Charles Murray, who was famously shouted down at Middlebury College last year, spoke without incident at Stanford University last week. Since the Middlebury incident, he has appeared at many campuses, typically with protests outside that did not prevent him from speaking.
On Thursday night, an event at the University of Virginia was disrupted, and it fits a pattern of such disruptions in recent years. While much public discussion has focused on concerns about the rights of conservative speakers to appear, the Virginia disruption was of a panel featuring Israeli military reservists. And the University of Virginia is but the latest institution where events organized by Jewish and pro-Israel groups have been disrupted.
At Virginia, the event in question was sponsored by the Brody Jewish Center (the Hillel at the university) and a pro-Israel group, Hoos for Israel. (Wahoos is the unofficial nickname of Virginia’s sports teams, and “Hoos” is a common derivative of that.)
A group protesting — believed to include both students and nonstudents — entered the room and started shouting anti-Israel slogans through a megaphone, preventing the speakers from being heard. Video of the event obtained by the university showed that Rabbi Jake Rubin, executive director of Hillel at the university, asked those protesting to let the program go on and said they could ask questions of the panelists and otherwise engage in discussion with attendees. The protesting students refused to do so and continued to shout at the speakers, making it impossible for the event to proceed as planned. Police were called; they said they are investigating a reported assault that took place. When police arrived, the protesting group left, and the event resumed.
“While free speech and the ability to protest are important aspects of college life, we are disappointed that protesters refused to engage in conversation and instead continued to shout intimidating and hostile slurs directed at students, staff and panelists,” said a statement from the Brody Jewish Center.
Allen W. Groves, dean of students at the university, sent a message to the campus Friday in which he condemned the protest for disrupting the free speech rights of the event organizers. He said that the protest “runs counter to our important shared values of respect and intellectual inquiry, and should be firmly rejected.” And he said that several university rules appeared to be violated by disrupting the event.
“Last night in Clark Hall, a meeting of Jewish students and a rabbi, properly reserved and wholly peaceful, was disrupted,” he wrote. “I am told the scene in the room felt threatening to many students in attendance.” He added that “with rare exception, there is danger in assuming one’s chosen side of an issue is free of fallibility or otherwise not open to question. We can only learn from each other if space exists to exchange ideas freely and without disruption from those with whom we may disagree. Indeed, having watched the video from last night, it appears clear the Jewish students and their rabbi extended an offer to engage in dialogue with the protesters disrupting their meeting, but that overture was rejected. This was a lost opportunity.”
Officials said that no group has claimed responsibility for organizing the protest. Inside Higher Ed called a phone number for a pro-Palestinian group at the university, and the woman answering the line said that the group was no longer active and that she knew nothing about the protest.
Virginia is not alone in seeing Israeli speakers shouted down or disrupted. Here are some other incidents on American campuses in the last decade.
- In 2009, Ehud Olmert, a former Israeli prime minister, visited the University of Chicago to deliver what was to be a 20-minute speech. It ended up taking him an hour and a half to get through his prepared remarks, as some students jeered and shouted at him. Chicago is known, particularly in the last two years, as a place that has stated repeatedly that interruptions of speakers will not be tolerated.
- In 2010, Michael Oren, at the time Israel’s ambassador to the U.S., spoke at the University of California, Irvine. Every few minutes during his talk, a student would get up, shout something critical of Israel, be applauded by some in the audience, and be led away by police. (Video of the event, distributed by a pro-Israel group, can be found here.)
- In 2012, hecklers interrupted a speech by an Israeli soldier at the University of California, Davis.
- In 2013 at Florida Atlantic University, five members of the FAU Students for Justice in Palestine interrupted a talk by Israeli Colonel Bentzi Gruber titled “Ethics in the Field: An Inside Look at the Israel Defense Forces.” The students said that their disruption was protected by the First Amendment.
- In 2015 at the University of Minnesota Twin Cities, a speech by Moshe Halbertal, a professor at New York University law school and a professor of Jewish thought and philosophy at Hebrew University of Jerusalem, was delayed for 30 minutes when some in the audience started screaming at him. Halbertal helped draft the Israeli military’s ethics code. His lecture topic was “Protecting Civilians: Moral Challenges of Asymmetric Warfare.” When Halbertal eventually spoke, attendees said, he didn’t focus on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and he argued that militaries have a moral obligation to consider and minimize civilian deaths. He has been both critical and supportive of Israel’s governments, although protesters characterized him as someone entirely supportive of the actions of Israel’s government and military.
- In 2016, the Hillel at San Francisco State University invited Nir Barkat, the mayor of Jerusalem, to speak. No more than six minutes into Barkat’s speech, students aligned with the General Union of Palestine Students, stood and began chanting. They repeated, among other lines, “If we don’t get no justice, then you don’t get no peace” and “Get the fuck off our campus.” Some students who wanted to hear Barkat’s talk gathered close around him but said that they couldn’t hear him. (Video of this incident is at the end of this article.)
- In 2016 at Irvine, a group of pro-Palestinian students disrupted a screening of a film Beneath the Helmet, about the lives of five Israeli soldiers. The protest involved shouting that made it impossible for people to hear the film, and students who attended said that they felt threatened. The Irvine chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine posted a note on its Facebook page that expressed pride in the protest but did not address the criticisms. “Today we successfully demonstrated against the presence of IDF soldiers on campus. We condemn the Israeli ‘Defense’ Forces, better defined as Israeli Occupation Forces (IOF), because they enforce Zionist settler colonialism and military occupation of Palestinian land by the Israeli nation-state,” the statement said. “Not only does the IOF commit murders and several violence against the Palestinian people, including its use of Gaza as a laboratory for weapons testing, but it enforces militarization and policing all over the world.”
There are many other instances in which campus protests have been critical of Israel or visiting speakers seen as supportive of Israel, and other protests that have criticized the Palestinian movement or speakers associated with it. The above list is only about incidents where events were disrupted.