The fate of the eleven students arrested for heckling Michael Oren, the Israeli ambassador to the U.S., during a speech on U.S.-Israel relations given on February 8th at the University of California Irvine (UCI), continues to hang in the balance as calls for either harsh action or clemency continue. The students face possible suspension or expulsion. Chancellor Michael Drake justifies such a response by arguing that the heckling students undermined freedom of speech, which is “among the most fundamental, and among the most cherished of the bedrock values our nation is built upon” .
Political heckling has a long and somewhat illustrious history; sometimes a duel of wit and sometimes an expression of outrage. It has ranged from the polite and silent (e.g. when a group of woman protesters unfurled a banner in the American House Chamber during Woodrow Wilson’s 1916 State of the Union address which read: “President Wilson: What Will You Do For Woman Suffrage?” ) to the messy (e.g. when eggs were thrown at British Prime Minister Harold Wilson – he replied that at least people “can afford eggs to throw under Labour") to the obscene (e.g. a Labour lawmaker accused Margaret Thatcher of acting "with the sensitivity of a sex-starved boa-constrictor." ). Most prominent politicians have been heckled at one time or another: Reagan for his favourable policies towards apartheid South Africa; Johnson for his stance on Vietnam; Nixon was heckled at a high school (he told the authorities: “OK boys, throw him out” – his lecture had been about free speech ); George Bush was heckled on Iraq; Clinton for NAFTA, the list goes on. Most recently Tony Blair was called a liar and murderer during the Iraq Inquiry ; President Obama has been aggressively heckled by anti-abortion activists on a number of occasions, and who can forget Republican Representative Joe Wilson who yelled “you lie!” at President Obama during a speech on health care?
Israel itself is not a stranger to heckling. Disruptions in the Knesset (Parliament) became so bad that in 2001 Ethics Committee chairwoman Colette Avital circulated a list of 68 insults she wanted banned, including: blood-drinker, boor, fascist, filth, eye-gouger, Jew-hater, Nazi, Philistine, terrorist, traitor and… poodle. In America heckling of Israeli leaders has happened before, most notably President Olmert was heckled at the University of Chicago last year.
So what is there to be said about the heckling of Michael Oren and the reaction by the University authorities?
Heckling is not the most polite or subtle of political tactics and this instance was marked by clear anger. Salam Al Marayati argues that we should understand the roots of the students’ frustrations in light of systematic discrimination against Muslim students on UCI campus. This has allegedly included surveillance of the students by the FBI and the denial of the opportunity to host Palestinian speakers. Beyond this we need to understand that activism against the Israeli occupation and human rights abuses committed by Israel is met by the full force of the American pro-Israel lobby. Even when such activism is not resisted directly it often meets entrenched resistance from both conservatives and liberals. The ugliness of the occupation, the frustration of students who oppose it and a subtle climate of Islamophobia present on some American campuses is bound to produce frustration and anger.
The issue of course runs deeper. Without digressing into a lengthy philosophical consideration of free speech, we must ask whether the heckling was itself an expression of free speech or whether such heckling violated Oren’s right to speak? The answer is yes to both, but there is an important difference. Oren was not speaking as a private individual but as the official representative of Israel. Israel is currently engaged in an illegal occupation of the Palestinian Territories and has committed gross human rights violations as defined by international law. Oren represents these policies. The question then becomes whether or not a platform should be given to the representative of a government engaged in criminal activity. These students decided that it should not be and such a decision has many precedents. Speeches by representatives of oppressive regimes around the world have been opposed throughout recent history, Apartheid South Africa being a notable example.
What of the response by the authorities? The university has the right to remove the disruptive students from the hall in which the lecture was being given and in fact the students went cooperatively and peacefully. Arrest, suspension and/or expulsion seems heavy handed, unjust and hypocritical. When the President of the United States can be called a liar during an address, in Congress, to the entire country and the Representative in questions eats humble pie, apologizes, accepts a reprimand and maintains his seat, then it seems grossly disproportionate that these students were arrested and may face expulsion. Not unrelated to their fate is the fact that the Zionist Organization of America (ZOA) has called for a boycott in donations and enrollment at UCI .
The argument made against the students, that they denied Oren the right of free speech, is equally hypocritical. Israel systematically denies free speech to Palestinians who, for example, cannot even hold a simple press conference in East Jerusalem protesting Israeli abuses without the very real risk of arrest. To claim the right of free speech whilst withholding it from others is logically inconsistent and morally bankrupt.
Heckling is not my first choose of political protest. Civil disobedience of any sort is a tactic of last resort. However, we must ask two questions. Was this a display of anger that could find no other more polite expression on UCI campus? And more importantly: should those who struggle for human rights in Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories use whatever peaceful means available to deny a platform to official representatives of the Israeli government and her policies?
To see the video and read Al Marayati’s article go here.
To sign a petition calling for the dropping of all charges go here:
Gilad Isaacs is a South African student studying at NYU: "I’ve been politically active for the last 10 years first with a leftist Jewish youth organisation Habonim Dror and then on South African issues. I have worked for the Treatment Action Campaign, a grassroots organisation campaigning for access to medication for HIV+ persons and quality health care treatment for all. I was a founder (and past convener) of the Social Justice Coalition a group focused on safety and security and defending the rule of law. I’ve been active in anti-occupation work for sometime and participated in founding Open Shuhada Street. I consider myself a non-Zionist and actively oppose the gross human rights violations committed in Israel/Palestine."