A New Awareness and Warning

Pro-Palestinian protesters this past Friday, January 22, 2016, forced the cancellation of a reception and in Chicago at the National LGBTQ Task Force’s annual conference. The gathering was to have featured two LGBT rights advocates from the Jerusalem Open House for Pride and Tolerance in Israel. More than 200 people disrupted the event sponsored by A Wider Bridge (AWB) at the Creating Change Conference. The AWV seeks to bolster LGBTQ connections with those working on LGBTQ issues in Israel.

“No justice, no peace,” the protesters chanted at the Chicago Hilton. They were intent on preventing what they called “pink-washing” efforts to promote Israel’s LGBT rights record as an alleged strategy to deflect attention from Israel’s oppressive policies toward Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. The protesters chanted “From the River to the Sea, Palestine will be free,” leaving little doubt about their program or commitments, and pushed in and took control of the stage. The visiting Israeli activists had to be rushed out a back door.

The protesters were aided, too, by activists from other groups on the current hard left. Activist Dara Silverman of Showing Up for Racial Justice (SURJ) said, “For all of us at [SURJ], it’s really about supporting Palestinian, Arab and Muslim leadership and the need for indigenous struggles to be recognized in the queer and trans communities in the way we recognize them in all other social justice struggles.” Members of Black Lives Matter Chicago voiced its disapproval of AWB’s participation, drawing alleged correlations between the experiences of African Americans and of Palestinians. One protester Andy Thayer explained all the protesters were “very very angry” that a progressive outfit like the National LGBTQ Task Force “would host a pro-colonial organization.”

According to A Wider Bridge, “Last night the values of free speech and respectful communication that we all value and that should be the hallmark of the Creating Change conference were replaced by a disgraceful authoritarian-like action that seeks to silence the voices of anyone the protesters feel don’t adhere to their rigid dogma.” Further, the organization added: “Lies and gross distortions about A Wider Bridge and Israel were being repeated throughout the conference and at the protest.”

This strategy of physical disruption of any events where Israelis are to speak appears to be an increasingly embraced go-to approach in Europe and in America among pro-BDS pro-Palestinian forces. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is increasingly viewed and depicted as a categorical absolute and support for one side and hyped demonization of the other is the reigning protest template. Israel is understood as the font of all global evil, Zionists are depicted in caricatured ways as racists and colonialists, and protesters make little differentiation between people working on normalization efforts or peace and democracy initiatives and others who build and expand settlements in the West Bank or seek to diminish democracy and circumscribe rights. Protesters increasingly fail even to veil their true agenda, which is not to end “the occupation,” the post-1967 occupation of Palestinian territories formerly held by Jordan, but to challenge the basic existence of the State of Israel.

Thus, protesters from Kings College London Action Palestine behaving even more violently, throwing chairs, banging and smashing windows, and setting off fire alarms, acted a few days earlier in London to close down a sponsored event planned by the King’s College Israel Society on January 19thth. Students and faculty at King’s College London and from the London School of Economics were gathered to hear Ami Ayalon, a former head of Israel’s secret service Shin Bet, and formerly a Labor Party MK, who since 2002 has been a prominent peace activist and a leading critic of Israeli government actions. Ayalon was in the film, Gatekeepers, and most recently spoke on behalf of Breaking the Silence, which collects testimony from Israeli veterans about human rights abuses. KCL Action Palestine, though, completely immune to such nuances, depicted Ayalon as “a war criminal,” suggested his support for peace and two states was a cover for a desire to protect a racially pure Israel, and argued “to whitewash apartheid is not academic freedom, it is complicity with oppression.”

Police had to be called by university officials to respond to the violence at Kings College — frankly, no Israel focused events with Israeli speakers on large campuses can any longer afford to omit prior planning for vocal or violent disruption or avoid making contingent arrangements with police to protect people and property when needed. Later, British Universities Minister Jo Johnson criticized the protesters and their actions, speaking out against “violent intimidation that curtails free speech.”

Pro-Palestinian protesters similarly disrupted a speech by Israeli philosopher and ethicist Moshe Halbertal at the University of Minnesota on November 5, 2015. The local Students for Justice in Palestine and a group called the Anti-War Committee carried out the action. Halbertal is a faculty member at NYU Law School and also Hebrew University and is co-author of the Israel Defense Force code of ethics. He was invited by the University of Minnesota Law School jointly with the university’s Jewish Studies Program to deliver the annual Dewey lecture. Pro-Palestinian protesters disrupted and delayed the speech, which emphasized the protection of civilians in asymmetric warfare and the moral obligation to avoid harm to non-combatants. The thrust of Halbertal’s speech was a moral argument why governments and societies must demand their military forces adhere to the requirements of international human rights law and international humanitarian law, even when battling non-state adversaries that win tactical advantages when they deliberately violate the law hiding among civilians and putting their lives at risk.

The protesters, of course, did not listen to the speech or even contemplate they might learn something from engaging the speaker, but instead screamed slogans denouncing Halbertal as an “apologist” and attacking Israel until campus police cleared about fifty protestors from the hall and locked the doors. The protesters continued screaming slogans outside, including “From the River to the Sea, Palestine will be free.”

Law professor Dale Carpenter of the University of Minnesota observed: “that the freedom to present a lecture is threatened in this way at a public university is appalling.” Law School Dean David Wippman released a statement that it is unacceptable to deny others the opportunity to hear a guest speaker, violating standards of free speech and academic freedom that are central to university life.

Finally, at a recent Israel Institute seminar at the Center for Jewish Studies at the University of Texas at Austin on November 13, 2015, Palestinian Solidarity Committee (PSC) members invaded the event, refusing to sit and listen or to leave, confronted audience members, and shouted slogans, “Free Palestine,” and “Long Live the Intifada.”

They blocked the lecturer Gil-Li Vardi, a visitor from Stanford, a scholar who studies the dynamics of doctrinal and organizational change in military organizations like the Israeli Defense Forces, and delivered their own view of the talk before it began; they then rationalized their action as “an intervention” and an exercise of their free speech rights. It must be noted that there is no free speech right to deny or block others from free speech. Then, on the basis of a doctored video of the event, they cynically pressed intimidation charges against the faculty member, Ami Pedahzur, the head of the Israel Institute, who responded to their provocation.

An eyewitness has offered this account: “Twelve PSC members entered a small seminar room already crowded with an audience of about 25, almost blocking the exit and beginning to shout their slogans and insult and defame the speaker as a ‘Zionist War Criminal’. Pedahzur did all he could to engage the demonstrators in the spirit of the presentation, asking them to sit down and listen and learn or to leave. They stayed until it was clear that the UT police might have been called (they were). The PSC demonstrators did all this without identifying themselves and in clear violation of all the rules that govern even such outbursts as this one. Some in the audience were clearly frightened and traumatized.”

This group of protesters led by a romantic revolutionary who fancies himself a leader from the mold of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine sought by its action to bar, disrupt, and blunt the academic study of Israel on campus — a serious development that raises red flags about academic freedom and intellectual exchange on campus. Dean Randy Diehl of the College of Liberal Arts issued a statement that the university would not tolerate such blatant violation of its own values. The University disciplinary code appears to have provisions defining appropriate student behavior, but to date no results have been announced by those in the university investigating the disruption.

David Hirsh writes that the turn toward disruption among BDS forces is what happens when protesters characterize Israel as a racist apartheid state and offer what amounts to a Satanic caricature of the Zionist entity. Everyone who isn’t on board for the BDS version of morality and justice is then fair game within the protesters’ binary, campist, black and white outlook to be denigrated as racist, pro-apartheid, and colonialist. Those who want to recognize the reality of Israel/Palestine, the Israel and the Palestine that really exist, who wish to engage Israel, Palestine, and the conflict in all their complexities and to lobby for peace and human rights, are termed enemies of justice. Their activities – aimed at creating knowledge, or expanding human rights, or protecting civilians — are either “pink-washing” or they are simply called war criminals. Treating Israeli speakers as a class of speakers not to be allowed to speak or be heard at all, unless to confirm the protesters’ biases, disrupting their appearances and exiling them from the communities of university academics, LGBT activists, and human rights campaigners, amounts to a new form of exclusionary black-listing politics. Whether there is an overarching directive calling for disruption or simply a shared tendency driven by binary thinking is as yet unclear to this writer, but the bent is clearly toward increased disruption and near violence.

Mark Yudof, President Emeritus of the University of California, and the head of the new Academic Engagement Network, an anti-BDS and pro-free speech organization, suggests that organizations countering BDS need to stand up for Israeli participation and pro-Israel speakers and for the defense of freedom of expression. There are deep, universal values being affirmed behind such stances. In the context of the universities, we need now to sound a warning and to work on protocols and training to anticipate the kinds of disruption that are increasingly likely. Well before events, sponsors need to assess risks, reach out to administrators and campus police about a police presence and university monitors, and then, at events, they need to have plans B and C thought about in advance about how to secure the room or safely exit in case of disruption or invasion. This is the new reality, and this is an important warning.

About the Author
Kenneth Waltzer is former director of Jewish Studies at Michigan State University and a progressive opponent of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement. He a historian of the Holocaust completing a book on the rescue of children and youths at Buchenwald. He directed the Academic Engagement Network 2015-2019.