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The Guardian - US
The Guardian - US
Chris McGreal

Ted fellows resign from organisation after Bill Ackman named as speaker

bill ackman
Bill Ackman was instrumental in forcing out Harvard’s president over antisemitism allegations. Photograph: Mike Blake/Reuters

The Ted organisation has been hit with resignations and criticisms after naming the controversial activist billionaire Bill Ackman, who was instrumental in forcing out Harvard’s president over antisemitism allegations, among its main speakers at this year’s conference.

Four Ted fellows, led by the astronomer Lucianne Walkowicz and the filmmaker Saeed Taji Farouky, resigned from the group on Wednesday, accusing it of taking an anti-Palestinian stand and aligning itself “with enablers and supporters of genocide” in Gaza.

“2024 main stage speaker Bill Ackman has defended Israel’s genocide and ethnic cleansing of the Palestinian people and has cynically weaponised antisemitism in his programme to purge American universities of Pro-Palestinian freedom of speech,” the pair wrote to Chris Anderson, who leads Ted, and Lily James Olds, director of the fellows programme.

“We’ve become increasingly concerned about the fundamental values and moral compass of the organisation over the years, but with this year’s speaker selection, it is clear Ted has crossed a red line.”

The conference will be held in Vancouver, Canada, in April, under the banner The Brave and the Brilliant”. The theme of Ackman’s talk has not been revealed but his selection was announced last week after he was accused of using his money and influence to help force Claudine Gay’s resignation as Harvard’s president following her disastrous appearance before Congress in December when she was questioned about on-campus antisemitism during the Israel-Gaza war.

Ackman has taken stridently pro-Israel positions, including justifying the scale of the attacks on Gaza in which more than 25,000 Palestinians have been killed, mostly civilians, and the forced removal of about 2 million Palestinians from their homes. He has described criticism of Israel as antisemitism and called for the blacklisting from employment of American students who signed petitions denouncing the offensive in Gaza in the wake of the 7 October Hamas attack on Israel.

Farouky and Walkowicz’s resignation letter noted that other speakers announced by Ted include the journalist Bari Weiss, who they describe as having “a long, sordid, and well-documented history of anti-Palestinian speech”, but that there are no Palestinians in the line-up.

“We refuse for our work and identities to be exploited to promote the Ted brand while the organisation and its speakers generate income and advance their careers through dehumanising Palestinians and justifying their genocide,” the pair said.

After the resignation letter was published, two other fellows – the entrepreneur Ayah Bdeir and cosmologist Renée Hlozek – also quit. Nearly 30 others added their names “in solidarity” without leaving Ted.

Ackman responded to the resignations with a statement to the Guardian.

“I stand unapologetically with Israel and against antisemitism and terrorism, while strongly supporting the Palestinian people. Attempts to cancel speech and eliminate the free and respectful exchange of ideas among people with differing views are driving much of the divisiveness that plagues our nation. Truth, wisdom and ultimately peace are the result of the free exchange of ideas and debate, precisely what Ted is all about. It is sad that this is not more widely understood,” he said.

Farouky told the Guardian he did not regard the issue as one of freedom of speech.

“Obviously, there’s a red line and and I think Ted are applying the same values that you would to, say, a debate about space exploration to a 21st-century live stream of someone who defends genocide, and it’s just failed miserably,” he said.

“A generous reading is that the organisation is just terrible at making moral judgments about who they invite. I think they want to have slightly edgy or controversial speakers in the belief that they can do an interview on stage that might challenge them. But they’re just not equipped for that.”

Farouky gave the example of the billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk’s appearance at Ted in 2022, which he described as “a puff piece”.

“The whole setup of the conferences just has no capacity to really interrogate ideas. It’s a celebration of the individual. It’s not a space for free debate at all,” he said.

Ted has been approached for comment.

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