The words below belong to a Hillel student leader, who was present during the April 6th visit of Mayor Barkat to SF State.
Dear Those Who Don’t Know What To Do Next,
On April 6th, 2016, SF Hillel hosted the mayor of Jerusalem to speak on campus about his vision for the future of Jerusalem. I’m not naive, this was a campaign stop. As someone likely to run to be the next Prime Minister of Israel, Nir Barkat wanted his photograph taken with college students. But, no matter his motives for coming, Mayor Barkat is an important political figure in Israel and on the international stage. So his visit was an exciting opportunity for our campus, and we expected it to bring out a diverse crowd of participants. I was excited that our school was hosting a influential, albeit, controversial figure. Anticipating the student body would have thoughts and questions to share, the event was set up to have 50% of our time dedicated to an open floor Q&A for all in attendance.
However, approximately 5 minutes into his speech, student protesters stood up in the back and interrupted Mayor Barkat with loud anti-zionist, anti-Israel, and in my opinion, anti-Semitic chants. They continued for the next 45 minutes, until the Mayor’s time with us concluded and he had to leave. Despite the interruption, a group of students, faculty and community members gathered in the front of the room around the Mayor, in an attempt to salvage the discussion and ask our questions. Unfortunately, the shouting made even that almost impossible.
These events upset and disappointed me, but not in the ways you might think, or for the reasons I anticipated it would.
First and foremost, I felt that my reasons for attending the event were assumed. My intention was to attend this speech simply as a student, not as a pro-Israel student, not as a Jewish community leader. I had no personal political agenda, other than to learn. The protesters in the room assumed that I endorsed Barkat’s policies, and denied me my opportunity to ask him tough questions. I came to engage in the open Q&A that I hoped would discuss the need for a new peace process, justice, and change. What occurred instead was quite the opposite.
I am not simple enough to believe that if had a discussion been held after the Mayor's speech then the Israeli/Palestinian struggle would have ceased in that very moment and a solution would have been found. No. I am suggesting that had we allowed any and all narratives to be heard, there have been an experience of honest dialogue, our minds would have been enriched, and we would have grown from participating in intellectual debate and emotional sharing.
Secondly, like many, I was infuriated by the lack of protection my university provided for me and my fellow students' civil rights . Freedom of speech does not mean you can speak over someone else trying to speak. As much as students are entitled to their right to peacefully assemble and protest, we (those who came to hear the mayor speak), had a right to hear what he had to say. The disruption was even more annoying because Barkat was just one of many diverse perspectives that have been brought to campus by Hillel on the topic of Israel and Palestine in the past. The protesters took away this learning opportunity, and when the university police and faculty did nothing as they yelled, they too became complicit in violating my rights as a student. And I am outraged.
I hope SF State can be an environment for all students. For those students who hold strong beliefs, for those who have no beliefs, for those who wants to form beliefs, and for those who choose not to participate at all. It is vital for all parties of a conflict to feel that they have a right to be heard, or there is no point in having freedom of speech at all. On Wednesday, I did not feel that I had that right respected. I had a right to hear the Mayor speak, just as much as the students who did not wish to hear him had a right to protest it.
And thirdly, although the assumptions and the lack of conduct enforcement from the campus administration and police upset me, what makes me more upset is that their inaction taught these protesting students that drowning out other voices is a permissible way of getting their point across. Anger that stems from passion for change, when properly communicated, can promote progress. Blind, unadulterated anger, as expressed by those students, only breeds more anger and hatred.
During the protest, many chants were yelled repeatedly. Some expressed political views, others were simply advocating hatred, and even violence. For example:
“You’re not welcome on this campus, get the F**K off this campus!”
“Long live the Intifada!”
When you shouted these things, were you hoping Mayor Barkat or I would understand the plight of your people? What were you trying to accomplish?
This is an open campus for people of al political, religious, and ethnic identities. Those phrases not only deprived those in attendance of their constitutional right to listen, but to listen in a safe environment. GUPS has taken responsibility for the protest, and defined the intifada as a "shaking off," a form of political resistance. But they ignore that for many Jews and Israelis, and even for Hamas, this refers to acts of terror, murder and violence that targeted Israeli civilians. As a Jewish student on campus, these words glorified violence, and made me feel unsafe. As a human being, it broke my heart. I wish that in that moment, the yelling would have ceased, not to rid the room of the disturbing chants, but to create a space where we could speak our minds and share our differing definitions.
We cannot hear what you’re trying to say, and a solution will never be reached through yelling and anti-dialogue rhetoric. Our community is aware that things aren’t okay. We continue to seek peace, to find ways for coexistence. Never has conflict been resolved, peace attained, or justice rendered through hatred. TRUE peace is when both sides lower their voices and pride, and agree to respect one another. That is the peace I long for.
I am thankful to have found communities on campus that support and provide me with spaces to express myself. In wake of the issues I faced that Wednesday, I found that their support, as strong as ever, was and is unwavering in their role as facilitators in my journey to formulate my thoughts, beliefs, and who I am in this world.
I ask SF State and its students to view the events that unfolded not as an embarrassment or in anger, but as an opportunity to learn how to talk and listen to each other and begin this crucial dialogue. I challenge those who feel angered to sit down and truly understand where this anger stems from. Take a moment to place your personal feelings on an issue that has has manifested from generations of distrust and fear; and then to ask yourself if your anger is properly being understood. I challenge everyone, everywhere, to benefit from these events – to ask questions, get informed, and to not be afraid to criticize all sides fairly in order to properly understand and interpret what is going on. Students of San Francisco State University – I beg you to take a step back and ask yourself “What now?” Are we going to sit back and wait for this to blow over until another campus suffers with these controversies, and let them deal with it? Or, are we going to take this as an opportunity to lead, and ask the difficult questions that need to be asked and strive to encourage more conversation? Let SF State set the example for all campuses around the country.
Our words are our ONLY tools for success. Our words are the only thing that will liberate us, our words are the ONLY tools for achieving true peace. I’m not saying that one single conversation will yield solutions. But if our conversations allow others to be heard, to create a space for people to learn and formulate their narratives and beliefs, and then encourage others to do the same, then it’s not a bad place to start.
An SFSU Student, with open ears, who is a Partner for Peace.