Events

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Sound and Fury at Hampshire College as Protesters Disrupt Talk by IDF Soldier

As noted in an earlier post:  Exactly a week ago, on the evening of February 3, 2011, reserve Sergeant Benjamin Anthony of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), gave a talk in the Main Lecture Hall at Hampshire College. He founded the organization, "Our Soldiers Speak," in order to share with the general public the experience of military service in one of the world's most controversial conflict zones.

Here, as promised, is the longer report.  Because the events of the evening provoked so much rumor and controversy, I will present as complete an account as possible, based on extensive notes.

* * *
Supporters and opponents, and perhaps just those who actually wanted to learn something—so hard to tell: a shame that there is no identifying emblem for the neutral and honestly inquisitive, equivalent to all the keffiyehs and Israeli flag temporary tattoos that I saw—milled about in the lobby of Franklin Patterson Hall as police secured the room.

The atmosphere as the large crowd waited with growing impatience was boisterous. Given that we were approaching Superbowl Weekend, it reminded me of the pre-game tailgate parties of the opposing teams (okay, without the beer, food, or good humor).



Although pro-Israel students unfurled an Israeli flag and sang a traditional song, most of the “pre-game” activity came from the other side. The anti-Israel students of Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) enthusiastically chanted, “End, End the Occupation!”, “Free, Free Palestine!”, and “Our People Are Occupied, Resistance is Justified!”


Many other pro-Palestinian attendees came from outside the College. The local unit of the “Raging Grannies,” led by peripatetic activist Ruth Hooke, sang songs against war and for freedom in Gaza. Most of the other outside protesters likewise appeared to be rather long in the tooth: at the least, three to four times as old as the students.



Students for Justice in Palestine also distributed their own mock(ing) program for the event. As always, they were well organized.


That surprise it mentions? A nice example of their always effective organization: when one unfolds the pamphlet, it yields a mini-placard: convenient, environmentally responsible, and a good way to avoid any institutional strictures against display of protest signs when visitors are checked at the entrance to an auditorium.

Finally, the security staff let the audience enter—single-file and using only one of two sets of doors—as they counted each person.



* * *

Special Presidential Assistant for Diversity and Multilcultural Education Jaime Dávila and Assistant Dean of Students for Community Advocacy Amnat Chittaphong launched the event by speaking strongly and eloquently about the need for learning and civil dialogue in a college setting.

Next, event organizer and recent graduate Samantha Mandeles (pointedly wearing both an IDF t-shirt and a keffiyeh wrapped around her neck) introduced the speaker. She closed by citing Judge Learned Hand on the virtues of humility and uncertainty when seeking the truth.

We were told that, for reasons of security, and at the request of the speaker, the audience could not record the presentation itself. After the introduction concluded, I accordingly turned off my camera.



As the event began, there was strong applause for the speaker, and then, strikingly, the room fell quiet. Both supporters and opponents were clearly curious as what he would have to say; the tension was palpable.

Sergeant Anthony is an accomplished speaker with a strong stage presence, though he of course did not change the opinions of those who came in order to protest. As one might expect, he speaks with an English accent tinged slightly with Hebrew. His English style, however, is a more elevated and formal one than most of us are used to either in American academe or, in particular, here in the “Happy Valley.” Despite the seriousness of his subject and the occasionally tense interactions with the audience, he managed to inject some levity into the evening’s talk, both in his offhand references to such notorious Israeli foibles as heavy smoking and atrocious driving habits, and occasionally in his ripostes to critics in the audience. Throughout the evening, he kept his cool and treated his interlocutors with courtesy.

It was of course apparent from the start that the positions of the speaker and the protesters were irreconcilable. Agreement was out of the question. The only question was: could a conversation nonetheless take place, if only a debate rather than a dialogue? Soon, however, it became clear that the real question was: would he even be allowed to complete his talk?

Unlike peace advocates who support the “two-state solution” affirmed by Israel and the PLO in the Oslo Accords of 1993, and subsequently underwritten by the “Quartet” of great powers and endorsed in principle by the Arab League, the protesters, adherents of the BDS (Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions) movement (1, 2), seek not changes in Israel’s policy, but the delegitimization and elimination of Israel—a United Nations member state—as such, which they regard as a racist and colonial enterprise. (If there were any doubts tonight, the chants of “One State!” and references to a "sixty-year" occupation of Palestinian land—i.e. dating back to the founding of the state in 1948 rather than the 1967 war—made that clear.)

For Sergeant Anthony, by contrast, that state, created in accordance with the United Nations Partition Resolution of 1947 is both a refuge and a fulfillment. His basic message was: the State of Israel (its official name) was the logical and necessary outcome of a Jewish history of exile and persecution stretching back some 2,000 years—a restoration of the nation on its historic soil, and in practical terms, the only guarantee of Jewish safety. In this view, the Jewish people can be safe only when it is self-reliant and not dependent on outsiders for its preservation: The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) are the guarantor, and that is the common motivation behind the service of its citizen-army, individual political views notwithstanding.

* * *

Sergeant Anthony began by noting (as in the event description) that he had served at the front in several recent military campaigns, inside and outside the borders of the country, to help her “to rid herself of the scourge of terrorism.” [derisive laughter from the audience]

Unfazed, he continued. His point, he said was not to bombard people with facts and figures that anyone can get from the internet. He likewise explained that he was not a government official or in any way sponsored by the military or the government.

Attempting to emphasize again that his aim was to help outsiders to understand the personal experience of the soldier, he said, “My political view is no more relevant than any of yours.” Many in the audience, misinterpreting the remark as dismissive of their views, rather than a self-effacing gesture on his part, responded with hisses, establishing the pattern for the evening.

He was, he continued, “merely an individual who has carried out raids, arrests, patrols.” A straightforward yet in this setting somehow provocative formulation.

His ground rules for the evening were: after the talk, any respectfully asked question would get the best answer he knew how to give; he would not pretend to have knowledge he did not have.

He added, “I do not in my mind equate terror or terrorists with Palestinians or Arab people.”

He set the context by talking of several recent actions in which he had been involved, for example, the Lebanon war of 2006, a stationing in Hebron, and action against Hamas, whose continuing rocket barrages from Gaza placed a million Israelis in constant danger. To the foreign observer, the names of the towns where attacks take place are just headlines, whereas to Israelis, he said, they are the places where the soldiers, their families, and their friends live.

When the civilian population of the country is under constant threat, the soldier “knows what must be done, and thinks—and I’ll say this directly—world opinion can wait.” This “action,” he said, has “nothing to do with either political ideology or religious fervor.”

Immediately, the "action" began here, as well.  A heckler stood up, blew a whistle, and shouted, “Occupation delegitimizes Israel!”

Sergeant Anthony: “if I may continue, following that involuntary outburst by the gentlemen over there.” [laughter]

There were more hisses when he said that the IDF defended all Israelis: Christians, Muslims, and Arabs, as well as Jews. He cited the example—and names—of Arab-Israelis who lost their lives in the rocket bombardment from Lebanon in 2006.

He then went on to expand on the mentality and experience of the soldier.

“No soldier relishes going to war—if you doubt that, ask yourselves how you would feel if given ten minutes to prepare” for a mission that could cost your life and the lives of your friends. But one nonetheless goes willingly, he said, when the task is to intercept a band of terrorists planning an attack against civilians inside the borders of Israel, with the intention of murdering “children as they sleep in their beds at night.”

The soldiers, he said, fight simply in order to defend their homeland. A reference to that homeland as “Israel, the home of the Jewish people,” provoked another chorus of blowing whistles.

Heckler: “It has been occupied Palestine for over sixty years!”

[further demonstrations]

Assistant Dean of Students Amnat Chittaphong interrupted to remind the crowd of the ground rules.

Israel, Anthony explained, had never known full peace or been free of threat: “For an Israeli soldier, the battle is one into which they are born. The clock starts ticking at birth.” It was not a fate that they would have chosen voluntarily.

“There is nothing glorious about war, and anybody who believes that is sorely mistaken.”

A student suddenly stands up and shouts that, “As-a-Jew” who had “lost relatives in the Holocaust," she cannot support the racist State of Israel and its policies.

More commotion. Some members of the audience rise, in agitation. Some protesters walk out.

Amnat intervenes again: “If you are going to peacefully leave, please do so.”

A heckler again blows a whistle.

Sergeant Anthony: “Excuse me, the lady who’s Jewish—the lady who’s Jewish—and therefore uses her Judaism as validity for her opinion, could you please give me the title of last week’s Torah portion?”

The student apparently declares that she is not religious or words to that effect (it is hard to hear, for other hecklers begin to shout at the same time).

[Clearly, she had no clue as to the nature of Parashat Mishpatim (Exodus 21:1-24:18), or for that matter, anything much having to do with Judaism, as such. It's a shame, actually, because, as chance would have it, it is one of the most profound and influential but also challenging portions in the Hebrew Bible.  It introduces the pilgrimage festivals such as Passover, establishes numerous moral values, and assures the Israelites that they will take possession of the Promised Land.  It contains the then-radical and still relevant principle of equal justice under the law as well as the obligation of charity.  It contains the famous command concerning "eye for eye, tooth for tooth"—which later outside critics took as an inhumane doctrine of vengeance but rabbinic commentators always understood to mean compensation and proportional justice: the punishment should fit and not exceed the crime and apply to all (1, 2). It contains the commands to protect the widow, the poor, and the orphan, which furnished some of the key principles of medieval chivalry as well as modern social justice. Perplexingly, it predicts that God will drive out the previous inhabitants of Canaan, yet also commands, "You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the feelings of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt."
Jewish scholars have been debating the meaning of these difficult texts for centuries. I would have loved to see the questioner and the speaker debate them in the context of his talk, not least because the Sergeant is religiously observant.  How does the text's explanation of the laws of justice speak to them about the doctrines of "proportionate" and "disproportionate" military response? Does the Torah really command violent conquest and even what some see as ethnic cleansing? (for that matter, do archaeologists think things really happened this way?)  And what about the concept of the "stranger": Who is the "stranger' in the blood-soaked and oft-conquered "Holy Land": the Jew? the Arab? neither? both? Of course, one cannot debate what one does not know. Yes, as chance would have it:  a lost chance.]

Hecklers continue to shout; hard to make out all the words.

A moment later, order breaks down completely. Members of the audience begin to take out their cameras. (as do I, for just those few minutes)


Responding to Sergeant Anthony's assertion that the student "uses her Judaism as validity for her opinion," a heckler in a back corner of the hall stands, shouting: “You use your Judaism to in order to occupy Palestine, which is illegal!” [following words indistinct]

[whoops of approval]

Sergeant Anthony repeats (in vain) the request to the  biblically illiterate student.

The heckler, gesturing and shouting again: “The entire world has ruled the occupation illegal!”

Hecklers begin the chant of “Free, Free, Palestine!” and then, “Stop the Show, Stop the Show, Take Your Racist Lies and Go!”

At this point, an Arab student from Hampshire gets up and shouts with passion that he wants to allow the talk ("show") to continue because he has something that he really wants to say to the speaker.

[applause from some quarters, more heckling from others]

Amnat begins to speak again, and calm returns:

“Those of you who want to stay for the Q & A, you may stay. Those of you who want to make comments now, you can make them outside the door, please.”

[some members of the audience begin to leave]

“And I really do not want to take this microphone again, and the only reason why we have to go to this extreme, if I want to remind the Hampshire community, [is] that a message went out in December, if you read it or not”

Heckler: “there was a message yesterday, as well.”

[other indistinct cries from hecklers]

[Amnat’s reference was to the letter sent by President Marlene Fried condemning threats and other forms of harassment against pro-Israel students. The heckler was referring to the response by Students for Justice in Palestine, which had been issued on the same day as the lecture (both reproduced here.)

[Amnat, continuing]: “that there were students, [heckling] there were students, [laughter] who have been physically harassed on campus [murmurs] from this past semester alone. [various murmurs and: “not true”] And that’s why we are taking these measures because we want to remind you all that [if] you are going to have an opportunity to be respectful here, then you need to help maintain that within our community.”

[more heckling, some scattered applause; against this backdrop, Amnat concludes:]

“And you can have your viewpoint, regardless of what view you have, when the time is appropriate…”

The Arab student now calls out, “Don’t talk about physical harassment with that man by your side!”

[more heckling, some laughter]



At this point, the speaker decides to cut short the presentation. He will wrap up within ten minutes and then take questions as long as people are willing to stay.

“I speak here to supporters of Israel.”

There are more hisses, as he refers to “the privilege of serving in uniform,” but, he continues, “there is no greater privilege than having your time and attention,” especially those who on campus persist “in light of the great efforts, as we are witnessing, to delegitimize not only the State of Israel, but also the people of Israel.” [hisses, then drowned out by applause]

“There seem to be two words with which the State of Israel is associated.”

Hecklers: “genocide?” “war crimes?”

His answer: Milchamah (war) and Tikvah (hope), noting that the latter was the title of Israel’s national anthem.

He then recounts an incident that had deeply moved him:

He had been called up for duty, apparently during the Lebanon War of 2006. Soldiers rushed to the base. In one car was a friend, his father at the wheel. The soldier briefly embraced his father, then disappeared around a corner to smoke a cigarette and don his battle gear. When the Sergeant spoke with the father, the latter broke down in tears, because of the mother’s concerns. And now the father himself was off to join his own unit, because every man was needed. The Sergeant assured him that he would take care of the son. The next time they saw each other was during the mourning ritual at the man’s house, for the son had in fact been killed. These, he explained, were among the experiences that haunt every soldier every day.

“No one,” he says, “need ever school the Jewish people on the virtues of peace.”

“I’ve seen the fallen bodies and the severed limbs strewn about the ground I walk on. I’ve seen the blinded and the dead.”

Among the soldiers, “All [that] all of them has is a hope that they will no longer have to make war.”

“Despite the fact that I’ve seen this great cost . . . despite the fact that I dream, it is likely that I will have to do it again.” [Israelis are liable to be called for reserve duty up to the age of 45]

“Never for a moment do I despair.” His hopes, he says, are “not ethereal.”

Heckler: “Are you recruiting?”

At the start of the lecture, Sergeant Anthony had read the Hebrew phrase that, he explained, was inscribed on the Tanakh [Hebrew Bible] that every IDF recruit, regardless of background, received. He now (as promised) translates the passage:
When you go to war against your enemies and see horses and chariots and an army greater than yours, do not be afraid of them, because the Lord your God, who brought you up out of Egypt, will be with you.
(Deuteronomy 20:1)
More heckling from several corners, e.g.: “Israel gets 3 billion a year from the US.”

* * *
As the question-and-answer period began, the Sergeant asked for just two things: that people present questions rather than statements, and that he be allowed to answer fully without interruption.

This proved, in point of fact, to be difficult as concerned both the questions and the follow-up.

Truth be told, I found the exchanges very disappointing. They were disappointing because I could think of many questions that audience members could have asked, and to which I myself would have liked answers. On balance, the Sergeant, in his talk, defended Israel’s wars as moral and Israel’s army as a moral army. Many critics disagree. I would have liked to know: Does he ever have moral doubts: big or small, about policy or procedure?

For example, Israelis and many foreign peace advocates alike defend the existence of the state, yet many do not support—on various grounds, practical or moral—the permanent post-1967 occupation of all the territories formerly under the control of neighboring Arab states.

The Sergeant mentioned that he had been stationed in Hebron: How did he feel about that? Did he believe that he was justifiably there because Jews had returned the heart of the historical land of Israel? (in this case, a city in which the Jewish population was massacred in 1929). Did he instead regard the occupation as a practical but temporary necessity? A necessary evil? a moral and unacceptable evil? And what about the specific duties of the soldier under such circumstances? Some Israelis simply refuse to serve in the "territories" (for which they face the modest punishment of only a few weeks in jail). How does he feel about that?

What, then, of the daily actions of the troops in the territories? If a protester had happened to glance at a recent issue of the New York Review of Books (it used to be that "intellectuals" read it religiously), she would have found a lengthy piece on a new book of testimony by the Israeli soldiers of “Breaking the Silence,” who report on what they see as the grand crimes and petty cruelties of the occupation. Of course, critics, although not denying that injustices and mistakes take place, promptly responded that many of the incidents were inadequately documented or atypical, and certainly not reflective of any official policy. The sergeant has been there. What light could he shed on this debate for those of us who spend our time in libraries rather than on patrol?

All democratic nations have codes of moral conduct for their military, and Israel’s new handbook has even been used as a model in the United States. (1, 2, 3) In the eyes of its defenders, the IDF is the most moral army in the world, which puts the lives of its own troops at risk in order to avoid harm to the innocent. Nonetheless, in the eyes of critics, the IDF is a brutal and aggressive force that shows insufficient regard for human life. How could Sergeant Anthony's experience help us to assess these radically divergent claims?

Everyone knows that war is horrible, and that asymmetrical warfare and counterinsurgency operations, which pit the well-armed, disciplined troops of state actors against irregular forces that hide among the civilian population, are especially messy and pose agonizing moral as well as practical choices. Israel has been accused of committing war crimes and crimes against humanity in such situations. Are those crimes real? If so, were they the result of contingent circumstances and the fog of war? of negligence? or policy? Most recently, the "Goldstone Report" (the popular name for the "Report of the United Nations Fact Finding Mission on the Gaza Conflict") condemned Israel’s actions in “Operation Cast Lead” in Gaza. What hurt Israelis most was not just the accusation of widespread wrongdoing, but the accusation of deliberate and wanton killing of civilians. Critics of the report adduced extensive evidence of their own to refute this charge (1, 2, 3) . Again, what light can the Sergeant shed on this debate? What orders are soldiers given? How do soldiers in extremis behave? Training materials attempt to teach soldiers how to reconcile established abstract moral principle with the security needs of the moment when split-second decision-making is required. What is it like for soldiers to face those choices in real time when real lives—their own, those of the enemy, and those of innocent civilians—are on the line?

Now those would have been good questions, and tough ones.

Because Sergeant Anthony was speaking as an ordinary individual, the questions should have addressed him in that that capacity: his personal convictions, experiences, and feelings.

Instead, most of the challenges to the speaker were in fact really just naked statements of grand policy and abstract opinion with the fig leaf of a question mark, along the lines of: you live in a state that is the epitome of evil—how do you justify that?

• There was an exception. The best and most heartbreaking question was the first.

It came from a Lebanese student (the one who had, incidentally, cried out to the hecklers and asked that the Sergeant be allowed to speak). With evident emotion, he described the destruction in Lebanon in 2006: tall buildings reduced to rubble, people forced to evacuate their homes on short notice, the killed and the wounded. The Sergeant, he said, had spoken about his own people and his own suffering.

“What about my brothers and sisters you have killed? What about the things I have seen?” “Is that all there is—your suffering?”

• A: Sergeant Anthony responded by comparing the situation of Lebanon with that of Sderot (the first Israeli city within rocket range of Gaza), the point being that Israel, unlike Lebanon, was under constant attack  directed explicitly against its civilian population. A ten-year-old in Sderot, he said, “never knew a day without rocket fire.” In the first place, the Lebanese, whose civilians were not deliberately targeted, at least had adequate warning. Israelis, by contrast, did not. In Sderot, one had barely 15 seconds. In the second place, the Israelis, who were accustomed to attack, had shelters.  All buildings were reinforced. Schools and playgrounds were located underground or had shelters. Young people were allowed to congregate outdoors only if within a few steps of a shelter. Drivers there were forbidden to wear seatbelts, because the time it might take to unbuckle when rushing for a shelter might mean the difference between life and death.

And if anyone had any doubts, he said, they should just note that the preferred time for the attackers to launch rockets—especially if they had only a single one on hand on a given day—was 1:00 p.m. Did anyone know why? The reason, he explained, was that this was when schools let out, and children were on their way home. In Sderot and in the north during the Lebanon War, masses of the populace had to flee their homes or live in shelters. That was the only reason the loss of life was not far greater.

Around this time, a visiting instructor, who had been making interjections throughout the evening, stood up and interrupted with a lengthy question that challenged the whole procedure of the question-and-answer session and much more.

Sergeant Anthony replied, “Sir, if people want to attend your lectures: with the greatest of respect, they’re welcome to do so.” [laughter]

• Q: A woman who said, “I identify as a Zionist’ [loud hisses] explained that she had always felt it was important to hear “both narratives.” She said she therefore regretted “the fact that we cannot allow him to speak.” “If we can’t do it [i.e. have a civil discussion] here, it is unlikely anyone will do it over there.”

[more disruption]

“Have you spoken anywhere where there is, unlike this place, a civil and deeply respectful conversation?”

Heckler: “Where there have been Palestinians?”

“Why yes,” the Sergeant replied. He had spoken in over 120 locales around the world, and there was only one exception, when an audience member threatened him physically.

Heckler, sarcastically: “Welcome to Hampshire!”

And, Sergeant Anthony added,  actually, most Palestinians, too, were ready to engage in dialogue.

[there followed several other exchanges]

Hecklers: “Your racism is disgusting!” “You’re a propagandist!”

At this point, another disruption:

Some pro-Israel idiot (evidently a UMass student) seems to have called a pro-Palestinian student in front of him a “faggot,” which led to a shouting match and the eventual ejection of the offender by security staff. A hateful disgrace, and a distraction from an already deplorable episode.

• Q: student, referring to one of his earlier statements to the effect that Israelis did not want war, and would certainly not have chosen to live like this if it had been up to them, asked: “You said you 'did not elect' this lifestyle.” How could Israelis say this “in light of ethnic cleansing”? “How do they not 'elect' this lifestyle and these campaigns of war and genocide?”

Evidently, she did not understand that he was using “elect” in a more traditional or elevated sense of “choose” and therefore construed it only in its narrower political sense, so the whole thing degenerated into a rather pointless and extended exchange about politics and elections.

Be that as it may, it was of course valid to point out that Israelis "elected" the governments that carried out the policies she condemns. The Sergeant addressed the question on several levels. As for genocide and ethnic cleansing, he replied, one should look at the other side: he read from the Hamas Covenant, which contained a passage from Muslim Brotherhood founder Hassan al-Banna on the land of Palestine as a waqf [sacred religious trust], declaring that Islam would obliterate Israel. He then cited a passage from Mahmoud Abbas to the effect that no Jew would be allowed to live in the future Palestinian state. Finally, for contrast, he read the list of 18 Arab Members of the Knesset [Israel Parliament], with their party affiliations, which came not just from the Arab List or fringe groups but also, from the full range of mainstream parties.

As for the question of occupation, he reminded the audience that Israel had withdrawn completely from both Lebanon and Gaza, and that the result had been only more attacks. In the case of Lebanon, the result had been a massive rocket attack that forced the residents of northern Israel to live in shelters or flee, bringing ordinary life to a standstill. Cities were abandoned. Lebanon had been a purely military occupation as a result of terrorist attacks. In the case of Gaza—where there had been longstanding Israeli civilian settlement—Israel had uprooted every last settler but left an extensive infrastructure—such as greenhouses—intact, as a source of future economic development for the Palestinians of Gaza. And what had been the result? Practically the first thing the Palestinians did, he said, was do attack and destroy the greenhouses. And the ongoing response had been rocket fire at Israel.

“The only Israeli in uniform still in Gaza is a soldier named Gilad Shalit.” [who was kidnapped and has been held in captivity for nearly 1700 days]

Heckler: “Then get the hell out!”
Heckler: “Occupied people have the right to resist!”

• A student begins to read the names of Palestinian children killed by Israel. Demonstrators stand up throughout the hall and, one by one, read off names. Clearly, a carefully planned, well-organized effort.

Sergeant Anthony allows them to do so. Then:

“Can I read you my list?”

[surprise and chaos]

He proceeds to read the names of ten Palestinians under the age of 17 killed in Operation “Cast Lead” in Gaza.

He notes that it is only a selection. And then:

“I challenge any of you here to furnish just one name of just one Israeli killed in the Second Intifada.”

Silence.

“I rest my case. That is absolutely disgraceful.”

• Q: What are your plans for the next five to ten years?
• A: “I learned that anyone involved in war and conflict would be foolish to plan for such a long period,” but if he could choose, he would think of founding a family, acquiring a home. “My primary ambition is to be ‘a free people in our land’” [a reference to the national anthem].
“The greatest freedom that I can possibly enjoy is to be free of conflict, to live in peace.”

• Q: “A lot of the villages [sic] mentioned [an incorrect allusion to the cities bombarded in the rocket attacks of 2006] were among the 700 destroyed in the Naqba [Palestinian term for the “disaster” resulting from the creation of Israel].” The Sergeant had called the IDF defensive. However, imperial powers had created the Palestine Mandate and had “manipulated the desperation of the Jewish people in creating Israel” “How do you see the existence of your society as a colonizing or occupying power in relation to that legacy?”

• A: “Israel as such is not occupied territory.”

[hisses]

Noting in advance that he was not a historian, he proceeded to describe his view of the arc of Jewish history. He affirmed again that he has “no hate for Arabs, Palestinians, Muslims.”

[hisses again from the audience]

He then said that he was interested only in his own people. Clearly, he was saying that this is the area of his knowledge and the focus of his concerns, but given the previous reaction of the hecklers, the audience took this remark as a sign of callous self-absorption and indifference.

Among the facts that he considered relevant were the long history of Jewish suffering. He did not want to harp upon the Holocaust because the pattern was longer and it was sufficient to cite the list of persecutions, expulsions, the Inquisition. Although the expulsion from Spain is the most infamous, he reminded listeners that similar actions took place in many lands, including his native Britain (all the Jews were expelled in 1290 and none were officially allowed back for almost four centuries; they did not enjoy full civil rights until the mid-nineteenth century).

And not only in Europe: he reminded (or in this case, more likely: informed) the audience that some 850,000 Jews lost their homes and property throughout the Middle East and were forced to flee when the State of Israel was founded. They were the forgotten refugees, he said. (1, 2).

His conclusion: “The Jews are not persecuted and killed as before—but this has been the case only for 62 years—exactly since the time Israel was founded.”

“The glorious reality is that I have a place that I can call home.”

In order to explain why he felt the need for such a home, why he had decided to leave England and settle in Israel, he told a story from his own history. Once, when he and his three brothers—identifiable as Jews from their head coverings—were walking to school in England, they were set upon by a group of thugs. “My elder brother was beaten to a degree that I cannot fully narrate.” He was, Sergeant Anthony said, “unrecognizable.” He was held up and punched till beaten unconscious, and then, while lying on the ground, kicked and "stomped and hit with bricks.” He suffered bone fractures and extensive internal injuries, and his face became a bloody pulp. In the midst of the assault, one of the attackers cried out, “Don’t stop until he’s dead.” In attempting to help and protect his brother, Anthony only earned a terrible beating himself. Bystanders did nothing. And, when his younger brother knocked on nearby doors attempting to get help, there was no response. So serious were the injuries of the elder brother that he underwent three liver transplants in the space of a week after the attack. Just this past year, Sergeant Anthony visited him as he underwent yet another operation for wounds that have never fully healed, physically or psychologically.

Two attacks on Jewish youths—the vicious attack on an individual on the streets of a modern English town, and the salvos of rockets on the schoolchildren of Sderot—in a sense thus formed the bookends for the talk and the argument concerning the State of Israel and the role of the IDF.

• Q: follow-up question (actually, the rules notwithstanding, again, a statement): “You have a state at the expense of another people.”
A: “I agree,” he said, “but there is no parallel whatsoever to be drawn between the suffering that the Jewish people underwent” over the centuries and that of the Palestinians more recently. The latter, he said, “do suffer anguish,” “but they are blessed with the ultimate gift of life on their kindred soil,” whereas the Jewish victims of persecution are no more: “the dead Jews have no life and no one to mourn for them.”

[hisses]

• Q: “Why did you come to speak here?”

Heckler: “money!”

A: “Just out of interest, why do you think it was ‘money’? no subcontext? . . . Your assumption is incorrect, but my assumption about your assumption most likely is correct.”

[I myself did not necessarily consider the question antisemitic in the simple sense, though that is what would of course first spring to mind. Rather, I assumed it to reflect a belief in the power of lobbies or other organizations of the sort alluded to in the SJP mock program. That may or may not be an antisemitic trope, depending on one’s point of view, but it does not have to do with the desire for personal enrichment implied in the simple version of the stereotype.]

Why does he come here? In fifteen to twenty years, he said, today’s students will be tomorrow’s leaders of society and policy-makers.

“There has been a complete and utter erosion of the truth of what goes on in Israel . . . I stood in those boots, I wore that uniform, and each time, I did so proudly. I do not apologize for it.”

Summarizing the results of the evening:

It has been “a great privilege, and a humbling one.” “The majority of this has been instructive. I’ve learned a lot from you, and maybe you can learn from me. It is wonderful to engage in a civil dialogue.”

[This was either courtesy or what rhetoricians would classify as litotes.]

“I came here to have an honest discussion and I believe we have had it.”

[No argument here: there was no doubt as to where the speaker and his critics stood.]

Looking at the situation of the Jewish people and the State of Israel against the background of millennia, he said, “In the context of our history, it really has not been better” (hisses)

He concluded by saying that, as one raised “in the land of the BBC” [that will mean something to some people, though not to all], while still a student at the University of Manchester, he had conceived the idea of joining the Israel military, “and in my boundless arrogance, I felt that I would be the one to bring humanity to the IDF. It was those soldiers who schooled me in what it means to be humane.”

Heckler: “Read the Goldstone report!”

[further expression of protest]

Israel supporters stood and sang, “Od Avinu Chai…” [Our Forefathers Still Live, the People of Israel Lives”]

Palestinian supporters chanted, “One State, Equal Rights!”


Thus ended the event. It was certainly an instructive experience, in more ways than one. Whether anyone actually learned anything is another matter altogether.




(Students for Justice in Palestine celebrated with enthusiastic song and dance in the lobby until security staff announced that it was time to close the building.)


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16 comments:

Jon said...

Quite a tale. I suspect that the most relevant vid regarding why the SJP behaved as they did was the last one showing their celebration of their themselves in the lobby after the event.

It is easy to read detailed politial motives into folks like the students and grannies who decided their job was to disrupt the event. But I think the most obvious interpretation is also the correct one: that for the SJP and it's supporters, this event was not about Israel, or the Palestinians, or the IDF or Hampshire College. Rather, it was about themselves, or more specriically, their ability to take part in "gutsy" political action (which basically translates to simple misbehavior in the safest environment imaginable), and then celebrate their "bravery" afterwards.

Samantha said...

Wow, Jim, this is fantastic. Thank you so much for compiling everything, it's great to have such a detailed report. Again, thank you for recording my introductory remarks as well. I particularly enjoyed your description of the Parshat Torah, and the questions you would have asked him.
Also, I think Jon is absolutely right; as I decided while writing my thesis, BDS and SJP are more concerned with applauding themselves for their "bravery" in useless, disruptive, symbolic actions than in actually accomplishing anything that would do good for either people.

Hannah said...

Thanks for the report. I agree with Sam; the portion describing the Parshah was fantastic. I also like your coverage of the Q and A session.

What troubled me the most was not merely the aggressive comments or disruption, but the atmosphere it created. Issues such as the Palestine/Israel debate should be handled not with civility per se but with empathy and care. At the risk of turning everything into some Kantian rant, people in this case should especially be treated as ends. Merely posting a name on a board or a piece of paper and saying "it is wrong that [insert name here] died" does not deal with the issue at hand. Rather -- and this is why I particularly appreciated the person who stood up and told his side of the story -- experience is key, and taking the time to listen to others' experiences is really where we should begin when it comes to complex and emotional matters like this.

Oh well.

the sad red earth said...

Hard to add much to the previous commenters. Great, comprehensive account of the event.

Those of us who were once young, and maybe those who still are (oh, those vaudeville grannies!), can recognize how much of this kind of expressive, but uncommunicative protest has to do with not fully formed personalities making a statement of themselves. While some of them, regretfully, will never grow beyond it, others in their full adulthood will feel embarrassed at the memory of their behavior. Some may remember the dignity with which Sgt. Anthony comported himself - and that he knew the names of Palestinian dead, and they only their ignorant rage.

Vandoren said...

Thanks for great article.Left-wingers and muslims never understand what really means freedom of speech.

the sad red earth said...

And what shall we remark of people who write sentences such as "Left-wingers and muslims never understand..."? That the writer recognizes a twofer in duncery when conceiving to write it? Obviously, Vandoren was on an interplanetary excursion during the U.S. town hall summer of 2009, when legions of people neither left-wing nor Muslim - one might even say "right wing" and Christian - demonstrated similarly small regard for the expression of ideas different from their own.

DrMike said...

thanks so much for the report (obviously done with the care of someone who understands the importance of details!).

The anti-Israel groups such as SJP can't help revealing that their "end the occupation" mantra refers to all of Israel.

Leon Kushner said...

Thanks for the detailed account. It's a shame that most of the attendees were disruptive and were there simply to heckle. I would have liked to hear him answer your intelligent questions.
I applaud your school for inviting the IDF soldier to speak and would have loved to hear him myself as he sounded quite down to earth, logical and someone who speaks from his heart.
Someone must do an objective survey on middle east speaking events. It seems that the ones that I go to that support Israel and are attended by the other side are often disrupted whereas events supporting the Palestinians are rarely disrupted by the pro-Israeli side.

Rowan D said...

Nice work. You've republished all of Anthony's disgusting self victimization, republished his Islamaphobia, and his antisemitism.

This of course, is no surprise. But what beats me is, why did you even bother lying about how you complied with Anthony's fascist request and "accordingly turned off [your] camera," when its blatantly obvious that you were recording. Its evident enough simply from your consistent and perfect quotation of Anthony's speech and the use of video stills, but my god man, you literally embedded the video you took in there.

Perhaps honesty simply isn't in your nature.

Rowan D said...

O, and before you delete my post (playing nicely is in my nature, but I sometimes choose not to) consider how perfectly you reiterate the form of censorship that is inherent in calls for "civil dialogue." It is easy for you, comfortably established as an expert of the west, to determine whose voice is civil and whose isn't. This translates, o civil one, as who's voice you can deride and silence without consequence, and whose you can safely hear while maintaining your privileged seat in the parlors of imperialism.

Gregory said...

Rowan, you comment on his civility within his extended summary yet was he the one displaying a complete lack of accordance with policy at the event by disrupting the speaker? no, not at all. for you to comment on his civil dialogue with in the report (notice that key word) is a tad ridiculous, as 1) it's a report, not a dialogue, and 2) is embedded in the internet, where you can comment till your heart implodes and nobody, not one person, will blow the internet whistle or press the world wide web hiss to disrupt your typing. this is a fantastic report, with accuracy extending as far as it can given the nature of chaos at the event.

good job :)

Kasha said...

Jim, I want to start by thanking you for taking the time to produce such a detailed narrative of the event. Adding to institutional memory is very important.
Perhaps more valuably though, your words belie your disgraceful attitude towards a pedagogy of freedom, or any pedagogy at all.

Your consistent disrespect for your students in their spirited defense of principles of anti-fascism, anti-colonialism, and international justice speaks volumes. The derision and embarrassment that you express in regards to these students organizers, activists, and impassioned protesters at the institution where you teach truly begs the question: why do you remain at Hampshire College?
Moreover, given the ways in which you have now made public several times over your lack of respect for students and insulted those who uphold ethics not just academic honesty and resistance towards the legitimization of war crimes, the question remains, why should you continue to be at Hampshire College?

Your complete disavowal of respect for students and your support of a war criminal delegitimized any claim to moral superiority.
However, your calling into question the validity of the Goldstone Report in support of Israel's state terrorism demonstrates a far greater threat to your legitimacy as a scholar or a teacher: as irrevocably proven by the release of Israeli diplomatic cables per Wikileaks (see citation below), Israel acknowledges that Hamas was not responsible for the Qassam rockets and other pipe bombs fired upon Sderot or anywhere else within the boundaries of the apartheid wall. Entirely to the contrary, Hamas was working to maintain the ceasefire on the Palestinian end tirelessly, and growing in strength, legitimacy and organization. As Israel became aware of the ways in which the ceasefire was actually beneficial for Hamas, Israel unilaterally broke the ceasefire to cause as much damage and "real hooliganism" (per Tzipi Livni's demands) as possible. The break of a ceasefire to invade and inflict violence upon a civilian population is defined in international law as aggression, and is a war crime. In other words, everything committed by the IDF after the unilateral interruption was criminal by definition. For Benjamin Anthony or yourself to dismiss or legitimize these war crimes is truly reprehensible and repeatedly calls into question any place that either he or you should have at Hampshire.

Your blog is called "to find the principles."
Exactly what principles do you hope to find?

(citation:http://www.uruknet.info/index.php/2010/06/12759/?p=m74717&hd&size=1&l=e)

Kasha said...

I'm reposting this because apparently my previous post was deleted. Where is the call for free speech now?

Jim, I want to start by thanking you for taking the time to produce such a detailed narrative of the event. Adding to institutional memory is very important, and perhaps more valuably, your words belie your disgraceful attitude towards a pedagogy of freedom, or any pedagogy at all.

Your consistent disrespect for your students in their spirited defense of principles of anti-fascism, anti-colonialism, and international justice speaks volumes. The derision and embarrassment that you express in regards to these students organizers, activists, and impassioned protesters at the institution where you teach truly begs the question: why do you remain at Hampshire College?

Moreover, given the ways in which you have now made public several times over your lack of respect for students and insulted those who uphold ethics not just academic honesty and resistance towards the legitimization of war crimes, the question remains, why should you continue to be at Hampshire College?

Your complete disavowal of respect for students and your support of a war criminal delegitimized any claim to moral superiority.
However, your calling into question the validity of the Goldstone Report in support of Israel's state terrorism demonstrates a far greater threat to your legitimacy as a scholar or a teacher: as irrevocably proven by the release of Israeli diplomatic cables per Wikileaks (see citation below), Israel acknowledges that Hamas was not responsible for the Qassam rockets and other pipe bombs fired upon Sderot or anywhere else within the boundaries of the apartheid wall.

Entirely to the contrary, Hamas was working to maintain the ceasefire on the Palestinian end tirelessly, and growing in strength, legitimacy and organization. As Israel became aware of the ways in which the ceasefire was actually beneficial for Hamas, Israel unilaterally broke the ceasefire to cause as much damage and "real hooliganism" (per Tzipi Livni's demands) as possible. The break of a ceasefire to invade and inflict violence upon a civilian population is defined in international law as aggression, and is a war crime. In other words, everything committed by the IDF after the unilateral interruption was criminal by definition. For Benjamin Anthony or yourself to dismiss or legitimize these war crimes is truly reprehensible and repeatedly calls into question any place that either he or you should have at Hampshire.

Your blog is called "to find the principles."
Exactly what principles do you hope to find?

(citation: http://www.uruknet.info/index.php/2010/06/12759/?p=m74717&hd&size=1&l=e)

DannyB1972 said...

Rowan, just curious exactly which bit was Islamophobic?

Citizen Wald said...

Kasha: Just discovered now what happened to comments you said were deleted.

It turned out that they had ended up in the "spam folder," which I check only rarely because the new filtering on Blogger now blocks most automatically generated junkmail comments.

For some reason, Google's Blogger software classified your comments as spam.

the sad red earth said...

Kasha, congratulations on having missed the guiding – shall I say “principle” – of Jim’s post. Rather than target the students themselves, or even – whatever Jim may believe on the subject – the students’ position on Israel-Palestine, he shined a light on how they represent and argue their own beliefs: the character and quality of their advocacy. Missing this principle, you baldly assert these students’ “spirited defense of principles of anti-fascism, anti-colonialism, and international justice” when the very accuracy of those descriptors in this matter is the very point. Of course, you cannot see this, so like those in the audience that evening, you offer much (unattractive) spirit and not much reasoned “defense of principles.” But clearly here a different kind of logic is at work: passionate conviction and rhetorical bombast are substituted for actual argument. All this in your comment was to be anticipated by its introduction, which, given the very low personal attack that immediately followed, has to rank among the more disingenuous and suckering thank yous ever offered.