involved and charged a number of hecklers with violations of the campus code. Four years later, Kahane was assassinated in New York City.

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