Questions, silenced and heard

Where political demonstration arises in the form of intellectual discourse, two voices are born, where the same arises in order to silence others, one voice dies and the other emerges a tyrant. Last Thursday Aryeh: Columbia Students Association for Israel, which I am not affiliated with, hosted an event here at Columbia with Nir Barkat, the mayor of Jerusalem. Barkat gave a speech detailing the business-friendly environment he has helped to effectuate in Jerusalem, bringing the city to the forefront of entrepreneurship and technological innovation. The occasion went without a hitch. Oh, and Columbia University Apartheid Divest (CUAD), an amalgamation of Columbia Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) and Columbia/Barnard Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP), was there.

So let me use this as an opportunity to highlight the differences between pro-BDS events and pro-Israel events, no matter which side of the aisle you might fall on or land closer to.

On December 2nd, 2014, the Center for Palestine Studies hosted Omar Barghouti, co-founder of the BDS movement, for an event at Columbia Law School. Rather than present facts and context that explain his support of BDS, I remember Mr. Barghouti making a disparaging remark about Israeli IQs being lower than in the past to imply that this is why the conflict is in the state of disrepair it is. This comment was greeted with widespread laughter. I have attended many events on campus where the speakers and audience in the room were of a polemical viewpoint to my own on a range of issues and yet still demanded facts and reason and cultivated an intellectual atmosphere. Insults would never have sufficed in those rooms.

In December of 2015, the Center for Palestine Studies hosted a similar event featuring Abdul Rahim Al-Shaikh, a professor at Birzeit University. Same deal here. No facts, no intellectual discussion. Just: here’s how the BDS movement has been successful, and damned be those Israelis. During the Q & A, I asked a question to Dr. Shaikh. I was polite but firm and kept it factual and contextual: “Given the fact that the last time Israel gave land to the Palestinians, in 2005, Hamas responded by launching rockets into Israeli territory, how do you expect integration to be carried out safely?” Sure, the question reveals my bias, but it is a fair and legitimate question. Dr. Shaikh refused to respond, telling me that my question “doesn’t deserve an answer,” to which he received rousing applause. Nonetheless, I accepted that it was his choice not to answer and stayed for the rest of the event. I even went up to shake Dr. Sheikh’s hand at the end to thank him for the presentation.

Next on February 4th of this year, Columbia University Apartheid Divest (CUAD), an amalgamation of Columbia Students for Justice in Palestine and Columbia/Barnard Jewish Voice for Peace held an event entitled “BDS 101,” an introduction to the BDS movement. They started the event with an exhortation to not record them or quote them without their explicit permission. The presentation itself was the usual, a brief description of the conflict and their reasons for divesting, which included tenuous content at best, but that’s for another article, and then the rest of the presentation was spent on “this is what BDS does,” without ever even attempting to really explain the facts.

Then came the Q & A. First of course, came warnings to the audience that there would be no-follow ups or debate. I asked them about the omissions from their presentation, including why the suicide bombings and other Palestinian violence that inspired Israel to build the security fence weren’t mentioned. Again, I have a clear bias, but I asked an on-topic question. I directed the question towards the person who discussed the fence in the presentation but he looked towards the moderator for help, who looked back at him. Finally, the moderator gave a terse half-answer which was basically, “it’s just wrong.” Don’t believe me? Per Bwog’s (a student run underground media outlet at Columbia) play-by-play of the event, “Presenters seem uncertain how to answer.”

I waited until all of the questions were asked and then I raised my hand again. This time I asked if they would openly condemn Palestinian treatment of gays, especially in the Gaza Strip where homosexuality is illegal. None of them could answer. Then one girl in the audience turned around and said from her nice comfy Columbia classroom seat in NYC, something along the lines of, “I’m a gay Palestinian.” The room erupted in laughter and applause and I got no answer from the hosts. Per Bwog, “Didn’t answer question about homosexuals being killed in Gaza Strip.” Here are some other notes from Bwog: “Organizers are laughing at the audience members asking questions…Applause being used to silence questions.” Despite the dismissiveness from the hosts, I was nonetheless cordial and respectful throughout the event. Anyway, let’s move on to the event with Mayor Barkat.

I’ll begin by pointing out that no one from Aryeh warned anyone not to record or quote them, and no one threatened to throw anyone out, and it was clear well before the event that the entire back row was filled with members of SJP and JVP. From the minute Mayor Barkat began to speak, these members of CUAD raised a line of signs above their heads condemning the mayor and Israel. They continued to hold these signs up for the rest of the event.

Then, when the Q & A came the mayor gave full and complete answers to the CUAD members, and seemed to be passionate about engaging them. Despite what they might think about his answers, this was a stark contrast to the Palestinian and BDS scholars I experienced in the two Decembers prior. Not only that, but Mayor Barkat actually requested that the people holding the microphones for questioners take “more questions from the back.” He even requested that one CUAD questioner be allowed a follow-up. Nonetheless, the CUAD members did not remain respectful. Aside from the signs, they laughed out loud and in unison at the mayor’s answer about Israeli-Ethiopian relations from a non-CUAD audience member who was seriously interested in the Mayor’s policies and plans relevant to the subject. Then, while he was answering one of their questions, the whole group of CUAD members staged a walkout, one member even giving him the middle finger on the way out the door. They followed up their display with a Facebook post calling the mayor racist and claiming that he is advocating “ethnic cleansing” of the Palestinian people. Quite civil.

So here’s the difference: myself and the other Israel supporters I know, have been quiet and respectful during BDS and other anti-Israel events. We did not interrupt their presentation, walk out early, insult them, laugh at them, or make personal attacks at them. And I still won’t. I continue to believe that as individuals they are good people, because I refuse to disobey my core tenet that deep down, most people are good and trying their best to do what’s right.

But it is getting harder and harder as I watch intellectualism and civility be rejected in favor of emotional rhetoric and disrespectful discourse. In the end though, these type of tactics will be CUAD’s downfall, as the majority of the academic community will refuse to engage in anti-intellectualism. This is why the 77 faculty signatures obtained by CUAD for their pro-BDS petition pales in comparison to the 235 faculty members and administrators who signed the anti-BDS petition. I don’t think for a second that every one of those 235 signatories are virulently pro-Israel. I simply believe that they find the tactics of CUAD and the larger BDS movement to be wholly antithetical to a stimulating intellectual milieu and not conducive to a healthy, progressive campus dialogue.

About the Author
Benjamin Sweetwood is an undergraduate at Columbia University, where he majors in political science with a focus on international relations and Chinese foreign policy. Ben has worked at the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research, and he chaired AEI's Executive Council at Columbia. He is the current Vice President of Columbia's Students Supporting Israel chapter and runs a website devoted to political issues,
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