A lecture at the University of Minnesota Law School on Tuesday by renowned Israeli scholar Moshe Halbertal was marred when anti-Israel protesters repeatedly shouted down his remarks. The protesters delayed the lecture by half an hour with repeated shouts and interruptions from the audience, before continuing to chant outside the room in which the event was held, making it difficult for Halbertal to be heard.
Halbertal, a professor at both New York University and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, was scheduled to give a presentation on the ethics of war as part of the John Dewey Lecture in the Philosophy of Law, an annual law school event. Halbertal helped write the Israel Defense Forces' code of ethics, though the prepared topic of his lecture, "Protecting Civilians: Moral Challenges of Asymmetric Warfare," was not specifically on the subject of Israel.
The protests were endorsed by the campus branch of Students for Justice in Palestine and was organized by the Minnesota Anti-War Committee, who tweeted before the event asking followers to "help shut down" Halbertal's lecture. An article by Anti-War Committee spokesperson Meredith Aby-Keirstead in FightBack!, a local radical paper that has previously expressed support for the convicted Palestinian terrorist Rasmea Odeh, indicated that their intention was to prevent Halbertal from being heard. "Before the moderator got three words out, the first interruption came," Aby-Keirstead bragged, adding that "speakers rose from the audience, one after another, making it impossible for Halbertal's talk to proceed." The protesters systematically stood up one by one and yelled pro-Palestinian slogans, only for another to start up chanting again when someone was removed from the hall by university police. Protesters even interrupted law school staff explaining the rules of decorum for the event. The police were eventually forced to lock the doors to prevent more protesters. Three protesters were arrested on charges of disorderly conduct and trespassing before being released.
Protesters referred to Halbertal, who argued that soldiers should bear increased risks to decrease the risks to civilians in combat, as a "baby-killer." One of the protesters' chants was "from sea to sea, Palestine will be free"—a reference to the creation of a Palestinian state across the entire area (and thus the destruction of the Jewish state of Israel). Such chants "mean nothing less than the murder or expulsion of over six million Jews," said Steve Hunegs, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota and the Dakotas, who attended the event.
"It was evident from the very start that they had no interest in anything he had to say," sophomore Sami Rahamim, who also attended the event and is the president of the campus advocacy group Students Supporting Israel, told The Tower. "They were just there to yell and scream these chants that don't do anything to bring the conversation closer to peace, to bring the two sides closer together. It's a complete rejection of free speech."
"It's been pretty contentious all year with Students for Justice in Palestine," he added. "They promote a campus environment where no one should feel threatened or harassed, and all these platitudes about free speech for everyone, but clearly that only applies to people who agree with them."
Hunegs called for "a thorough and swift investigation into yesterday's illegal and shameful disruption of the free exchange of ideas at the University of Minnesota" and asked the university "to publicly denounce these bullying tactics." Similarly, Dale Carpenter, a University of Minnesota professor who recounted the event for The Washington Post, stated that "The freedom to present a lecture is threatened in this way at a public university is appalling, calling not only for punishment of violations but for a clear statement by university officials defending the free exchange of ideas."
David Wippman, dean of the law school, issued a statement today addressing the incident:
Yesterday, the Law School hosted Professor Moshe Halbertal, a well known, widely respected expert on ethics and the law of war, for the annual Dewey Lecture on law and philosophy. Unfortunately, the start of Professor Halbertal's lecture was delayed for over 30 minutes by protesters shouting slogans and denouncing the Law School for inviting a speaker whose views they chose to caricature but not to hear.While it is regrettable that the protesters (none, I believe, from the Law School) chose to deny themselves the opportunity to engage and learn from a speaker of Halbertal's distinction, it is unacceptable that they should seek to deny other students and community members their own opportunity to hear an invited guest speak. Values of free speech and academic freedom are central to the University's mission; we disregard them at our peril.
The protesters were eventually removed from the building by campus police, who handled the situation with great professionalism and restraint. After the lecture concluded, audience members, including some quite critical of Israel, had an opportunity to ask questions and engage Professor Halbertal in discussion. Ironically, the central theme of Professor Halbertal's talk was that the military should be prepared to accept greater risks to its own forces in order to enhance protections for civilian non-combatants, not something one would expect to generate much protest.
But whether a speaker's views are controversial is beside the point. As members of a University community, we should welcome—indeed, insist—on hearing a wide range of viewpoints, and we should condemn any efforts to silence free speech through protests of the sort that took place at the Law School yesterday. The Law School will continue to do both.
Following the arrest, the Anti-War Committee intimated that it was in fact their First Amendment rights, rather than Halbertal's, that were under threat, repeatedly tweeting that there was "no free speech for #FreePalestine." But, as Hunegs pointed out in a statement, "there were individuals—who were identifiable as critics of Israel—who sat through the lecture without interrupting and respectfully engaged with Dr. Halbertal at a reception afterwards."
"That's the way to behave in an academic setting," Rahamim said. "If you're going to get up and just start screaming before the lecture has even begun, and then claim that your freedom of speech is being impeded, it's laughable to me, and it just shows a clear one-sidedness, a clear disconnect from any willingness to hear the other side."
"If [the protesters] had stayed and listened, they might have actually heard something they agreed with," Wippman told the Minnesota Daily.