It was the 24th of October, 2012, a Wednesday. I had seen, of course, the posters around the University of Edinburgh campus, calling for a protest of the Israeli Ambassador's visit to the school. (And I had noted, with amusement, the irresistible attempts to culture-jam those very posters.) I saw the group of a few dozen students standing across the street as I cleared security, holding "Boycott Israel" signs as they chanted behind a wall of police, lining the street in their unmissable highlighter-yellow uniforms. But I had not anticipated what was about to happen that evening.
|Original: "Get apartheid off campus; Protest the Israeli ambassador"|
|A more prominent (if less creative) counter-protest.|
To begin the evening, a small group of students from a handful of societies met with Ambassador Taub. I was among them. We introduced ourselves to the Ambassador, and talked with him about a variety of things, from upcoming Israeli elections, to settlements in the West Bank, to the perception of Israel in the UN. At times, he would say, "I think we're going to be talking about a lot more tonight," referring to the lecture he would soon give to a larger audience, "But I'll say a little something about it now."
The Ambassador, who has extensive involvement in Palestinian-Israeli peace negotiations, was asked about the controversial issue of Israelis settling in the West Bank, and pointed out that this issue divides even the Israelis, with some governments opposing and others, as presently, supporting such activities. He cited the 2009 settlement freeze as an attempt to bring Israeli and Palestinian parties to the negotiating table on this and other issues. He also pointed to Israeli withdrawal from the Sinai and other lands as a demonstration of the ability of the state to conduct successful land transfers when negotiations have been successful in the past.
* * * * *
Before long, it was time to transfer to the larger lecture theater for the main event: A talk sponsored by the Politics and International Relations Department and the corresponding student society. We all funneled into the next room while the Ambassador met briefly with representatives from student publications.
As we entered the classroom, I searched for a good seat in the stadium-style arrangement. A girl with brightly dyed hair made eye contact. She offered to move one seat over, so that I could sit with a few of my friends next to her. I thanked her. She smiled.
The head of the department came in to introduce the speaker, explaining that there would be a 20-30 minute speech followed by 30-40 minutes for questions. He asked everyone to treat the speaker with dignity and respect, in the interest of the University as a place for academic learning. Without further ado, he welcomed Oxford-educated combat medic, negotiator, and Ambassador to the UK, Daniel Taub.
|Daniel Taub is the Israeli Ambassador to the UK|
And then it happened. One male student jumped to his feet, and angrily began shouting about the Palestinians. Ambassador Taub had not so much as introduced the topic of his lecture, and already this student was unraveling a Palestinian flag from underneath his coat. Holding the flag in front of him, be began accusing the Ambassador of "war crimes" and "apartheid", and began to chant.
From the audience, the students were not impressed. "Sit down," came the first shout, in a thick Scottish accent. "You'll have yer chance to ask questions!" "Let the man speak!" "Your right to free speech isn't any more important than his; sit down!" But the student continued to shout.
One by one, a sprinkling of students planted in the audience stood up and joined him. They had rehearsed the shouts; they had worn pro-Palestinian T-shirts under their other shirts. A few unraveled flags. In unison, they accused, and berated, and shouted. In military-like fashion, they sounded off, call and response: "Occupation is a crime! Free! Free! Palestine!" and "From the River to the Sea, Palestine Will Be Free!"
But they didn't stop. This wasn't an interruption, or a statement; this was a hijacking. They continued to shout, louder any time the Ambassador attempted to address them. The department head asked them to sit down, to leave; they did not acknowledge him.
Of course, the estimated 150 attendees were appalled. Some students tried reasoning with the demonstrators, "You can ask him questions after, okay? He's an ambassador; he can really address your concerns!" Others tried to argue, "You think yelling makes your point any stronger?" "I have a right to hear what this man has to say!" But the demonstrators would not listen, they would not talk. They would only scream and shout. He had no right, they said, to speak on our campus; he represented the Zionist racist state of Israel. "His free speech? What about the free speech of the Palestinians!" they screamed.
And for a stunning few minutes, it seemed as though chaos had taken hold of the room. The feeling of utmost helplessness, of watching someone being screamed down by maniacal voices, of not being able to do anything to stop the hatred, the anger, the pain... it was the most indignant I can ever remember feeling.
|The events were held in the old medical buildings at the University of Edinburgh|
But then something changed. One student asked to be heard. She spoke briefly about how she was a visiting student, an American, and how she was offended by the way her fellow students were preventing dialogue to be heard on campus. "You're silencing a group of people, and it's not right in any context." Resounding applause followed, and, for a time, would not stop. We just kept clapping, as loudly as we could, in defiance of the disruptors.
From one end of the room, a male voice shouted, "You're holding the flag upside down!" A protester fumbled to fix the error, but the tension was already broken; the audience erupted in laughter. The protesters, of course, were far too absorbed to notice what they were even doing.
Students began standing up, and walking away from the protesters. We began moving down the slanted room, close to the Ambassador. We sat cross-legged in the stairwell, like children listening to a story. We sat close enough to hear the Ambassador over the shouts of the extremists.
The Ambassador made no attempts to give his intended speech, instead reacting to the scene we were experiencing. I scrambled to jot down what was said, occasionally loosing focus as the bickering between protesters and upset students filtered in from behind. At some point, someone gave him a clip-on microphone, and above the angry roar of condemnation, we could hear him.
"It is a disappointment to me," he said, speaking frankly, "That here we see less tolerance, not more tolerance, than we have in our region." That sentiment will stay with me, I think, for a long time. In a later talk, he would repeat the notion: "It surprises people, that we Israelis and Palestinians do get on... a lot better than the people defending Israelis and defending Palestinians."
The Ambassador nodded toward the shouters. "One day, you will be asked, 'What did you do to try and bring peace?' People who are destroying dialogue are not bringing peace." Interrupted again, he countered, "In my experience, I find that people who try and shut people up have very little to say for themselves."
Referencing his efforts to reconcile differences for a better future, Ambassador Taub noted, "Some people are trying to drag us back into the past. I'd like to share with you what it's like being in the negotiating room, and how hard it is to make peace, and how we might move forward." But the demonstrators, for their part, would have no peace, no negotiating. They sought only to "take this lecture hostage", and "put off peace by broadcasting bigotry."
|Ambassador Taub spent the last 25 meeting with Palestinians and Syrians at the negotiating table|
The Ambassador took what questions he could between the shouts. One student asked about the barrier in the West Bank, which he characterized as a wall. The Ambassador spoke about Israeli opposition to its construction, but its ultimate usefulness in statistically reducing instances of suicide bombings. At the same time, he acknowledged the need to be flexible, citing the reduction in checkpoints from over 100 to roughly a dozen in the course of the last few years. He was asked about aid to Gaza, and spoke about water and electricity projects there, expressing his position that economic growth in Gaza was good, leading to a more stable region.
Before long, however, the Ambassador had to leave the venue. The screams and chants had gone on for nearly an hour, and there was little that could be accomplished under such circumstances. Incredibly, the University did nothing to remove the protesters. While similar activities have been met with criminal charges in California, it is unclear to me whether the policies of Scotland, the University of Edinburgh, or something else entirely prevented the removal of the dissidents.
|At the University of Irvine, agitators were removed from disrupting an Israeli speech|
As students prepared to leave the lecture theater, the student president of the Politics Society apologized for their failure to host a successful lecture, expressing embarrassment at the actions of the screaming students. The student president of the Model UN noted that, in the UN, everyone is given the chance to speak - even Palestine, despite not having an official role - and that on this campus, everyone should be given the chance to speak as well. Finally, an Edinburgh professor in attendance described the disruption as the worst episode he'd seen in close to 50 years of teaching. Amidst apologies and promises to continue bringing important and contemporary speakers to campus, the event was ended.
* * * * *
I remember a story about the Oslo Accords peace process involving Yitzhak Rabin, Bill Clinton, and Yasser Arafat. I think it was in the speech last year by former president Bill Clinton at Tufts University. He explained that Rabin and Arafat weren't getting anywhere with the talks until the topic of their grandchildren came up. Thinking about the future generations of young Israelis and Palestinians, the two men were reminded of the need to reach a peaceful resolution to the conflict between their peoples.
Rabin, the Israeli Prime Minister at the time, was subsequently assassinated by a radical right-wing Israeli, enraged at the PM's willingness to make peace with the Palestinians. Similarly, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat was assassinated after making peace with the Israelis in the Camp David Accords.
|Rabin, Clinton, and Arafat on the occasion of the Oslo Accords|
They say the children are the future. So what kind of future are we, the youth of this generation? Will we create the kind of future Rabin and Arafat dreamed for their children's children? Or will we assassinate hopes for peace and silence those with whom we disagree?
If the people in that lecture were a representative sample, I believe the answer is clear. A few of us, perhaps half a dozen in a room of one hundred, will be loud, angry, and intolerant; we will opt to close our hearts and minds to others. And the rest of us, the overwhelming majority, will acknowledge that education is about learning from one another, not keeping one another silent. We will create a more welcoming, tolerant, mature environment in which to move forward. We will respect everyone's right to be treated as a human being, no matter what religion, country, or political background they come from. And we will declare that it is not okay to stop someone from sharing their perspective in our community.
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Ambassador Taub, of course, returned to campus. In a smaller round-table discussion with roughly two-dozen students, the Ambassador wanted to hear how we felt about the previous day's events, and what advice we sought when confronted with such displays of intolerance.
Many Israeli students attended, a reminder of the sensitivity with which we must treat an entire nation of people when talking about the policies of a government. Students stressed the need for the university to provide a safe space to allow the discussion of views and opinions, free from harassment.
"Freedom of speech," said the Ambassador, "Does not mean allowing some people to shut up other people...like the attempt to shut down dialogue we saw last night." He spoke about the way in which many students have connections to Israel - some cultural, some familial - and the need to understand ourselves, and one another.
"It's first of all wrong to see the people who were protesting last night as the Palestinian camp," he said, acknowledging that so many advocates of Palestinian perspectives would never resort to such anger. The hateful, vocal ones always seem to be against; they're anti-American, or anti-Israel, or anti-Western, or what have you. It's the unity against something that unites such incompatible extremists as the radical left and the fundamental religious right, and without that hatred, those extreme views collapse. He urged students to "take the center of gravity away from extremists", and refocus instead on actual progress. "At the end of the day, it's people shouting. We need to not allow them to take away from us the opportunity to cooperate."
|Ambassador Toub speaks at Oxford University last year|
He talked about ways to improve understanding between people with differing views, no doubt drawing form his experience in negotiations. Pairing up with someone on the other side of the argument, and trying to write down what you think they stood for, was one exercise described. Discovering misconceptions is one way to start moving toward areas of mutual agreement. "Let's contribute from the best of us, and not the worst of us."
The Ambassador reminded everyone that Palestinians and Israelis can indeed cooperate in the real world. He spoke about his travels to Ireland with his Palestinian counterpart, in an effort to learn more about building a lasting peace. He talked about initiatives to bring Palestinian and Israeli computer science students together to work on partnered business ventures. He saw a future peace between the two peoples as not a Utopian dream, but an evolving reality.
"'Peace' is not solving all our problems. 'Peace' is just changing one set of problems for a different set of problems; they just happen to be better ones." That process, albeit slow, is going to happen, despite the cries of enraged protesters.
The struggle for peace, he suggested, begins with an internal struggle, "between the voices of our grandchildren and the voices of our grandparents," a struggle between how things can improve and the "old, simplistic loyalties that will pull us back into the past." Daniel Taub, like Rabin and Arafat before him, believes in the voices of the grandchildren.
* * * * *
When I first entered the lecture theater on Wednesday, a girl with dyed hair smiled and offered to move aside, to make room for me. That girl was a protester. She stood up and shouted throughout the entire evening, refusing to allow the Israeli to speak.
I hope that one day, she once again smiles. I hope that one day, she is once again willing to move a bit to the side, to make room for someone else - someone different - to sit beside her. And I hope that one day, our grandchildren will sit down together and talk.
Without hate. Without intolerance. But with peace.
I, too, believe in the voices of grandchildren.