The lecture hall at the University of New Orleans filled with students and adults curious to hear the Israeli soldiers speak. As people walked in, they were greeted by a protest banner which read: “Real soldiers. Real lives. Real people. These kids no longer have a voice to share their stories.” The image on the banner was of Palestinians walking through the streets with their dead children. While waiting for the presentation to start, one of the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) speakers named Orit, asked me where she could find the bathroom. She was admittedly scared by the protestors at the entrance, all of whom were male. The protestors did not appear hostile, so her fear was most likely a manifestation of other experiences. With that said, there was undoubtedly a tense air which permeated the room, and it only got more contentious as the next hour and a half unfolded.
What were the IDF speakers here to discuss?
According to the website for Stand With Us, the group which organized the soldiers’ visit, their mission is “dedicated to informing the public about Israel and to combating the extremism and anti-Semitism that often distorts the issues.” In addition, the website states: “We believe that knowledge of the facts will correct common prejudices about the Arab-Israeli conflict, and will promote discussions and policies that can help promote peace in the Middle East.”
This event, however, did not seem to live up to this stated mission.
Before the speakers told their stories, they played a song to try and bring some unity to the collection of people in the lecture hall. As everyone rose to their feet, almost the entire room removed their jackets, hoodies, and button-up shirts, revealing red shirts underneath. Every shirt had a paper sign taped on the back with the names of children and people killed in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. These blood-red shirts were clearly symbolic of the carnage which takes place every week in the disputed lands between both sides.
There were perhaps sixty individuals or more who joined in this silent protest. After ten minutes of standing in silence, the majority of protestors left, leaving only a few very outspoken individuals.
Amid the disorder and indignation, the two IDF soldiers (both of whom were female), tried to tell specific stories of things they have witnessed in Israel and Palestine during their service; there was even a story of how a young Palestinian child was saved by the IDF in a dangerous neighborhood, despite endangering the Israeli soldiers and medics. Both speakers emphasized that they “value human life” and want passionately for peace to come from the desperate situation.
Eventually, the speakers wrapped up their topics and points they wished to raise, and the meeting opened up into a free-for-all of bickering. There were arguments over Zionism (each side having a different opinion of what the term actually means), arguments over history, and arguments over motivations. In short, it was the usual sort of conversation which surrounds the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The Palestinian protestors were unsatisfied by the answers to their questions, and many of them stormed out of the room. Drew, the other speaker, followed protestors out of the room multiple times, seeking to have a one-on-one conversation and diffuse their anger.
Unfortunately, the talk/protest provided little in terms of an academic understanding of what takes place in this conflict. There were no statistics on casualties, people displaced, or whether current policies have decreased or increased violence. The mission of Stand With Us to inform the public of the facts of the conflict did not seem to come to fruition on this day. Chloé Valdary, president of Allies of Israel, the student organization which hosted the event, attempted to explain the dysfunction.
“What led to the breakdown at Thursday’s event was a simple lack of civility on the part of certain members in the audience as well as our own failure to conduct an organized Q&A session,” said Valdary. “We were aware that protestors were going to be in the audience, but we had no idea that people from outside the school who don’t even attend the university would show up to protest the event. As such, we were ill prepared to deal with the situation.”
Serein Mohamad, who helped organize the protest, saw things differently.
“Our point was to hold a peaceful protest. We remained silent out of respect for the children whose names were taped across our chests, children that were murdered by IDF soldiers,” Mohamad said. “We had about 60 people participate, a diverse group of people, ranging from Palestinian to Honduran, Catholic to Muslim. All of us had the same motive: peace for Palestine.”
“The few guys that stayed after to talk to the IDF soldiers definitely made some good points,” continued Mohamad.
“They even got the soldiers to apologize on behalf of what Israel was doing.”
Valdary concedes that the IDF speakers apologized to the protestors “for any harm they had felt foisted upon them by the Israeli government.” However, she said this conciliatory and apologetic sentiment was not reciprocated.
“Protestors screamed in support of Hamas, a genocidal organization that calls for the death of world Jewry,” Valdary continued. “Allies of Israel and our respective affiliates want peace. We want peace with our Arab brothers and sisters and desire to coexist with them, raise our children with them, and live a sustainable, meaningful life. Unfortunately the protestors who were present, by and large, were advocating not for an end to the conflict but an end to the very existence of the state of Israel. That is pure evil.”
While Valdary and others believe peace can be achieved, Mohamad remains skeptical of the motivations of Israel and the IDF.
“Those who claim IDF soldiers are ‘peaceful’ have not seen the things I have seen,” she said. “I completely understand that everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but for those who claim that Israel is the victim under the Palestinian hand obviously have never seen the other side. That’s pure ignorance.”
Needless to say, no great breakthrough happened on the UNO campus, and the band played on.