The Students for Justice in Palestine Conference, being held at Columbia University in New York, was wrapping up its final day in the city October 16th; a slew of students and college alumni from across the United States of America were attending workshops which discussed legal activism, student rights, divestment initiatives and Israeli Apartheid Week on US campuses.
Students registered for a number of workshops they found most applicable to their Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) organization as well as what interested them re: Israel-Palestine. I was heading to see a friend of mine, Adam Akkad, speak alongside Jewish-American activist Anna Baltzer on how to implement an effective divestment campaign on University campuses. During the fairly long trek towards Columbia University I took notice of a group of mature individuals converging in public view in what looked like a small protest in front of Columbia’s main entrance. I was drawn towards the crowd out of sheer energetic curiosity; Israeli flags soon engulfed my field of vision. Pro-Israel protesters had camped out in front one of Columbia University’s gates – the entrance-way which led to the main campus lawn. There was security present; two security officers who may or may not have been stationed at the University as per their usual routine and an NYPD officer who had parked his vehicle on the side of the nearest street.
Upon arriving at the gate I took notice of a plethora of signs which were claiming that SJP organizers and students taking part in the conference were “stealth jihadi’s”, that the SJP conference promoted “Islamofascism” as well as a laundry-list of typical fallacious claims which have no basis in reality.
I approached the woman pictured above, attempting to make sense of her SJP “stealth jihad” sign and on at least 4 occasions I asked her to tell me exactly what a “stealth jihad” was, and each time I asked she stood silently. For some 3-4 minutes I continued to press her so that I may at least understand why she chose to create such a laughably ignorant sign yet, as previously mentioned, she had nothing to say.
Later I was confronted by an elderly man, pictured above in the back and to the left; he looked to be over 80 years of age. I was asked if I “knew about the Arabs”, that they “are barbaric, just like the Blacks” – though I am an Arab, of Lebanese descent, I decided that I would listen and press the man with questions if need be, without making any mention of my background. We went back and forth as to his background and how long he has lived in New York – he asked me if I knew who Israeli PM Netanyahu was, before I could reply affirming that I knew him he called him a traitor for allowing Jewish land to be given to the Arabs. This is where it gets interesting. As I patiently listened on he began claiming that Netanyahu was a treacherous snake, and that “any Jew who gives land to the Arabs should be beheaded” – verbatim. I was very much taken aback by such a cold and repugnant comment – I urged some 3 times for him to repeat his statement as I stood near the walkway, an NYPD officer standing by. Upon the third time and after the shock upon my face became more obvious he managed to admit that Jews who provide land to Arabs in any way should be hanged instead, as a lesser punishment.
After speaking to the man I made my way around to other pro-Israel protesters; a flyer with a “Hamas terrorist” and text that read “most civilians in Gaza look like this guy” was being passed out to the public, those walking by. I noticed that as people did accept the flyer’s a great number crumpled them up and tossed them in the bin next to the traffic-light before they crossed towards the adjacent street.
It was a chaotic scene, all in all. As I stood taking photo’s, tweeting and making a comment every now and then I ended up standing beside a man from the pro-Israel camp who was being arrested by an NYPD officer. “Sir, put your hands behind your back.” – “Alright, Alright.” – “Turn around sir, now”. He was arrested right before my eyes, and for what? He physically assaulted a male SJP attendee.
Later on that evening, after the demonstrators had finished with their purposeless pro-Israel side-show, I was informed that not only were SJP members taunted but that two women had been kicked by one of the ‘peaceful’ demonstrators.
Though I was never physically attacked by a demonstrator I did receive a plethora of glares, accusations of being a liar, terrorist etc. and even at some point while I was voicing my support of a one state solution which would be for all of its citizens – Jews, Christians, Muslims, non-believers et al. a man, who I assume was at least some 30 years of age, came up to me and screamed “I hate you!”
Overall the pro-Israel camp managed to make themselves look fairly aimless and detestable; random passerby’s who were not in any way affiliated with SJP began chanting “Free, Free Palestine!”, when I managed to find one of the men who had been chanting I asked him what he thought of SJP and the pro-Israel demonstrators. He went on to say that New Yorkers tolerate the hatred of the pro-Israel camp to an extent, that a great deal support what Students for Justice in Palestine are doing and that they wish to see an end to the conflict.
Though the demonstration against the SJP Conference, held at an entrance way of Columbia University where some workshops were being held inside, was meant to intimidate students and conference attendees it did just the opposite. All those who came in contact with these protesters were able to coherently and intelligently defend their own contentions – their positions against Israel’s indiscriminate attack on women and children, their military operations which have killed over 3,5oo civilians between the 2006 July War on Lebanon and the assault on Gaza in 2009 dubbed “Operation Cast Lead”. The students taking part in the SJP Conference came from all walks of life; from Texas to Michigan, Washington D.C. to California. Students and alumni came from all cultural backgrounds and religious/non-religious affiliation. We were as diverse as one could ever imagine, and all this for one cause which continues to unite people from all over the world irregardless of their backgrounds.
Palestine is not simply an Arab cause – it is a human cause – and this is what the pro-Israel camp which stationed itself in front of Columbia University attempted to hide from the public.