The lecturer was Moshe Halbertal, a professor at NYU Law School and a professor of Jewish thought and philosophy at Hebrew University. He was invited to talk as the Dewey Lecture in the Philosophy of Law on the subject of ethics in “asymmetrical warfare”, meaning war between an army and an insurgent or resistance movement. The lecture was scheduled to start at 4:00pm; it didn’t actually start until 4:40pm. In those forty minutes I witnessed one of the most disrespectful displays within the bounds of civil discourse that I have ever seen. Once most people had filed into the lecture hall, protestors who had previously been silently standing outside the doors started spouting rehearsed messages about the atrocities being committed against the Palestinian people. They were respectfully asked to quiet down so the lecture could start, after which there would be time for questions and dialogue. This simple request was met with chants of, “Free! Free! Palestine!” “Viva! Viva! Palestina!” and “We are all Palestinian!”
They continued to shout this in the face of everyone who bravely stood up to acknowledge this mob’s right to disagree, inviting them to engage with questions after the lecture finished, but asking that they please be respectful until then.
This protest actually achieved the opposite: a disruption designed to suppress the speech of a human being with whom they disagreed. They were not fighting suppression of speech, they were actively engaging in it.
At about 4:20, the campus police started peacefully and professionally escorting the interrupters out of the lecture hall. It still took another twenty minutes for the lecture to start, but not before one of the protestors, presumably in the name of free speech and human rights, shouted, “Baby killer” at a man whose lecture addressed the topic of how to protect non-combatants (by putting military at greater risk) during warfare.
Whatever views you as a reader may have about the issues surrounding the conflict in the Middle East, I implore you to understand the circumstances of this particular event. These people disrupted, and spewed hateful language at a guest invited to speak at their own institute of higher learning. If your housemate invited someone into your home with whom you disagreed, you wouldn’t shout “baby killer,” at them before they even had a chance to say hello. It is even more egregious in a university setting designed for the free exchange of ideas. As Professor Carpenter wrote in a Washington Post story published this morning, “I’d concede the moral force of [suppressing speech] as applied to actual Nazis, but not much beyond that.”
My views on anti-Semitism are well-detailed within these pages. In short, I’m more hesitant than most to call an action anti-Semitic. I also seem to have more “liberal” views on the conflict than many of the Jews in my Facebook feed. I toured Hebron with Breaking the Silence, I got a view of Ramallah through the eyes of an Arab East Jerusalemite; I see some of the hateful things that some of my Jewish Facebook friends post on their walls and disagree. I’ve gotten a small glimpse of how the other half lives, and it has profoundly affected my sympathies.
But at the end of the day, one doesn’t need to look far to see how dangerous parts of the world can be for Jews—still today in 2015—and recognize the fundamental importance of a strong and vibrant Israel. Regardless of my views on specific policies, I support Israel’s right to exist and defend itself against enemies both foreign and domestic. Even more than that, I support the human right of free speech and the free exchange of ideas. The hateful people who thought they were promoting freedom and justice for all do not support this right.
A big part of me wants to just ignore this protest, because in a sense, just by discussing it, these people win. But it must be said unequivocally: these people are the new form of anti-Semites: otherwise decent people masquerading as crusaders for justice. Make no mistake, this is not Black Lives Matter; these are not actual crusaders for justice. Groups like Black Lives Matter cause disruption to give a voice to those whose voices have been suppressed. This protest actually achieved the opposite: a disruption designed to suppress the speech of a human being with whom they disagreed. They were not fighting suppression of speech, they were actively engaging in it. Like Professor Carpenter wrote, apart from an actual Nazi, that should never be allowed.
If I was a better journalist I would’ve left the lecture to interview the protestors. I would’ve asked them if they’ve ever been to Israel. I’d ask them if they’ve been to Hebron, if they’ve been to Ramallah, to Gaza. Do they know, and I mean know, what it’s like on the ground in that small strip of contested land? Or is their view of the conflict one they got from watching Al Jazeera on the couch in their dorm room? Maybe they do know. I still would’ve liked to compare their experience with mine, because I feel like I have a lot to offer to any conversation on the topic. I wish I could’ve talked to the protestors before, or even after, they walked out. But I’m a university student now; and I, like my peers, attended the lecture to hear the lecture, regardless of our personal beliefs. I wanted to stay and listen. These people, on the other hand, were not interested in talking or listening.