By Daniel Elbaum/JNS.org
It has become standard practice among those who hate Israel to accuse the Jewish state’s supporters of suppressing speech. These so-called progressives piously charge Israel advocates of crying anti-Semitism whenever Israel is criticized, and accuse them of legal maneuvers and bullying tactics to avoid a debate about the real issues.
Yet, often the anti-Israel protesters derail the democratic process. Their latest outrageous effort to stop the free expression of ideas occurred at the New York City Council.
Councilman Andy Cohen (D-Bronx) recently introduced a resolution condemning “all efforts to delegitimize the state of Israel, and the global movement to boycott, divest from, and sanction the people of Israel.”
In our democracy, of course, one is entitled to agree or disagree with the resolution. A hearing was called to hear testimony from both sides.
But rather than engage in debate, anti-Israel protesters disrupted the hearing, held on Sept. 8, more than 20 times, often with vulgarities. Many speakers, eager to participate in the democratic process, were shouted down by the mob, prevented from offering their testimony.
After the aborted hearing, Pam Sporn, a member of Jewish Voice for Peace, a BDS movement ally, said she opposes the resolution because she is against “attempts to chill the free speech of all New Yorkers to advocate for change in Israeli policies.”
The Council nonetheless adopted the resolution six days later on Sept. 14 by a vote of 40 to 4, with six abstaining.
Still, what initially happened in New York was hardly an isolated incident. The Israel on Campus Coalition (ICC) reports a strategic shift by the anti-Israel camp from proactive speech—a form of expression that is certainly protected—to active disruption, to deny others their right to free speech. The disruption of Israeli and pro-Israel speakers on U.S. campuses surged by 33 percent in the last academic year despite an overall decline in anti-Israel events.
A lecture by Israeli professor Moshe Habertal was delayed by protesters at the University of Minnesota. The screening of a film about gay rights by Israeli LGBTQ activist Assi Azar was disrupted at Baltimore’s Goucher College. Jerusalem Mayor Nir Birkat was forced to end his speech at San Francisco State University after anti-Israel activists burst into the lecture hall, shouting “Intifada, Intifada, long live Intifada.”
Two dozen disrupters repeatedly shouted down Israeli Arab diplomat George Deek’s lecture on dialogue and reconciliation at the University of California, Davis. At Harvard Law School, prominent Israeli politician Tzipi Livni was asked why she was “smelly.” Even non-political cultural events are game. At Tufts University in Massachusetts, a “Taste of Israel” event featuring falafel and pita was interrupted by protesters carrying signs reading, “Taste of Israeli Occupation.”
There is a threefold strategy at play. First, the interruptions are intended to intimidate pro-Israel voices and silence them. Second, the vocal interruptions garner more media attention than stand-alone, anti-Israel events. Finally—and most hypocritically—the Israel haters play the victim card and claim their own speech was suppressed.
Indeed, the disruptions are often recorded with special emphasis on the invariable security escort from the event and the usually angry reaction from those in the audience. The recordings of disruption are then circulated on social media and the narrative of victimhood perpetuated.
But the real victims are the audiences that are not permitted to hear the messages. Livni is a fierce advocate of the two-state solution. Habertal, an expert on the ethics of war, has been critical of the Israeli military. Deek has had noteworthy experiences as an Arab diplomat in Israel’s Foreign Ministry.
To their credit, some university officials have spoken out against these disruptions. In a remarkably frank letter, San Francisco State’s President Leslie Wong noted the university failed its students during the protest aimed at Jerusalem’s mayor. The school has established a new protocol for these types of events ensuring that disrupters are promptly removed.
Whatever one’s views on the Middle East, progressive voices should rally against the disruption of speech. If not, they should have the honesty to admit that they believe in one standard of speech for Israel’s supporters and another for everyone else.
Daniel Elbaum is Assistant Executive Director of the American Jewish Committee (AJC).