Anat Berko is a small-framed woman known for her ubiquitous yards long braid. She is also one of the world’s leading counter terrorism experts who has sat in prison cells next to some of the most dangerous serial killers and attempted homicide bombers who ever lived.
A handful of anti-Israel University of Florida students chose the wrong speaker to interrupt. Berko was at the Gainesville campus on Thursday, Oct. 10, as the guest of the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America (CAMERA). According to CAMERA fellow Avia Gridi, with approximately 7,000 Jewish students, the University of Florida has the single largest number of Jewish students at any university in the United States.This is Gridi’s first year as a CAMERA fellow and the “More Hummus, Less Hamas” evening with Berko was her first event.
The Smarter Bomb is Berko’s second book about homicide bombers. In it she tells the story of the women and children who are induced to attempt to become homicide bombers. Berko knows the experience of those women well. She spent decades inside Israeli prisons interviewing the women who failed to martyr themselves either because of a technical malfunction or because the authorities were able to disrupt the plans.
Berko gained the trust of dozens of such women in Israeli cells. Her particular interest in writing The Smarter Bomb was to uncover the motivation of the women and children to attempt to commmit such acts, especially the difference in motivations between women and men. Having as your laboratory the prison cells of people who attempted to kill – they say “martyr” – themselves in order to murder Israeli men, women and children is not the choice of someone who is easily frightened. But in addition to being a social scientist, Berko is also a Lieutenant Colonel (Res) in the Israel Defense Forces. That is also not a career choice for people who are easily intimidated. And Berko isn’t.
So eight minutes after Berko began speaking at Pugh Hall last Thursday night, when four students, who had arrived late, suddenly stood up, removed their outer shirts and began chanting accusations, Berko was having none of it.
“Hamas is not the Problem, the Israeli Occupation Is!” and “The IDF kills women and children!” were the slogans drawn on the students shirts, and chanted by the students. “What is wrong with you?” Berko sharply addressed the four. “Sit down and listen to what I have to say and wait for the question and answer portion of this event to raise your issues!” But the four students who later identified themselves as members of the seemingly ubiquitous, but certainly infamous, Students for Justice in Palestine were not interested in listening to Berko.
They came to make their own voices heard. “She seemed disgusted by the display,” Gridi told The Jewish Press. And then Berko really let them have it. “You think the IDF kills children? You should go to Syria, where everyone knows they are murdering thousands of children with gas and other cruel weapons! Go to Syria where there are actually thousands of real refugees. They need you to demonstrate in Syria, go!” Berko lectured the SJP hecklers. And with that, the hecklers left the room and Berko continued her lecture. The people who came to hear about what could possibly motivate women and children (that’s the “smart bomb” Berko means) to want to kill themselves were able to hear from her first hand observations and watch video clips of many who attempted to be smart bombs.
And the four women? They left the room with their tails between their legs, unable to grab the spotlight for their inane chants, unable to disrupt a carefully prepared evening of education which Gridi and CAMERA’s co-sponsors for the event, the ICC, MEMRI and the Gainesville Hillel put on. “I’m used to sitting in jail cells with serial killers, did they think I would be intimidated by some American college students?”
Berko said in a phone interview on Wednesday evening with The Jewish Press. When asked about the Berko event, Gridi was both pleased and a bit nonplussed. “The event went really well, although none of it went as expected.” “The ironic thing is that Dr. Berko really provided us with so much information about the lives of these [attempted or trained homicide bomber] women, she gave them a voice no one else has,” Gridi marveled, “yet these SJP students who walked out without listening to what Dr. Berko said complained that those woman should have a voice and that’s why Berko should not have been invited to campus.
“You know, it’s a perfect metaphor for the peace process,” Gridi continued, “they like to yell and scream, but they won’t listen.” Gridi was also referring to an op-ed by what purport to be three of the four SJP students who walked out of Berko’s talk. The op-ed was published on Sunday, Oct. 13 in the Alligator, the school newspaper.
The hecklers complained about the event “they attended” and went on to describe Berko’s talk, her “faux feminism” and described Berko, a “representative of the occupation,” as screaming and threatening them and having “a zero-tolerance policy for any sort of dissent.”
There must be something in the water in the great state of Florida (in addition to alligators), because the student responses to the op-ed summarily reject the flabby SJP demonstration, their empty rhetoric and the absurdity of criticizing a talk which the authors even acknowledge they hadn’t attended.