Disrupting the study of Israel on campus

Pro-Palestinian students who disrupted a lecture at Texas U are now cynically blaming their victim

There is a clear line between non-violent protest and planned disruption of university academic events.

At a recent Israel Institute seminar at the Center for Jewish Studies at the University of Texas at Austin, Palestinian Solidarity Committee (PSC) members purposefully crossed that line. They invaded the event, refusing either to sit and listen or to leave, confronted audience members, and shouted slogans, “Free Palestine,” and “Long Live the Intifada.” They blocked the lecturer to deliver their own view of the talk before it began and also demeaned the speaker. They justified their action as an “intervention.” Now, on the basis of a doctored video of the event, these same students are cynically pressing charges against the faculty member, Ami Pedahzur, head of the Israel Institute, for responding to their provocation.

An eyewitness who was there 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’ (this for having served in the IDF). Professor 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.”

Led by second year U. Texas law student Mohammed Nabulsi of Dallas, and assisted thereafter by carefully planted news pieces by other PSC members in local newspapers, this group of students seeks by its actions to bar, disrupt, and blunt the academic study of Israel on campus — a serious development that should raise red flags in the eyes of university administrators who are dedicated to maintaining academic freedom and protecting serious intellectual exchange. President Gregory Fenves of the University of Texas at Austin and Dean Randy Diehl of the College of Liberal Arts have expressed their concern. A clearer, more forceful, statement is required, however, to affirm and reassure the community that the university will not tolerate such blatant violations of its own values, and will protect the academic and civil rights of faculty and students, like those who were gathered at the Israel Institute.

In addition, now, in their follow-up essays, written in the current language of “safe space” and the conceit of alleged racism, the PSC members are accusing Professor Ami Pedahzur by his identification of the disrupters in the aftermath of the event as stirring “racism and hatred” on campus and “putting Palestinian students in danger and making them accessible targets for … violence” (Daily Texan, Nov. 20, 2015). Mohammed Nabulsi has told the Electronic Intifada that Ami Pedahzur should be dismissed as a professor from the university.

Make no mistake about who Mohammed Nabulsi is and what his and his group’s purposes are. In a piece he wrote for Warscapes, dated August 27, 2015, Nabulsi criticized “a Western liberal framework” as the appropriate frame within which the Boycott, Sanctions, and Divestment (BDS) movement should advance the Palestinian cause, which he defined not as self-determination for two peoples but as “the decolonization of all of Palestine.” Nabulsi called on BDS to more forthrightly back groups such as the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, Hamas and Palestine Islamic Jihad, while openly embracing a one-state solution.

Nabulsi also identified himself in his own Facebook account with the name of an infamous convicted terrorist, Georges Abdallah, of the Lebanese Armed Revolutionary Factions, who murdered American and Israeli diplomats in 1982. At least in the virtual world, this Palestinian-American law student whose family suffered during the Nakbah in 1948 has identified himself openly with killers and terrorists.

The event in question was an invited presentation over lunch by Gil-Li Vardi, a visitor from Stanford, on the origins of the Israeli Defense Forces military culture. Vardi is an historian studying the dynamics of doctrinal and operational change in military organizations and is a scholar at Stanford’s Center for International Security and Cooperation at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies. This was to be a seminar-like lecture and discussion, an opportunity for exchange and questioning, but instead was turned into a political theater.

The University of Texas at Austin would appear to have clear codes defining appropriate student behavior. UT’s Disciplinary Code section 11-404a3 bars any student who “behaves in a manner that impedes, interferes with, or disrupts any University teaching, research, administrative, disciplinary, public service, learning, or other authorized activity.” Subsection 12 under Student Conduct bars “conduct that is sufficiently severe, pervasive, or persistent to create an objectively hostile environment that interferes with or diminishes the ability of an individual to participate in or benefit from the services, activities, or privileges provided by the University.”

Subsection 22 of the Student Discipline Code also bars inappropriate conduct that has the potential to interfere or disrupt the student learning or teaching function of the university including “berating or otherwise abusive behavior.”

Abusive calls to the Israel Institute have followed the event, and precautions have had to be taken to protect the safety of Professor Pedahzur and his family and others as well.

University administrators need to investigate the event thoroughly and then to take clear actions against protesters who disrupt university teaching, interfere with the rights of faculty and students to participate in learning, and engage in berating or abusive behavior. No free speech rights exist to disrupt, berate, and close down the speech and learning of others.

In the meantime, university administrators should also speak out much more forcefully and clearly, stating that such behavior will not be tolerated at UT. Disrupters who violate university values and  established codes of behavior will be disciplined or dismissed. Those who actively disrespect and interfere with the rights of others will be prosecuted. The rest of American higher education is watching.

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.