Undaunted by popular outcry and the administration’s condemnation (1, 2) alike, Hampshire Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) have attempted to present their side of the story in the College newspaper, and now also in another of their films, appropriately entitled “Not Silent.” (Full title:Not Silent. Sgt. Benjamin Anthony [IDF] at Hampshire (2/3/11) see embed, below) These activist promotional (what’s the word for anti-Zionist “hasbara”?) videos are really a fascinating subgenre deserving of study in their own right. The formulaic approach lends itself to endless replication (e.g. 1, 2, 3)—or parody. The videos typically begin in the manner of a classic documentary with text (but no voiceover) identifying the event and setting, so as to instill an attitude of solemnity and gravitas. (Message: Clearly, we are in for some weighty lessons.) The narrative arc generally moves from planning and rehearsal to the climax at the disruption of the event itself (the precise treatment depending on whether filming is possible), and then a coda of celebration afterward. A little music (Middle Eastern or domestic), to indicate the mood that the viewer is supposed to effect—calmly resolute, jubilant, or mournful and reverent—is optional, but always in good taste. Pre- and post-event interviews with participants, who assume demeanors variously thoughtful, wistful, or tearful, impress upon the viewer that this is business both serious and sincere (oh, so sincere). The pre-event scenes remind me of nothing so much as those classic World War II films in which a group of earnest, representative young Americans methodically check their gear, nervously crack jokes, and reflect on their mission and the prospect of imminent death as they prepare to hit the beach or the silk.
Brendan O’Neill recently and provocatively called this sort of western bourgeois-liberal activism “more anthropological than political”: characterized by “a profound narcissism” and bearing disconcerting resemblances to the self-righteous and paternalistic mentality of classic imperialism. Perhaps it is therefore not surprising that the protests and films don’t really address the content of the event at issue. Aside from the fact that the ideal is to prevent the event from happening at all, they don’t need to engage its particulars: The indictment, verdict, and sentence are all known in advance. A set of generic terms and slogans suffices to characterize whatever the speaker might say: “illegal occupation,” “war crimes,” and “ethnic cleansing” invariably lead the list. “Apartheid” is always welcome, too. The corresponding keyword on the side of the righteous, for whom the prosecution speaks, is: “silenced.” The disruptors, refusing to be “silent,” will “silence” the speaker for having “silenced” the victims (for it is all about what O’Neill calls “the ultimate victimhood experience”). One size fits all, so it works just as well for an exalted ambassador or a humble non-com—or even a ballet troupe, for that matter. This is politics as performative act, in effect, political show trials as street theater.
The issues of war, peace, and justice are all too tragically real, but what O’Neill was trying to get at was the obsessive fixation on this one conflict alone, the reason that the issue has “become almost the exclusive property of Western middle-class radicals.” I see it in part as an expression of a sort of Wordsworthian enthusiasm, an understandable desire on the part of activists to be agents of moral salvation:
Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,The idea of disruptors speaking for the “silenced” victims is among the keys, for what we see is not just a “politics of pity rather than solidarity” (O’Neill), but also a kind of secularized evangelism with millenarian dimensions. There is a passionate longing to be able to make a difference in the world, to be—at last! in this messy world in hues of gray—on the right side of history in a clear-cut struggle between absolute good and absolute evil.
But to be young was very heaven!--Oh! times,
In which the meagre, stale, forbidding ways
Of custom, law, and statute, took at once
The attraction of a country in romance!
Thus the typical tactic of displaying and reading the names of children killed: a hagiography or martyrology (rather than a statement of political content). What more pure symbol of unmerited suffering could be imagined? The Church no longer venerates Little Saint Hugh of Lincoln or Simon of Trent, but the activists have found legions of other victims to take their place.
Of course, Wordsworth’s oft-revised poem about the French Revolution is apposite in more ways in one, for it was descriptive rather than prescriptive: in the words of Matthew Rainbow Hale, he was writing ”as a mature adult reflecting—nostalgically and remorsefully—on the unreliable, dangerous caprices of youth."
“Unreliable, dangerous caprices of youth” these may be, but we nonetheless learn a great deal from the deliberately crafted film.
• We learn about the motivations behind the action (5:09-5:34):
Lest the members audience just “sit there and imagine that it was . . . like someone coming to speak about agriculture or, you know, making cheese or something,” the disruptors would force them to realize that “This is a soldier coming from a nation-state that has the fourth-largest military in the world, that has been engaging in the ethnic cleansing of the indigenous population of the land.”
• We learn about the emotions of the participants at the demonstrations beforehand (3:30-4:26)
“all of a sudden there were these Israeli chants, and all of a sudden, there were these Palestinian chants . . . you know it was really just like a battle (laughs), and I was crying, and people that I had been talking right next to, I had been talking to right before, having the casual conversations with, all of a sudden, we’re just like, chanting two different things, at each other, like (snaps fingers): immediate enemies (laughs and smiles). It was intense, it was intense, and it was just, I guess, shocking.”• We learn that some of the disruptors did not even know the messages of the protest signs they were holding. In one such case, the sign by chance inspired one of the more memorable confrontations of the evening.
“I was sitting in the audience and I was holding one of the signs that said—and I didn’t even know I was holding it [i.e. I didn’t know what it said]— I looked down and it said, ‘Never Again For Anyone’—and I’m sitting here listening to Anthony, you know, using Judaism, as the case is, to promote Zionism and to justify Zionism, to justify the oppressing, you know, based on the idea that Israel is an historic biblical homeland for Jewish people and that that completely negates the livelihoods of the thousand and thousands of Palestinians who have been living there for centuries.” (6:06-6:53)She thereupon stood up and screamed (6:53-7:02):
“I am Jewish!—I have family that was killed in the Holocaust!—Never again for anybody!”The Sergeant, in the shot heard ‘round the web (1, 2), replied,
“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?”What had happened? (7:02-8:03):
“so I looked down at the sign and I wasn’t planning to say anything—that wasn’t part of the plan (laughs)—but I felt really compelled to, you know, state some kind of connection that I have, claiming, being anti-Zionist and claiming how, you know, being Jewish, and that, and that so many Jews are against Israel’s illegal occupation, and that I don’t think that is very understood.”• We learn why the fate of the child martyrs so deeply moves the protesters. Interviews with the activists in the quiet “vigil space” in the lobby outside the lecture hall:
(9:27-43)[Revealing. And the Israelis in the audience: were they from Mars? Of course, it may be that the activists were using the wrong maps.]
Q: You felt like you had to leave?
A: “It was just horrifying. He was just like, I mean first of all he was talking like, all in theory, like it was all like, as if, like as if there were no, like, Middle Eastern people in the room.”
As noted in my original report, the activists tried to disrupt the event by reading the names of Palestinian children (defined as legal minors) killed in Operation Cast Lead. The speaker, however, was prepared for this and acknowledged the losses of war by offering his own list of Palestinian children killed in Gaza. He then countered by asking the disruptors to name a single Israeli killed in the Second Intifada, which they could not do. This surprise tactic (though it should have been no surprise) did not sit well with the disruptors (that’s not surprising, either).
“He let us read, like, four, and then he read, like, ten. And, oh (on the verge of tears), it just felt like the most disrespectful presentation of these names that I’ve ever seen, and we had to leave, we just couldn’t—couldn’t—listen to any more.”• We learn what constituted success (8:04-8:26):
Interviewer: “if you could talk about some of the important moments of the evening for you?”• Finally, we learn of the complex moral reasoning, concerning free speech versus civil disobedience, which lay behind that success:
“One of the most significant was when he announced that he could no longer continue. I think that was a huge success on our part, the success on the part of the disruptors and the power of the opposition in the room.”
“I don’t believe that his kind of talk where he was dismissing Israeli, or rather, the IDF’s, war crimes, where he was dismissing the IDF and Israel’s role in the conflict, I don’t consider that non-violent, and I don’t believe that that has any place in any academic institution.”
“None of the action happened as it was planned, giving it not just, I think, for all people who were there, not with either, either, like side, but also giving me an impression that we had, and we had, just, you know, just sort of, gone over the brink, but, even, even, even knowing that, and even feeling that in the event, that I was, I have no shame whatsoever.”
Not surprisingly, then, they are utterly unable to understand why they have made themselves so unpopular on campus and beyond. They cannot see the discord they have sown here, or the damage to the College’s name beyond our figurative walls.
No one could have objected to peaceful protest outside the hall or challenging debate within. Sergeant Anthony spoke last spring at Smith College, apparently without incident. And just this past fall, a founder of the (in these parts) much-reviled "Tea Party" movement spoke at Mount Holyoke College—under the official auspices of the College and its Weissman Center for Leadership, no less. Students protested outside but engaged the speaker in serious conversation.
The activists simply do not seem to grasp that, by taking their disruptive protest inside the auditorium, with the aim of silencing the speaker and ending the event, they crossed a line: of decency and common sense alike.
It is worth noting that even most of the faculty mentors of SJP tried hard to dissuade the group from engaging in this self-defeating tactic. The activists ignored that advice, but such, after all, are the dangerous caprices of youth.
The disruptors make a big point about not establishing moral equivalence. I don’t think anyone on the opposing side advocates that either. The path to peace begins simply with each side acknowledging the suffering and legitimate rights of the other and then daring to take steps to end the former and secure the latter.
The heroic actions in Franklin Patterson Hall on February 3 bring us not one step closer to that elusive goal.
“no shame whatsoever”: yup, that pretty much sums it up.