By Ariel Pinsky
Last Monday, Athens Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) staged a walkout at an event hosted by Dawgs for Israel and StandWithUs at UGA’s Journalism Building. Dawgs for Israel had invited two soldiers from the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) to speak to UGA students and faculty about the current situation in the Middle East and what it is like to be a college-aged soldier in Israel, where the draft is mandatory for males and females at age 18. While one of the soldiers was talking to the crowd, a member of SJP stood up and interrupted him with a prepared line accusing Israel of committing genocide and ethnic cleansing against Palestinians. The student then proceeded to walk out with the rest of the SJP members, making sure to snag some free pizza from the event before they left.
As the SJP students were walking out, the soldiers offered them the opportunity to engage in a discussion and have their questions answered at the end of the lecture. The SJP silently declined; however, one student engaged in a heated verbal exchange with one of the soldiers before walking out with the SJP (you can watch the video here).
Dawgs for Israel and the soldiers who were interrupted may never know why the SJP refused to speak—which is ironic, because the Palestinian people often claim their voices are drowned out by the Israeli side. It seems strange, then, that given the opportunity to sound off against actual IDF soldiers, the SJP chose to express their dissent through silence and a walkout instead.
Adding to the irony, the SJP, who were silent in person, came alive on Facebook after the event, circulating anti-Israel propaganda and commenting on the statuses of attendees who posted about their disappointment and sadness following the ordeal, saying, “We will continue to disrupt your horrendous, evil events so long as our voices remain strong.”
But how truly successful is staging a walkout in advancing a minority’s message?
Walkouts are not a new phenomenon; they have occurred throughout history. A famous example is the 1967 East Los Angeles walkouts in which over 15,000 Hispanic students walked out of their high schools in order to call for educational reform and protest poor facilities, a lack of bilingual education programs, and a curriculum that downplayed historical contributions by Mexican-Americans. Their silent protest was successful and is even attributed with launching the Chicano Civil Rights movement. Walkouts are still common today: they recently occurred in the nationwide protests of the decision not to indict the officers involved in the killings of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., and Tamir Rice in Cleveland.
Historically, silent protests gained considerable traction throughout the tumultuous Civil Rights Era. The silent sit-in lunches of the 1960s and the Chicago walkouts protesting de-facto segregation had a resounding impact on American society and were echoed in similar protests across the nation. The protesters’ silence communicated that Blacks were unwilling to accept the intolerable conditions of racism and segregation, rattling the opposition and luring more citizens to align with their cause. But their silence alone would not have been enough—it was supplemented by the loud and clear voices of leaders like Martin Luther King Jr., who successfully articulated their message to a national audience.
Many parallels can be drawn between the Civil Rights Era and the Palestinian conflict today. Both cases include physical segregation and a nation of people who feel oppressed. Palestinians are forced to live on isolated patches of land in East Jerusalem and the West Banks much like how city zoning regulations in cities like Birmingham, Ala., concentrated African-Americans into designated areas until the 1960s. In both, the land designated for the minority group suffers from poor municipal amenities, facilities, and basic city services. Israeli laws restricting travel by Palestinians without a permit mirror those of the Jim Crow South, and violence between Israeli settlers and Arabs in Palestinian-controlled territories is as frequent as it was in segregated American communities. In both examples, harsh voting restrictions early on resulted in the minority organizing their own form of independent leadership to advance their interests. For the Palestinians, this leadership is the Palestinian National Authority (PNA).
But the differences are plenty. Silent sit-ins and walkouts worked for Civil Rights activists because their basic views and goals stood in stark contrast to those of the Palestinians today. First, African-Americans did not hold a core ethnic and religious contempt for white Americans like the Palestinians and other Arab nations do for the Israeli people. The Palestinian leadership and many of Israel’s neighbors have a fundamental problem with the secular Israeli society, the Jewish religion, and Western culture in general. Hamas, the group that the Palestinian people have elected to run the PNA since 2006, is officially recognized by the U.S. as a foreign terrorist organization (FTO). “Israel,” the charter of Hamas reads, “by virtue of its being Jewish and of having a Jewish population, defies Islam and the Muslims.”
This clash of cultures is exemplified in the way Palestinians treat their homosexuals and their women: senior Hamas leaders describe gays as a “minority of perverts and the mentally and morally sick,” and 37 percent of Palestinian women are subject to domestic violence and beatings by their husbands. There are also differences in how each side educates their children. In Israel, students learn the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict from an Israeli perspective. Peace and an eventual two-state solution is the main goal typically taught in the Israeli classroom. On the other side, Palestinian youths are indoctrinated with violent messages and calls for the destruction of Israel and death to Jews. Hillary Clinton said in a speech to the U.S. Senate, “We must stop the propaganda to which Palestinian children are being exposed because it basically, profoundly poisons the minds of its children.” Violence against Israelis is celebrated in the streets and bombers are glorified by their parents and by their communities as martyrs—the more Israelis killed, the more respect given to the fallen bomber.
Would black leaders have been able to legitimately push their equal rights agenda while simultaneously fostering a culture of terror, suicide bombers, and shooting rockets into the homes of white Americans? What would have become of the Civil Rights Movement had it been mainly militant rather than peaceful? The idea that peaceful protest can awaken the national conscience was proven in the Civil Rights Era, and it is impressive how the majority of the Black community rallied around a message of nonviolence in an environment of incredible hostility. In doing so, their protest gained legitimacy in both the eyes of their oppressors and the international community.
African-Americans wanted equal rights so they could finally partake in the progress occurring throughout American society in the 1960s. Palestinians, on the other hand, have been given multiple opportunities to take part in progress through billions of dollars in international aid and Israeli funding ($128 million this year) intended to bolster and improve their local economy, education, and infrastructure. However, Hamas funnels this crucial money into a vast network of terrorist tunnels (in the construction of which 160 Palestinian child laborers have been killed) and a mass accumulation of weapons.
In a report called “Where Hamas Gets its Money”, Forbes explains that:
“This influx of cash has done little to advance the development of a viable Palestinian state or of peace in the region. Rather, it has helped to fuel the Palestinian leadership’s terrorist agenda, and kept the Palestinian people oppressed and disenfranchised…Most international organizations and the world community at large continue to ignore the ongoing human and civil rights violations perpetrated against the Palestinians by their own leadership, including the destruction of Gaza and the death of hundreds of its citizens.”
So what were members of SJP trying to achieve with their silence last Monday? Peace? Justice? Were they prepared to defend their accusations of “ethnic cleansing and genocide” by the IDF with actual evidence? Would they condemn Hamas for the crimes it conducts not only against Israelis but against its own people as well? Do IDF soldiers their own age deserve to be insulted and denied the chance to engage in a mere political discussion about the issues? Silence and walkouts have been met with success in historical examples, but the cause of the Palestinians is different. Instead of being supplemented with a peaceful message by nonviolent leaders, the Palestinian people allow the terrorists of Hamas to speak for them by consistently electing them into power. And as long as the SJP is silent and Hamas is loud, the voices of the real Palestinian people who are suffering will never be heard.