Why we walked out

3 December 2010

Students across the US are protesting a public relations campaign that brings soldiers from the Israeli army to speak on campuses. These tours are an attempt to justify recent war crimes committed by the army and are coordinated by various organizations, the most well-known being the Zionist organization StandWithUs.

Our protests have drawn attention to the massive Israeli human rights abuses in the occupied Gaza Strip and the West Bank. The protests started on 20 October 2010, when two Israeli army soldiers visited the University of Michigan campus. Students, staff and community members collectively engaged in a silent walk-out in memory of and in solidarity with the Palestinian children who were silenced by the Israeli military during Israel’s three-week bombardment of the Gaza Strip in winter 2008-09.

As students at the University of Michigan, we simply could not let these soldiers attempt to justify atrocities on our college campus. We decided that a silent protest would be a creative way to give voice to the victims of these human rights abuses, but we had no idea that our protest would spark such momentum, strengthening the growing sense of collaboration and unity across the nation and inspiring international solidarity across college campuses. Specifically, it was the protest footage that allowed our actions to resonate with many other universities and communities across the world (video available on YouTube).

Two weeks after the Israeli soldiers visited the University of Michigan, on 2 November 2010 Israeli army Sergeant Nadav Weinberg came to Arizona State University to speak about the purported ethics of the Israeli military. In response, a diverse group of Arizona State University students joined together to protest his lecture. At Arizona State University, we protested the sergeant in order to highlight the inherent contradiction between the Israeli army’s claims of ethical action and their numerous human rights violations, including attacks on densely-populated civilian areas, policies of disproportionate force and use of Palestinians as human shields.

Inspired by the protest at the University of Michigan, the Arizona State University protest was also silent. We believe that this use of silence was intrinsic to the success of both student-led protests. We knew that demonstrations that focus on the human rights situation in Palestine are often delegitimized for their methodology, and not for their message. Our silence, on the other hand, left no room for the soldiers, organizers, or attendees to attempt to impugn our action. We stood in silence to honor those who have been silenced by Israeli atrocities. Our shirts spoke for us, bearing the names of the dead to draw awareness to the human rights violations that have been committed by the very same forces that these soldiers represented.

StandWithUs described a soldier who spoke at the University of Michigan, Shai, as a member of the “elite Givati infantry brigade.” The Israeli Military Police investigated this same brigade for an air strike during the Gaza invasion that targeted a civilian home, killing 21 civilians, including women and children, and wounding 19 more.

For our protests, we decided to use methods of nonviolent resistance, acting in solidarity with the thousands of Palestinians who protest nonviolently against the illegal Israeli occupation, illegal Israeli settlements and illegal Israeli system of apartheid. In doing so, we follow in a long-established tradition of nonviolent protests that led to drastic social change: the civil rights movement in the United States, the Gandhian movement for Indian independence and the recent Freedom Flotilla to Gaza.

Our message is clear: as students, we will not tolerate Israeli human rights abuses. In organizing these protests, we hope to revive the spirit of movements that led to civil rights, equal rights for women and an end to South African apartheid. In this way, our nonviolent protests can serve as a model for global citizens to express their discontent with Israel’s policy towards Palestinians. As students in the US, it is our responsibility to critique our government and educational institutions for their unquestioning support for Israeli atrocities. Let it be known: whenever Israel and its supporters attempt to whitewash war crimes, they will be challenged with truth and justice.

Ahmad Hasan is a junior studying brain behavior and cognitive sciences and philosophy at the University of Michigan. He is the co-chair of Students Allied for Freedom & Equality (SAFE) and worked to coordinate the silent walk-out protest at Michigan.

Danielle Bäck is a junior premedical student at Arizona State University. She is the media coordinator for Students for Justice in Palestine at Arizona State University, as well as the co-president of the ASU Coalition for Human Rights.