Do Israel's Detractors Believe in Free Speech?

Making positive presentations on behalf of the State of Israel is not so easy these days. In fact, speakers and performers who represent the various perspectives of Israeli society have to worry whether they’ll be heard at all, given the efforts of anti-Israel activists. This trend of silencing Israelis, which has been repeated in venues worldwide, is a major concern for many Israeli speakers and performers when they prepare for events. That concern is warranted, which is evident from the now almost customary procedure for organizers of pro-Israel events to have security or police present at their programs to guard against the worst-case scenario.


One of the most publicized incidents occurred at the University of California-Irvine in February 2010. Israel’s ambassador to the United States, Michael Oren, had been brought to campus by pro-Israel students for a lecture. Unfortunately, Oren was relentlessly heckled, repeatedly called a “murderer,” and effectively silenced by radical anti-Israel activists from the Irvine campus’s Muslim Student Union, who walked out on the speech after verbally assaulting Oren for close to an hour. 

Thankfully, justice was eventually served this past September when seven students from UC-Irvine and three from the nearby UC-Riverside campus, who all had been involved in the protest against Oren, were found guilty on two misdemeanor counts: “conspiring to disturb a meeting” and “disturbing a meeting.” Although these convictions may sound insignificant, they are anything but.

Following the Oren incident, there has been a kind of chilling effect on campus. Itzik Yarkoni, Internship Coordinator for the 2011-2012 Israel Government Fellows program who arrived at UC Irvine as the Hillel Israel Fellow after the event with Oren, says, for example: “I realized that when doing events on campus connected to Israel, I needed to be cautious because of hecklers trying to prevent our events from happening.  In anticipation of that, we always had to have police or some form of security at our events. When I attended anti-Israel events though, there were never policemen there on duty. Why is it that only pro-Israel events need protection?”

The answer to Yarkoni’s question is clear, since the students involved in organizing the heckling against Oren pursued a specific goal: preventing him from speaking on their campus. Yet by interfering with his right to express an opinion, they apparently forgot about the U.S. Constitution’s guarantee to freedom of speech.

For years, the Zionist Organization of America has been shining a spotlight on the Muslim Student Union’s vicious anti-Israel programs, which have caused Jewish students and faculty to feel intimidated and even fearful for their physical safety. Susan Tuchman, director of the ZOA’s Center for Law and Justice, in New York praised the jury’s decision that held the disrupters of the Oren event accountable. “These students have been relying on their First Amendment protections to spout their bigotry against Jews and Israel,” Tuchman said of the UC-MSU defendants. “Ironically, the students did not appreciate the fact that the First Amendment also protects speech that they disagree with. The jury verdict let these students know that they’re not above the law.” 

There have been many other events around the world similar to the incident at UC Irvine. And looking at such disruptions from an external viewpoint, it’s easy to conclude that anti-Israel activists have a problem with the political messages being delivered. But, considering the particular performers and lecturers who have been heckled, walked out on, or prevented from speaking or performing, there needn’t be any political message at all.

A telling example occurred at some distance from any campus last month, when the Israeli Philharmonic Orchestra performed at the Royal Albert Hall in London for a BBC Promenade Concert. During the performance, almost 30 people were removed for standing up and shouting slogans such as “OUT!” The shouting became so intense that the BBC had to stop the live broadcast of the event – a first for the BBC.

At universities outside the United States, meanwhile, hostility toward pro-Israel speakers has grown to the point where they have begun to experience what amounts to silencing techniques. In February 2011, Ishmael Khaldi, an Arab-Israeli diplomat from Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, was scheduled to speak at the University of Edinburgh about his experiences growing up in Israel as a Bedouin Muslim.

But as Khaldi began his talk, approximately 50 protesters loudly stormed into the room and became increasingly hostile. Khaldi tried to reason with them, while university security turned a blind-eye toward the confrontation. The result was that Khaldi was effectively silenced and the presentation was halted. The anti-Israel activists in essence were handed a victory, while free-speech at their university suffered a resounding defeat.

Other attempts to prevent free speech have taken place at prestigious American universities such as Brandeis University, the University of Chicago, the University of Pittsburgh, and the University of Michigan. These displays by Israel’s critics show that they have seemingly rejected what America’s institutions of higher learning are about. In addition, rather than looking to engage in dialogue and/or debate, they’re completely dedicated to their personal, self-serving ideologies that ignore any opposing viewpoint.

The fact that this scenario is tolerated on campuses and venues around the world is unfathomable. Praise must be given to the Orange County jury for believing in freedom of speech and delivering a guilty verdict for the 10 students who relentlessly disrupted Israeli Ambassador Oren. No longer should it be possible to discriminate against speakers and performers based solely on their nationality. Hopefully these jury convictions will send a strong message worldwide and lead the way for other campuses and venues to seek legal recourse against those who try to shut down lawful assemblies and shout down protected speech.