Olmert visit sparks Palestine movement at US university

Activists stage a sit-in to protest former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s visit to Tulane University. (Abdul Aziz/Penta Press)

On 13 October, Tulane University, an elite university in the southern United States, hosted former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert as a featured speaker. Forced from office due to corruption charges and under indictment in his own country, Olmert’s speaking engagements at respected American universities should at the very least raise questions as to the propriety of such events. That he and members of his military and political cabinet have been accused of war crimes during the 2006 Israeli invasion of Lebanon and last winter’s invasion of Gaza requires people of good conscience to raise their voices in dissent. In response to his visit, a coalition of students, teachers, activists and community members — Muslims, Jews, Christians, Palestinians and their allies — rallied in opposition and protest inside and outside the event. Despite much hostility, they also found a great deal of support and more momentum for their organizing efforts.

Although outnumbered, we were more powerful than the war criminal and his Mossad protectors and stronger than his security checkpoints and his electronically amplified lies. We strapped red tape to our bodies and stashed fake-bloodied clothes in our packs. Those of us who had the required documents, who had student IDs from New Orleans universities, passed through the checkpoints while our barred friends and allies gathered outside, armed with truths painted on poster board and voices amplified by our growing numbers. With less than two weeks’ notice, we had formed a broad coalition that planned a multi-phased action to reclaim the same campus that is home to TIPAC (the Tulane-Israel Public Affairs Committee). In 2007, the university hosted conservative commentator Ann Coulter for “Islamo-Fascism Awareness Week” in 2007 and had invited Olmert for a brief respite from international and Israeli courts. As Tulane University constructed a safe-haven and solicited interviews and meetings on behalf of its delinquent guest, dozens of our neighbors began to organize. And scores more responded to the call for action.

Tulane has long been an unwelcoming environment to our broader community, as well as to Muslim and Arab students. Olmert’s strategists and local friends chose the city’s most Zionist and “secure” nonreligious institution for his visit, and many activists questioned the wisdom of challenging a hostile student body and a sometimes even more hostile private police force. Tulane voices have been almost entirely absent in a great many community dialogues and meetings about Palestine solidarity work, and the prospect of initiating a campaign for boycott, divestment and sanctions on Tulane’s campus has always seemed laughable. But New Orleans is a city where so many feel linked to the Palestinian struggle through shared themes like the experience of diaspora, the right of return and near-daily racist violence and oppression by police and military authorities. There is no space in our city where Israeli war criminals will not be challenged.

Tulane was as hostile an environment as we expected. Hundreds of Tulane students showed up to hear Olmert speak, and many laughed and applauded when he made jokes about the comments of overwhelmed Palestinians who threw up their hands in exasperation at his remarks (i.e., lies) and walked out of the building. Many of our own group were only kept silent by the red tape we’d hidden on our bodies and then used to cover our mouths when Olmert first walked onto the stage. Scrawled on the tape were words that enumerated some of Olmert’s administration’s crimes, such as “human shields,” “illegal settlements,” “white phosphorous” and “occupation.”

We breathed deeply and sat through an onslaught of racist lies about our Palestinian friends and family, until Olmert began to talk about the mistake Israel had made in “withdrawing” from Gaza. Then, one by one, our jaws aching from biting down on our testimonials of what we have seen with our own eyes and what our families and friends continue to suffer, we rose from our seats throughout the auditorium, slowly made our way to the aisle, and walked out.

Olmert’s audience became our own for a moment. They gasped and whispered as more than 20 individuals stood glaring at Olmert and his guards and then marched out of the auditorium. As we left, we heard the chants of our friends, and breathed freely for what felt like the first time in over an hour. The hostility inside was palpable, but we were embraced by our friends outside whose numbers had easily tripled since we’d last seen them. They’d been shouting for two hours now, competing with calls of “Heil Hitler” and “Palestinians are Nazis” from students passing by. A Muslim woman in a hijab (headscarf) was hit with plates of food thrown from an adjacent third floor balcony while campus police looked on.

Within 20 minutes we’d set up the next phase of our action: four persons dressed in bloodied clothes laid down on the ground in front of the auditorium, and we placed cardboard grave markers with the numbers of massacred Palestinians and Lebanese around them. As students began to flow out of the auditorium, we handed out fliers detailing Olmert’s war crimes and tried to stop passersby from spitting on our friends on the ground. We were mostly successful, and prevented a student from urinating on one of the participants.

We were not at all surprised by the hostility we faced, but we were surprised by the positive responses of far more Tulane students than we expected. Members of Tulane Amnesty International, Tulane American Socialist Students United and individual undergraduate and graduate students were active in every phase. They were joined by students from the General Union of Palestine Students and Amnesty International of University of New Orleans and students from Loyola University. As a result of this action, the challenges we face in our local solidarity work seem more surmountable. Indeed, Olmert’s visit marked the beginning of Tulane’s Palestine solidarity movement.

Emily Ratner is an organizer and mediamaker based in New Orleans. She is a member of the International Jewish Anti-Zionist Network, and a graduate of Tulane University (class of 2007). In June, she joined a New Orleans delegation to Gaza. She can be reached at emily A T nolahumanrights D O T org.

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