Protests for Palestine: Olmert visit sparks fervent furry

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Debate rages across campus after Israeli scholar offers his insight into the Gaza conflict

By Kyle Mullin
Yossi Olmert looks exhausted. He stands backstage in McCain hall’s Kinsella auditorium, his face flushed by all the hot air in the room. His March 16 lecture had quickly dissolved into a shouting match between him and an audience filled with protestors. But now it’s over, and it seems fatigue is just another fight to be won, his face drawn in a tight grimace, his slumped shoulders stiffening under a silky smooth grey suit – his jacket, shirt and tie all comprised only of different shades of grey.

“That was bullshit and nonsense,” he said of one protestor in particular, a young woman who stood during his lecture and began rhyming off the names of Palestinian children killed in the conflict in Gaza.

“I wasn’t angry, I didn’t feel anything for that young lady. I feel sorry for people who are killed whether they’re Jews or Arabs. She only feels sorry for Arabs. You think I couldn’t read the names of all our victims of terrorism?”

Olmert said that would make for a long list – 1400 hundred Israeli victims in all since 2001, including those killed after 6000 rockets were launched from Gaza toward Israel late last year. Olmert is one of Israel’s biggest political players – a journalist, author, former policy advisor, and brother of incumbent Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.

Ehud Olmert’s days in office are of course numbered, he will be stepping down imminently after allegations of corruption. But Yossi Olmert has been touring North American campuses fervently in recent years, bolstering that government’s fight against “Palestinian terrorism” as loudly as the other side calls that aim a reign of terror, leaving thousands to die in the crossfire.

“I also care about both sides – every bit as much as he might,” said Julie Michaud, the “uncaring young lady” Olmert referred to that evening.

Michaud was the first of many to raise her voice during the lecture.

As Olmert declared that responding to a single Hamas rocket was justified let alone 6,000, she stood, squaring her slight shoulders and shouting out the victims of that Israeli response:

“Ibithal Kechko, 10 years old. Ahmed Riad Mohammed Al-Sinwar, 3 years old. Hassan Ali Al-Akhrass, 5 years old…”

Vigorous applause erupted as security stormed toward her, snatching the sheet out of her hands.

“I think the real problem is our media paints Israelis and Palestinians with different brushes,” she said after the lecture.

“Dead Israelis have names, families, homes just like us. Palestinians are just listed numbers and death tolls. That’s why I wanted to read their names and highlight their tragedy, it’s barbaric and it should be decried by the whole world.”

She said the attack was barbaric because of its sheer scope – 13 dead Isrelis, which she admits is a tragic toll, but no where close to the more than 1300 Palestinians killed in response to the rockets fired.

Michaud said those rockets shouldn’t have been fired, but they in no way justify the claim that Palestinians are terrorists. She said we should instead question what would spark such a desperate attack in the first place.

“These people are treated like prisoners, more than a million of them living in squalor, boxed off in an area the size of Kouchibouguac,” said Naveed A. Majid, Communications Director of the Fredericton Islamic Association, who was cut off mid-question by Olmert and the moderator at the lecture.

Majid conducted ravenous research after the lecture, and found that only 2,300 Hamas rockets had been fired between January and June of 2008, and only 20 were launched during the truce that lasted until near the year’s end.

“He may blame the Palestinians for breaking the truce, but who could console people living in squalor when the government is exiled outside a blockade, let alone reduce the attacks by over 80 per cent?”

On top of that, more than 80 per cent of those rockets couldn’t reach their targets – landing harmlessly instead in the Gaza strip.

“These are home made weapons we’re talking about, made by oppressed, starving people. And what did the Israelis used to hit back? Tanks and helicopter firing all night and all day, a never ending occupation,” Majid said.

But Olmert denied the existence of such an occupation, and said even if those the Palestinians were starving, the fault doesn’t lie with Israelis on the other side of that blockade.

“There is no occupation in Gaza, we left lock stock and barrel. But if anyone thinks we’re a nation of idiots, to supply a nation that declared war on us to make it easier – idiots we are not. Canada would’ve done the same. If you find one president in history that did I’ll reconsider my PhD,” Olmert said during his lecture.

“I don’t know how he can say that,” Michaud said. “Israel has military checkpoints there, Palestinian houses are being bulldozed, they can’t make decisions for their own well being. I don’t know how he can say there’s no occupation taking place.”

There was another protestor there that day wondering how Olmert could say such things, and wondering if the whole audience should reconsider his PhD.

Claire Porter, a second year UNB student, stepped up to the microphone at the lecture cradling the banner she’d stuffed up her sweater as if it were a child in her womb.

“Speaking as a student,” she said to Olmert, “And standing in an academic institution and addressing someone who apparently has a PhD, I was wondering if you could provide any peer reviewed or academic sources for the research you’ve presented today?”

As Olmert began to answer her – circumventing Porter’s question with what she called an “irrelevant tangent,”- she unfurled that banner and hollered out the slogan already etched on it: “Boycott Israeli divestment,” as a condemnation of companies like Chapters and Indigo, that donate portions of their profits to Israel. She hollered the slogan one last time before security escorted her out the door.

“If I told her one and one is two, she wouldn’t believe me,” Olmert said after the lecture. “People that came like that already formed their opinions beforehand. If you bring a banner when you ask a question, you don’t want to hear the answer.”

“I hadn’t decided whether or not I’d drop the banner until I got up to the mic,” Porter said.

“I wanted to actually see if he could back up what he was saying, and I think he made it very clear that he couldn’t. So I dropped it. He has a PhD and he can’t site his own sources? The only thing he referenced that night was a BBC article and YouTube. It’s ridiculous.”

“Let me tell you something about this premeditated farce,” Olmert said during the lecture, as more protestors were escorted out. “I can understand people of the left supporting some elements of the Palestinian struggle. But for the life of me, I can’t understand how you can support Hamas who oppress gays and women. How can you support and not object to that?”

A voice from the crowd drifted out in objection to that: “We object to oppression!”

“Then you object to Hamas,” Olmert shot back.

“The notion of having support for Hamas being put into my mouth is offensive,” Porter said after the lecture. “Peace activists don’t want Israelis hurt just like they don’t want Palestinians hurt- it’s just that there are more Palestinians being hurt. I am on the side of Palestine, but more than anything I’m on the side of people not dying.”

“I feel as though Israel created this melting pot where radicalization had to come out of it,” she added. “Radicalization had to happen – I feel as though Hamas is the natural answer to the questions that’s been posed to Palestine by the Israelis. I don’t support Hamas, but I feel like Israel should have done something before they came into power in Gaza in terms of peaceful resolutions.”

“There is no other reason to support Hamas, on behalf of the left wing, other than sheer antisemitism and anti-Zionism for the sake of it without even trying to know what the facts are,” Olmert said. “This is one of the things the people in the west need to understand.”

“It has to do with injustice, not religion,” Majid said. “The Holocaust has nothing to do with this, if anything it has to do with western guilt at the expense of the Palestines.”

***

Michaud was offended by what Olmert said at the lecture, but she was even more appalled by the fact that STU allowed him to say it on their grounds.

“He’s free to say whatever he wants,” she said. “But I don’t think it’s appropriate for a university, a place of supposed critical thinking, to provide a forum for anyone trying to justify hate crimes.”

Porter also acknowledged Olmert’s freedom of speech, saying she wouldn’t object to him publishing a book, writing a blog, or speaking at a venue outside of an academic institution. She said that institution infringed on her freedom of speech by escorting her out.

“A person like that should not be allowed on a university campus to spew propaganda,” she said. “A platform like that shouldn’t be permitted, and the notion of restricting protest at such an event makes no sense to me.”

But it made perfect sense to Patrick Malcolmson, VP Academic for St. Thomas, who said the protestors violated campus regulations by interrupting an official lecture held on private property. He said the university cannot act as a gatekeeper, favouring one speaker or side of a debate while refuting another, just like it can’t sit idle as that speaker is kept from speaking.

“It was not their event to disrupt or to get their message across,” he said. “It’s not for them to decide who can come in to hold a lecture and who can’t, just like it’s not up to Olmert to decide whether they have the right to speak at an event they organized.”

Alexandra Bain – an Islamic studies professor at STU who’s been a Muslim for over 30 years – said it’s not up to the administration to decide whether or not students can stand up for their convictions, or whether a near half century era of student protest and provocation is over.

“I’m disturbed by the administration’s heavy handed, authoritarianism in threats of consequence to students who spoke out at the lecture,” she said. “A university has to be a place for dissent. But on the other hand, I’m just as disturbed at how the students were provoked.”

Bain said that disturbing provocation is integral to Olmert’s style – to not convince his detractors but rile them into fervent fury, so they’ll look like the radicals. And she said that duping started long before the lecture began.

“I think students were lead down the garden path from the start,” she said. “In the way it was so rushed, in the way that it was free for him to come here, in the way in the way so much responsibility was placed on a society instead of the administration, especially for such a controversial guest.”

Jack MacLennan is the public relations officer for the Polictical Science Society, the troop of students that beared the brunt of that responsibility in preparing for the event and accepting Olmert’s offer to visit St. Thomas. He said neither the university or the society paid a dime for Olmert’s visit.

“It’s not that uncommon for student groups to put on a lecture. I don’t think it was that unreasonable or unprecedented, controversial as he may be,” he said, adding that the buck was in no way passed to them.

“The poli-sci society thought hard about having him here, we were never forced or even strongly persuaded to put it on. It was an opportunity and we felt it was a good idea.”

The offer had been extended by the United Jewish Appeal of Atlantic Canada – which helped fund Olmert’s local campus trek along with the NB4Israel association – on short notice.

“The event wasn’t rushed intentionally to keep it out of the public eye,” MacLennan said. “It was just extenuating circumstances, because of his schedule, that threw things off. We were aware when we agreed to it he has a mixed record, especially when it comes to Q-and-A’s with students. But we were well informed that it wasn’t always case. His aggressive rhetoric here was caused more by his surroundings.”

MacLennan said he and the rest of the PSS had hoped the event would be raise serious questions, spark debate, and give the audience a different insight into the conflict. Instead, MacLennan said all the heckling says just as much about the audience as it did the speaker.

“What we had Monday was an opportunity to gain understanding to a coplex issue. That opportunity was lost. What he represents is a well established side of the debate. It may have been inflammatory and offensive, but that doesn’t change reality of conflict.”

MacLennan added that he spoke with Olmert before the lecture, along with other faculty who were openly critical of his views. He said Olmert seemed interested in open discussion, but that wasn’t the environment he was welcomed with at the lecture.

Majid started the lecture’s Q-and-A portion by telling Olmert he wasn’t welcome at all. He felt it was Olmert that sparked the uproar with statements like “Zionism is the natural liberation of the Jewish people,” and later “Palestinians like to blame others for their problems without taking responsibility for themselves.”

And while he sees Olmert as the instigator, Majid saw no trace of the famed master manipulator that intentionally sends his detractors into a frenzy.

“The more Olmert talked, the more it seemed like he was trying to reassure himself – each word was more outrageous than the one before it,” Majid said, adding that Olmert approached him after the lecture.


“He wanted to discuss things with me after, he wasn’t nearly as aggressive then. Throughout the whole thing he didn’t seem like a grand provocateur, he seemed hurt. I mean think about – he’s touring all around here, and at every stop has his every conviction attacked.”

Shaun Narine, a political science professor who moderated the event, said those convictions are all too common.

He said it’s important that STU students are presented with that other view, to have a taste of just how deep it runs.

“You can sit and talk with people you agree with all day, but it takes more than that,” he said. “It’s important to gain more insight to his position, because it’s people like him that are going to have to achieve the peace.”

Malcolmson said students might have gained an even deeper insight into just how difficult that struggle for peace may be.

“We may underestimate the difficulties,” he said. “We like to think with, pretty much any issue, people can be reasonable and sit down to resolve their differences. There may be instances where you can’t.”

Monday’s lecture may very well have been one of those instances – one that Olmert is no stranger to.

As he followed a pair of security guards out the back stage door of the Kinsella auditorium that day Olmert said the only way to end those instances, to end the war, is a two-state solution in Gaza – one that would demand deep concessions from both sides.

“Fortunately for the Palestinians not everyone is Hamas – that would be very unfortunate fo the Palestinians because then there will never peace and they will loose and loose and lose,” he said before taking a sharp pause, as if he was all but losing his breath, before keeping on in much slower, more measured words.

“People said that there would never be peace, but there was peace in Jordan. I want peace, and the two-state solution is possible through negotiation- so never say never.

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