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Dear Professor Finkelstein,

When we first heard that former Israeli PM Ehud Olmert was coming to the University of Chicago’s Harris School of Public Policy, about 30 of us Palestinian activists (mainly students) RSVP’d.

We arrived at the event. They checked our names off and gave us pink wristbands to go in. But once you were in, no re-entry was allowed. So we stayed in the lobby and waited for other activists. We all gathered together and planned out what would be an internal disruption. We were to each stand up and say something to disrupt Olmert’s speech every 2 minutes or so. Some of us would also be holding a banner from the balcony, facing Olmert that said “Goldstone Report” to make him nervous during his speech. While we were doing this, of course a protest would also be held outside.

Once we got into the lecture hall, it felt like a checkpoint. An IDF soldier and U.S. secret service were everywhere. After getting our items searched and going through a metal detector, we were finally allowed in. We all spread around, some of us in the main area and others on the balcony. It seemed as if the security had Palestinian radar, as their eyes were on us the whole time. One young Palestinian man who was wearing a Palestinian keffiyeh I believe, was racially profiled. Because of his skin color and attire, he made some members of the crowd a bit nervous, so the security warned him and his friends who were sitting with him not to disrupt.

Olmert comes in to speak, and after literally 10 seconds from the beginning of his speech, Ali Abunimah disrupts him, standing up and saying that a war criminal should not have freedom of expression, and also expressed his disappointment with his Alma Mater for inviting a murderer. He was escorted out by the police.

After that, approximately every minute or two, someone else stood up and disrupted Olmert’s speech. One student read off the names of people in Gaza that were killed at Olmert’s hands. Others repeatedly mentioned he was a war criminal and asserted that he had blood on his hands for the murders of 1,400 Palesitnians in Gaza, as well as 1,200 Lebanese.

After each person was escorted out by the police, cheering ensued. Olmert was getting nervous or frustrated, as he kept laughing and smiling. However, he began instigating the Palestinian crowd by saying more extreme statements as the disruptions died down toward the end. It seemed as if he WANTED more interruptions. Perhaps he anticipated disruptions and didn’t write a speech. He kept talking about how Israel had been terrorized for 60 years, and is merely trying to defend herself. He also mentioned that Israel is and always will be a Jewish nation. According to Olmert, Jerusalem has always been fully Jewish, and if you dig under the Temple Mount, no history of Palesitnians can be found. This made us activists even more angry.

During the lecture, a young male student stood up and interrupted (as usual, no different from any others). A police officer, who WAS NOT wearing a uniform, just regular attire, comes up and grabs him! From where I was sitting, it looked like he was choking the boy. Another member of the crowd, who was this boy’s good friend, got up to defend him and tried to push the man off him, not knowing it was a police officer. Another police officer, in uniform, arrested him.The police officers at the event were generally very unfair and harsh on the Palestinian activists. The Zionists in the audience were also getting increasingly hostile, one of them throwing a book at our activists.

I was one of the last to disrupt. After my shout I was escorted out by a police officer. On the way out, I said shalom to the IDF soldier and joined the crowd outside protesting.

I believe that Thursday was a huge success for us. Olmert didn’t get to speak. About 30 of us stood up and interrupted him throughout his speech. He was constantly getting disrupted. As one of our disrupters said, a war criminal should never be allowed to speak unless it’s in front of an international court. I’m proud of the Chicago activist community for having the courage to look Olmert in the eye and tell him exactly what we feel.

A friend in Gaza contacted me and told me they heard what we did, and that people in Gaza were so proud of us in Chicago. It made me proud of what we did, and it was a historical day I will never forget. But Olmert is still on a speaking tour across America. His next stop: San Francisco. I hope the activists there come out strong and refuse to let him speak as well. As one the students who disrupted said, “Justice will be served.”

Dr. Finkelstein, I wish you were there. But no worries, you were there with us in spirit.

Sincerely, your former student,

S.D.

Maureen Clare Murphy, The Electronic Intifada, 16 October 2009

Approximately 30 activists — mainly students from area universities — disrupted a lecture given in Chicago by former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert yesterday which was hosted by the University of Chicago’s Harris School of Public Policy. While Olmert’s speech was disrupted inside the lecture hall, approximately 150 activists protested outside the hall in the freezing rain.

Protesters inside the hall read off the names of Palestinian children killed during Israel’s assault on Gaza last winter. They shouted that it was unacceptable that the war crimes suspect be invited to speak at a Chicago university when his army destroyed a university in Gaza in January. They reminded the audience of the more than 1,400 Palestinians killed during the Gaza attacks and the more than 1,200 killed during Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in 2006. Both invasions happened during Olmert’s premiership.

With interventions coming every few minutes throughout his appearance, Olmert had difficulty giving his speech and often appeared frustrated. At one point he appealed for “just five minutes” to speak without being interrupted.

The demonstration was mobilized last week after organizers learned of the lecture, paid for by a grant provided by Jordan’s King Abdullah II. Within hours an appeal was issued, urging those concerned with Palestinian rights to call the university and demand that the lecture be canceled. The call was put out by major community organizations such as the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC)-Chicago, American Muslims for Palestine and the United States Palestine Community Network, as well as solidarity organizations al-Awda, the International Jewish Anti-Zionist Network, the International Solidarity Movement, the Palestine Solidarity Group-Chicago and area campus groups such as Students for Justice in Palestine chapters at DePaul University and the University of Illinois at Chicago, as well as the Arab Student Union at Moraine Valley.

The security presence at the lecture was severe with university police, the US Secret Service and Israeli security present — many of them visibly armed — with Israeli security checking in those who had registered in advance to attend the lecture. Video and photography was banned inside the hall and media were not allowed to cover the lecture. Despite these restrictions, activists managed to take video inside the hall and drop an eight-foot-long banner from the mezzanine that read “Goldstone” in both English and Hebrew, referring to the recently published UN report investigating violations of international law during the Gaza invasion. One activist was arrested and put in a headlock by a police officer, witnesses said, and released around midnight. Approximately 30 supporters waited for him at the police station while he was detained.

Towards the end of the lecture, Olmert put his hand over his brow and squinted to search out the source of the shout, “There’s no discussion with a war criminal — the only discussion you should be having is in court!” That call was made by Ream Qato, who graduated from the university in 2007, and added, “You belong in the Hague!” Qato told The Electronic Intifada that yesterday’s protest “Set the stage for University of Chicago students and students in the Chicago area … no one should be afraid of speaking out against someone.” She added that the demonstration was significant because “The Palestinian community [in Chicago] for the first time went to a university campus to protest.”

Approximately 150 protesters demonstrated outside the University of Chicago hall where former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was speaking. (Maureen Clare Murphy)

Second-year medical student Afshan Mohiuddin was removed from the hall after she voiced her disapproval at the Harris School dean’s on-stage assertion that Olmert was invited to express his views. “He can do that at the International Court of Justice, not at this university,” Mohiuddin shouted, adding, “[Olmert] belongs in a cage, not on a stage!”

Mohiuddin told The Electronic Intifada that “it was ironic that they searched us [instead of him],” considering that Olmert is suspected of war crimes. She added, “As a University of Chicago student I was upset with the lack of commotion on behalf of the student body before the event … No one has protested the event.”

Mohiuddin’s frustration was echoed in a commentary published by the University of Chicago’s student publication The Chicago Maroon earlier this week, in which third-year student Nadia Marie Ismail decried the lack of protest by the university community towards the Olmert speech. She contrasted this silence with the pressure the Center for Middle Eastern Studies faced after a lecture earlier this year by The Electronic Intifada’s Ali Abunimah (who was the first to disrupt Olmert’s speech yesterday), University of Chicago professor John Mearsheimer and Norman Finkelstein, whose lost bid for tenure at DePaul University is attributed to outside pressure by Israel government apologists. “[T]hat University center was put under unprecedented pressure for weeks before and months after the event, with claims that University centers and schools should not host ‘one-sided’ speakers,” Ismail wrote.

Olmert’s lecture in Chicago was one of several scheduled throughout the United States. His speech at the University of Kentucky the previous day was disrupted by activists and met with a protest outside. These demonstrations are part of a wave of notched-up dissent towards Israeli officials implicated in war crimes and racist policy. In 2003, former Israeli minister Natan Sharansky was greeted with a pie in the face by an activist at Rutgers University in New Jersey. Last year at the UK’s Oxford University, a speech by Israeli President Shimon Peres was drowned out by protesters outside while students inside the hall disrupted his talk.

One of the organizers of the protest, Hatem Abudayyeh, National Coordinating Committee member of the United States Palestine Community Network, hoped for a larger count of protesters despite the adverse weather. However, he said, “The fact that there’s people around the world who know about it, the fact that PACBI [the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel] sent us a letter of support and endorsement of our action, the fact that there was coordination with the outside protest and the inside disruption — all of these components and aspects of the action made it one of the more successful ones that we’ve done.”

He added, “There is real change happening, whether it’s the international response to the Lebanon war or the international response to the Gaza war. The US is the most powerful country in the world, Israel is a powerful military as well, but the Palestinians have the world on their side.”

Video shot and produced by The Electronic Intifada.

Maureen Clare Murphy is Managing Editor of The Electronic Intifada and an activist with the Palestine Solidarity Group-Chicago, which co-sponsored the demonstration.

Adeeb Abu Rahme, a leading Palestinian non-violent peace activist was arrested in the weekly Bil’in demonstration against the Apartheid Wall (see the video, Adeeb is the protester in the orange shirt with the mega-phone). The Israeli military is charging Adeeb with “incitement to violence,” a charge that could bring a serious jail term. This charge is the culmination of a new attempt to “break” the non-violent resistance in Palestine by targeting the leaders of the non-violent protests.

Adeeb is currently in detention and will be taken in front of a military judge on Thursday, 16 July 2009. The military prosecutor intends to request for Adeeb to remain in detention until the end of the proceedings against him. This could mean months or a year in military prison for Adeeb, who is the sole provider for his family of 9 children, wife and mother.

Adeeb Abu Rahme at a Bil'in demonstration

Adeeb Abu Rahme (in grey) at a Bil'in demonstration

In the past five years, many attempts have been made by the to break the spirit of the Bil’in protests. Every new commander in Bil’in has promised to break the resistance, using new weapons and increasing the level of violence against unarmed demonstrators. But the spirit and resilience of Bil’in residents and their supporters cannot be broken; every Friday they continue to march and chant against the theft of Palestinian land and the systemic violence of the Occupation.

In the past month, Israeli forces have attacked Bil’in and other villages with renewed vigor, raiding homes in the early hours of the morning to seize suspected demonstrators. Mostly children under the age of 18, they are interrogated and pressured to ‘confess’ that they throw stones at the instructions of the village leaders. The truth remains that village leaders discourage stone throwing and recognize that it is used as a tool by the Occupation to falsely accuse the demonstrations of instigating violence. The Bil’in Popular Committee Against the Wall and Settlements requested the presence of Israeli and international solidarity activists to document and discourage the night raids.

Anyone of the thousands who have marched with Adeeb can testify that despite provocation and serious attacks on his person, he has never responded violently. Attempts to criminalize the leadership of non-violent protests where curbed in the past with the help of an outpouring of support from people committed to justice from all over the world. We need you now to testify to Adeeb’s commitment to non-violence and to hold the Israeli military accountable for trying to destroy the resistance.

Please email your letter to palestinesolidarity@gmail.com

SAMPLE LETTER:

To whom it may concern,

I was disturbed to learn that Mr. Adeeb Abu Rahme, a leader in his village and participant in the non-violent demonstrations that take place in Bil’in every Friday, was arrested for peacefully demonstrating against Israel’s separation fence on July 10th, 2009 and is still being held in prison. Over the past five years Mr. Rahme and the leaders in Bil’in village have displayed an unshakable commitment to non-violence and dignified action.

Mr. Rahme in particular is well known for his commitment to the struggle for peace through non-violent means and for his willingness to work in partnership with Israelis. He is a respected member of the community. I am impressed with his honesty and commitment to non-violence. My understanding of Israeli law is that the right to demonstrate peacefully is protected. Mr. Rahme should be commended and not punished for his efforts.

I hope and trust that Mr. Rahme will be allowed to return to his family, including his 9 children, wife and mother for whom he is the sole supporter, and community without further delay and that his name be cleared of all accusations.

Sincerely,

By Max Blumenthal

On Wednesday, I walked around central Jerusalem with my friend, Joseph Dana, an Israel peace activist who has lived in the country for three years. We interviewed young people on camera about the speech President Barack Obama planned to deliver to the Muslim world the following day in Cairo. Though our questions were not provocative at all – we simply asked, “What do you think of Obama’s speech” – the responses our interview subjects offered comprised some of the most shocking comments I have ever recorded on camera. They were racist, hateful, and incredibly ignorant, and were mostly couched within a Zionist context – “this is our land, Obama!” The following day, we edited an hour of interviews into a 3:30 minute video package and released it on Mondoweiss and on the Huffington Post.

Within a few hours, I received an email from a Huffington Post administrator informing me he had scrubbed my video from the site. “I don’t see that it has any real news value,” the administrator told me. “For me it only proves that one can find drunk people willing to say just about anything.  Especially drunk, moronic people.” For the first time, the premier clearinghouse for online news and opinions had suppressed one of my posts.

Other bloggers and commenters criticized the video on similar grounds. Their complaints generally went like this: In order to advance an agenda, Max Blumenthal exploited the wild remarks of a bunch of drunk Jewish frat-boys innocently showing off in front of their friends. The footage contained in his video in no way reflects what the Israeli public thinks. If Max went to a bar in any college town in the United States he would find the same level of ignorance and racism. Ron Kampeas at the JTA has written that I need “to grow up and put [my talents] to good use.” (While Kampeas praised some of my other video reports exposing right-wing Christians, this latest video revealing the extremism of some Israeli and American Jews seemed to hit too close to home.)

The criticism of my video raised an interesting journalistic issue: Is reporting any less credible when interview subjects are drinking alcohol? Of course not. Journalists interview people at bars all the time, especially in broadcast packages. Beer does not, to my knowledge, contain a special drug that immediately infects drinkers with white supremacist sentiments, violent rhetoric, and anti-democratic tendencies. I get drunk as much as any social drinker and I have never called for “white power” or declared, “fuck the niggers!” as one of my interviewees did. No amount of alcohol could make me express opinions that were not authentically mine. If anything, alcohol is a crude form of truth serum that lubricates the release of closely held opinions and encourages confessional talk.

The notion that the racist diatribes in my video emerged spontaneously from a beery void is a delusion, but for some, it is a necessary one. It allows them to erect a psychological barrier against acknowledging the painful consequences of prolonged Zionist indoctrination. And it enables them to dismiss the disturbing spectacle of young Jews behaving like fascist soccer hooligans in the heart of the capitol of Israel and the spiritual home of the Jewish people.

The people in my video were not white trash, nor were they the “extreme right-wing fringe” as some bloggers have called them. They were the college-educated sons and daughters of middle and upper class American Jews from cosmopolitan metropolises and genteel suburbs. Some had come to Israel on vacation, some had made aliyah, and some told me they were planning to move to Israel in the near future. Many were dual citizens of America and Israel. They may have behaved in a moronic way, but they will not grow up to toil in the custodial arts. Many of these kids will move into white-collar jobs and use their influence to advance Israeli initiatives. Programs like Birthright Israel  — a few of those in my video were on Birthright tours — exist for the exclusive purpose of indoctrinating American Jews into unyielding, unthinking supporters of Israel. Thus the kids in my video represent at least one aspect of the Zionist project’s future base of political sustenance.

I do not and have never claimed that the characters that appeared in my video were representative of general public opinion in Israel. They reflect only a slice of reality, which is reality nonetheless. On the other hand, a new Yedioth Aronoth poll finds a vast majority of the Israeli public holds a negative opinion of Obama and believes he is biased toward the Palestinians. A top minister in Israel’s government has compared Obama to Pharaoh, claiming his call for a settlement freeze is like casting Jewish children into the river. A group of rightists have launched a campaign against “the anti-Semitic Obama,” apparently convinced they can make inroads with the general public.

Behind the Israeli view of Obama lies a climate of extremism that exploded into the open when the country attacked Gaza. Today, extremist sentiment hovers well above the surface. A groundbreaking study of Israeli attitudes published in the wake of the Gaza war by the Tel Aviv University political psychologist Daniel Bar-Tal, who I recently interviewed, found that “Israeli Jews’ consciousness is characterized by a sense of victimization, a siege mentality, blind patriotism, belligerence, self-righteousness, dehumanization of the Palestinians and insensitivity to their suffering.” Bar-Tal commented to me that the army is the primary vehicle for stoking the nationalism of young Israelis. “Some countries are states without armies,” he said. “But Israel today is an army without a state. There is no civilian institution capable of restraining the army’s influence.”

In an interview with me two days ago, the famed Israeli author David Grossman echoed Bar-Tal’s findings, remarking, “The country is trapped in one legitimate narrative: that of the government, which is of paranoia, and every event serves this narrative. Those events that don’t are simply overlooked.”

I have been in Israel for over a month; almost every day I hear expressions of paranoia about Arabs, historical delusions, and the constant refrain that “the world is against us.” I hear this even from some close friends — young, cosmopolitan Israelis living the good life in the so-called “bubble city” of Tel Aviv. Last week, a friend I play basketball with in a working class suburb of Tel Aviv (he is a high-tech worker from a fifth generation Israeli family) calmly informed me while we sat in the shade by the court: “I’m a Zionist, so of course I prefer the bloodshed on the other side.” While sitting at a bar with an elegant and otherwise charming young woman, she described to me while sipping a mixed drink how she arbitrarily shot at Arabs while serving in the army because “they want to come and steal my house.” On a leafy Tel Aviv street, a friend of a friend who splits time between spinning at local hip-hop clubs and patrolling the streets of Gaza City told me if Israel has to kill 800 Palestinians to save one Israeli Jew, then so be it. “If we wanted to, we could completely wipe Gaza out,” he said. “But we don’t because the IDF is pure.”

Since Gaza, vocal opponents of the Occupation have found themselves increasingly marginalized and are hounded by the authorities (see the New Profile raid, Ezra Nawi, Sami Jubreir, and on and on). Meanwhile, Avigdor Lieberman and his Yisrael Beiteynu party’s unapologetically racist campaign has taken the form of a stream of bills working through the Knesset that would criminalize observance of the Palestinian Nakbah, ban public discussion of a bi-national state, and allow towns to ban people from entering their limits who do not subscribe to Zionist ideals. The bills keep coming like a flood; already, the Nakbah ban has passed a committee vote.

A straight line can be drawn from the rhetoric depicted in my video to the rise of Lieberman, a proto-fascist who draws a startling degree of political strength from Israel’s youth by channeling their innermost fears and resentments. In fact, the author of the Nakbah ban is a 28-year-old named Alex Miller – the youngest ever member of the Knesset and the chairman of Beiteynu’s youth wing. In an interview, Miller told me he introduced the bill simply because, “the Israeli public believes in loyalty.” He added, “Since the founding of our party we have grown in strength. We have never changed our platform and we are seeing increasing support from the public.”

Despite the Huffington Post’s rejection of my video report, it has exploded across the blogosphere. Even the rapper 50 Cent posted it prominently on his official website. It two days it has garnered 100,000 views. I hope those who have watched it, especially those predisposed to dismiss it as anti-Israel propaganda or shock video with “no news value,” will at least ask how vitriolic levels of racism are able to flow through the streets of Jerusalem like sewage, why the grandsons of Holocaust survivors feel compelled to offer the Shoah as justification to behave like fascist street thugs, and how the sons and daughters of successful Jewish American families casually merged Zionist cant with crude white supremacism. The willful avoidance of these painful questions by self-proclaimed supporters of Israel is setting the stage for the complete delegitimization of the country they claim to love. As Obama said, “any world order that elevates one nation or group of people over another will inevitably fail. So whatever we think of the past, we must not be prisoners of it.”