Last Thursday evening, Students for Justice in Palestine at Northeastern University, supported by the local chapter of Jewish Voice for Peace, held a boycott demonstration in front of Boston’s Max Brenner chocolate shop. Max Brenner is owned by the Strauss Group, one of Israel’s largest food and beverage companies, which supports the Golani and Givati Brigades of the Israeli military.
Tala Borno, an activist with Students for Justice in Palestine at Northeastern, told The Electronic Intifada that she was punched in the face by someone who opposed the message of the demonstration. Borno was not seriously hurt and didn’t require medical treatment, but she said yesterday in the interview published below that she was hit in the presence of police, who did not arrest the woman who assaulted her.
A spokesperson with the Boston police department confirmed yesterday that there were no arrests at the demonstration, which a police report described as “relatively peaceful by nature,” noting that there were “verbal altercations” but there was no mention of physical altercations. The spokesperson said that any assaulted demonstrators could file a report with the police.
Though it was the first time Borno has seen violence towards protesters, it is not the first attack on the Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) at Northeastern.
The disengenuously-named charitable organization Americans for Peace and Tolerance has secretly filmed the SJP chapter’s events, using the footage to produce a series of smear videos published by the “Islamic extremism”-obsessed group on YouTube. A description of the videos on YouTube states that “Northeastern University’s professors promote anti-Jewish, anti-Israel agendas under academic banner. Tenured professors indoctrinate students, encourage meetings with anti-Semites.”
As Palestine solidarity swells in the US, especially amongst students, campus activists and faculty critical of Israeli policy face myriad forms of intimidation and have even been subjected to politically-motivated criminal prosecution.
The Electronic Intifada: Can you briefly describe the scene outside Max Brenner in Boston on Thursday — what brought you and the other activists out that night?
Tala Borno: We wanted to have a demonstration, especially on Valentine’s Day, since we knew they would be fully booked, especially since they do sell chocolates and stuff like that, so it’s definitely in the mood of Valentine’s day.
It started out just like any other demonstration but it quickly escalated into one of the most aggressive demonstration that I’ve ever taken part [in]. Last November we held marches [during] the Gaza bombings and we came nowhere near close to experiencing this kind of opposition. It definitely wasn’t something we had encountered before in Boston.
EI: How many people came out to the protest? And what was the message of the protest; what kind of slogans were you chanting?
TB: Most of the chants we had just made up on the spot, the usual ones like “Free Palestine” and we had a couple ones in the theme of Valentine’s Day, which was “Roses are red, violets are blue; Max Brenner supports apartheid, how about you?” And things like that.
EI: And it seems you had a fairly big turnout for the demonstration.
TB: Yeah, I think it was around 50 people but I didn’t count.
EI: You were actually physically assaulted during the protest. Can you describe what happened, and were others assaulted as well?
TB: Yeah, so I was the one with the megaphone, so I was targeted by the police as well as the people who opposed the demonstration. One lady came up and started shouting at me and when I turned around to see who it was, she instantly punched my face. It’s really aggressive because the opposition sometimes just holds signs and stuff like that when they’re against us. But that night they were extremely aggressive; they were attacking us. We had people holding signs up that got kicked down. Two of the signs were completely destroyed. They had LED lights and they were completely destroyed. It was definitely aggressive.
EI: The people who attacked the protest, do you think they were organized counter-demonstrators or do you think they were random people walking by?
TB: From what I know they were random people but we did receive notification that someone … we had an email sent to us that was a copy of another email that was sent out to the opposition saying oh, Northeastern’s anti-Semitic group once again is planning a demonstration against Israel. And then they had the details of the demonstration written down and they were encouraging people to come and show their disagreement towards us.
EI: You mentioned that there were police on the scene. Did they intervene in any way, and was anyone arrested?
TB: No. When I was assaulted the police officer was standing there blatantly looking at me. I walked up to him and told him, “That’s assault, can you please arrest her,” and the woman was standing there. We were completely ignored, and that was what was the most disappointing for me. Especially when it’s such a controversial issue, we definitely expect people to oppose our views but definitely not from the police. I was hit in the face in front of the police officer and he did absolutely nothing and specifically asked him to do something about it and, once again, was overlooked. He was definitely not on our side, and neither were the other ones. There were about 25 police officers and none of them were doing anything about it.
EI: It seems like the police weren’t there to protect the safety of the demonstrators.
TB: If anything, they were looking for an excuse to arrest us. But we had legal observers advising us on what to do and how to react when we were being assaulted and attacked. So we were very careful on our end to make sure they had no excuse to do so. But any chance they got — we were threatened constantly with arrest and we made sure that we kept the picket line moving so we weren’t blocking the sidewalk; we made sure that we didn’t react to the assaults, so we were definitely careful on our end.
EI: What other kinds of reactions did you get from passers-by? Did people in the demonstration have any positive responses to the BDS protest?
TB: We had a lot of positive response. We had people in front of Max Brenner and across the street educating the people who were curious about what was happening. And the people that didn’t know Max Brenner was so heavily involved in Israel and the human rights violations that they’re invested in, they were very, very responsive. And we constantly get that at other demonstrations. There is definitely positive feedback despite the negative [response].
EI: What’s next for the BDS movement in Boston or on your campus? Where do you think you’ll go next?
TB: We’re going to continue doing what we’re doing; it’s definitely making a mark in Boston. I’m sure you heard about the videos that are being made against us. They’re labeling Northeastern as this anti-Semitic monster that’s taking Boston by storm but we continue to do what we have planned, which is Israeli Apartheid Week in March and we’re right on schedule for that. It’s going to be pretty good, I think.
EI: Anything else you’d like to add?
TB: I really hope that it’s brought to light the lack of support we get. That’s my only concern — if we’re not protected by the police of this city, then who’s going to protect us?