Roughly 25 students participated in a peaceful protest on Thurs., Nov. 14, during a lecture by Ishmael Khaldi, Israel's first Bedouin diplomat and a former soldier in the Israeli Defense Force (IDF). Khaldi spoke at the Rohatyn Center for Global Affairs about his experience facilitating conversations between Bedouins and Jews in Israel.
The event was co-sponsored by the Modern Hebrew Department, the Middle Eastern Studies Department and the Israel Institute, a D.C.-based non-advocacy organization that "enhances knowledge about modern Israel through the expansion of accessible, innovative learning opportunities, on and beyond campus," according to its website.
Tamar Mayer, who invited Khaldi in her capacity as the director of the Modern Hebrew Department, felt he had a valuable perspective about the minority experience in Israel.
"Inviting an Israeli Bedouin Palestinian to tell his story and to provide an analysis of what it means to be a minority in Israel would be of interest to our community, especially since such perspective has not yet been heard in Middlebury," she said.
Khaldi has experience speaking about this topic — he started a project called Hike and Learn with Bedouins in the Galilee to start conversations between Bedouins and Jews, and he is the author of "A Shepherd's Journey: the story of Israel's first Bedouin diplomat."
However, protest organizers wanted to use Khaldi's lecture as a platform to bring attention to human rights violations in Palestine. Organizers felt that, as a former diplomat, Khaldi represented the Israeli government and spread misinformation about Palestine on its behalf.
"Khaldi fails to acknowledge the severe human rights violations of the Palestinian people at the hands of Israel," said Kamli Faour '21, one of the organizers. "Most recently, his retweets have demonized the Palestinians who are imprisoned within the Gaza Strip without basic human necessities, instead, glorifying the IDF which has brutalized the Palestinian people for decades."
Another organizer, who asked to remain anonymous due to extenuating family circumstances, said they believed that the timing of the invitation of Khaldi was insensitive. Khaldi has served in the IDF, which has engaged in heightened conflict in Gaza recently, including attacks that killed 34 Palestinians in Gaza last week.
Before the protest started, students gathered in the basement of Forest Hall to prepare. Organizers Faour, Emily Romero Rodriguez '20 and the anonymous student organizer first briefly discussed the purpose of the protest and shared with the group what they considered problematic about Khaldi. They distributed black and white posters that read "End the Occupation," "Apartheid is illegal," "Stop bombing Gaza" and "Free Palestine."
Participants were encouraged to take posters that resonated with them. The majority of protestors taped on their backs and under their jackets images of Handala, a figure created by Palestinian political cartoonist Naji Al-Ali as a symbol of Palestinian resistance.
As posters and images of Handala were being distributed, the leaders also shared the college's protest policy with the group. They told participants that SGA President Varsha Vijayakumar '20 had given them guidelines to ensure the protest did not violate policy. They repeatedly stated that it would be a silent protest, to best follow the policy that prohibits "noise or action that disrupts the ability of the audience to hear" an event in section C. 4.(2).
The organizers also said the group consciously chose the modality of the silent protest to symbolize the voicelessness of the Palestinian people.
Participants left Forest Hall and split up at Franklin Environmental Center before proceeding to Rohatyn Center in separate groups and entering the lecture hall. After the welcome address at the lecture had concluded, three protestors stood up with a Palestinian flag, while other participants subsequently stood with different signs. Organizers hoped the diversity of the group would show that it was not only Palestinian students demonstrating.
After about a minute, the group followed Faour's signal to leave the space and gathered outside the center.
After the protestors left, about 25 people remained for the lecture. Khaldi did not engage with the protestors, and he kept talking during and after their demonstration.
When asked what she thought of the protest, Mayer said that "Khaldi's critique of Israeli policies regarding land appropriation, unequal rights, etc. was informative and important and I am saddened that those who demonstrated did not stay to listen."
Dan Golstein, a junior and exchange student from the United Kingdom, shared a similar sentiment.
"I have seen walkouts happen before in this context," he said. "They're completely antithetical to progress. People are less informed because they haven't listened to the other side, which is the fundamental element to finding a solution. This speaker was someone who represents a significant Arab minority in Israel, and so has valuable insight to share on the potential for cooperation."
Despite critiques, the protestors deemed the protest successful.
"A number of us have felt anxious about voicing our pro-Palestinian voices on this campus for some time," Faour said."The reality is that we receive a lot of resistance from those who do not recognize that Palestine has been brutally occupied for 70 years. It is time for us to reclaim our space."
She added, "Seeing so many students standing with Palestine was remarkable and beautiful. It is was time that we, students on Middlebury's campus, publicly acknowledge and resist the Israeli occupation of Palestine, and recognize it for the violent violation of Palestinian human rights and dignity that it is."
Marisa Edmondson '20, who participated in the protest, has visited Ramallah, Palestine before, which she said has helped her understand the weight of the issue.
"You can not turn a blind eye to injustices because then you're being complicit," she said.
This is not the first time that Khaldi has faced various kinds of resistance on college campuses in the United States. In 2011, at the University of Michigan Ann Arbor, a group of approximately 60 students also staged a silent walkout. In the same year, during Khaldi's visit to Kent State University, former Associate Professor of History Julio Pino shouted "death to Israel!" at Khaldi's lecture.
After the walkout, Romero Rordriguez expressed a desire to stage a successful protest at Middlebury to show that protest can be a positive contribution to public discourse.
"A successfully-executed peaceful demonstration could make protest a less taboo topic at Middlebury," she said.
Romero Rodriguez also spoke about wanting to be an ally in support of Palestinian rights.
"I came to Middlebury to become a more global citizen, to understand the nuances of things and to be able to connect with people from different backgrounds," she said.
The anonymous organizer felt the protest was a positive example of solidarity across different groups for a common cause.
"What's so beautiful about this protest is that those who identify [as] Americans, Arabs, Jews, Christians and Muslims all came together," they said. "The Israeli-Palestine conflict has always been modeled as 'Muslims vs. Jews' or 'Arabs vs. Israelis,' but regardless of our different backgrounds, we all stood with human rights."