Outside Columbia’s Lerner Hall on Monday evening, around 50 Palestine solidarity activists protested a speech from the far-right politician and Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations, Danny Danon.
Danon’s appearance was organized by the campus Zionist group Students Supporting Israel (SSI) and cosponsored by the Columbia Law Israel Organization, and billed as a chance for students to hear about “Israel’s accomplishments, position and struggles with the UN and international community.”
In the days leading up to the event, rightwing pro-Israel media outlet The Algemeiner ran a story in which president of SSI and a former paratrooper in the Israeli military Rudy Rochman said Columbia University felt like a “war zone” ahead of Danon’s visit.
The night of Danon’s event pro-Palestine groups gathered outside the lecture hall, trading calls of “not another nickel, not another dime, no more money for Israel’s crimes” with the ten or so Jewish Defense League members who called the protesters “terrorists.” At least a dozen NYPD officers set up metal barricades between the two sides.
Ariella GH, an activist with Columbia Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) who requested we not publish her last name for fear of retribution from Columbia, noted that the heavy police presence affirmed the way in which campus and city authorities protect Zionist organizations, but treat Palestine solidarity activists as a threat.
“I think there’s a huge bias in terms of how pro-Palestine students and Zionist students are treated within the campus. I think there’s a big difference in terms of the space that we get, the security that we get from the administration,” GH told Mondoweiss. “You have all the campus security focus on the safety of the Zionist students, while at a similar event, an SJP event or a JVP event, you wouldn’t see the same.”
“I have never seen NYPD at any of our [SJP] events that was there to protect us. And we’ve had bomb threats before,” continued GH. “So you can see the bias right now.”
Columbia University Apartheid Divest, an umbrella BDS-advocacy group started in February 2016 through the merger of Columbia SJP and the Columbia/Barnard chapters of Jewish Voice for Peace, and organized Monday’s peaceful protest. It was also cosponsored by Barnard Columbia Socialists, Students Organize for Syria and Columbia Against Trump.
Columbia University Apartheid Divest formed in response to Palestinian civil society’s call for a Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) campaign of Israel until it complies with international law.
Jeff Jacobs, a Columbia University student and spokesperson for the group, said that “Zionist groups have been on the offensive” as pressure mounts to heed the Palestinian call for BDS. SSI was founded at the end of Columbia’s previous semester, “explicitly to combat…BDS on campus.”
Danon is not the first Israeli hardliner to be invited to speak at Columbia. In the past year Columbia’s pro-Israel law school group has sponsored talks by both the Minister of Justice Ayelet Shaked who has advocated for Israel’s annexation of 60 percent of the West Bank and infamously called Palestinian children “snakes”; as well as Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat who has implored Israeli residents in Jerusalem to carry firearms in order to fight Palestinians.
Since Trump’s election as president on what critics say is an overtly fascist platform, university students have emboldened their resistance to hardline Israeli politicians, Jacobs said.
“If you’re scared about right-wing, white supremacy and ethno-supremacy as a political ideology on the rise, Netanyahu’s regime in Israel has a lot of ties I think with the Trump regime,” Jacobs told Mondoweiss. “Danny Danon is a perfect example of that. Someone who has spent his entire career invoking fear of ‘the other’.”
“In similar language to what Trump is saying,” Jacobs added, “the parallels are really scary to me.”
Danon appearance at Columbia fits into the larger debate around free-speech and hate-speech on college campuses. The debate reached a flash point recently when protesters successfully stopped Milo Yiannopoulos—an avowed white supremacist and senior editor of far-right news site Breitbart—from speaking at UC Berkeley.
Ariella GH said that in her experience, a free speech double standard persists around discussion of Israel on Columbia’s campus.
“It’s not a very academic discussion. I feel like, In terms of academia, there’s not a lot of people on this campus that will say things in terms of apartheid state; or in terms of all the war crimes Israel has been involved in; [or] the ethnic cleansing of Palestinian people.”
The pro-Palestinian students, GH continued, are criticized as “the ones who don’t want to engage in the conversation and this is all being justified as if there is a direct connection between the Jewish students on this campus and the Zionist ideas that are coming in.”
Sam Ackerman, a Columbia graduate in line at the Danon event, disagreed with the protest.
“I think it’s kind of ridiculous to protest the appearance of someone who fundamentally disagrees with you. I think he has a forum to express why he disagrees with a lot of these protestors and I think that’s important for him to be able to have,” Ackerman told Mondoweiss.
When pushed on the legitimacy of Danon’s right to campus speech, considering his history of racist rhetoric, Ackerman admitted: “I don’t know all of his personal views, but I think it’s important to hear what this man who is a representative of the government of Israel, the legitimate government of Israel, to hear what he has to say.”
Before Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu appointed Danon as Israel’s ambassador to the UN, the pro-settlement, far right-wing politician had become known for habitually employing racist and inciting rhetoric. In 2012 Danon called African Jewish refugees “infiltrators,” referring to their immigration to Israel as “a national plague” and advocating for immediate deportation. When the IDF killed 9 people in a raid on the 2010 Gaza Flotilla, Danon lamented that more weren’t killed.
Due to Danon’s extremist views, Zisan, a Columbia student and supporter of Columbia University Apartheid Divest who also asked that we don’t use their last name, felt compelled to join the protest.
“When I heard that Danon was going to give a speech here, I thought that such a racist has no place in the university,” Zisan said. “Even though it is considered in the frame of free speech, still Columbia does not have to provide him this space for his racist arguments.”
As protesters fought the bitter cold with chants of “from Mexico to Palestine, border walls are a crime,” the counter-protesters, holding Israeli flags and Jewish Defense League banners, as well as signs reading “Jews for Trump” and “Thank God for Trump” began dwindling in number—their own chants losing steam.
Rudy Rochman, president of SSI told Mondoweiss: “It is a shame to see student hate groups attempt to prohibit freedom of speech and to yell intolerant abuses to a crowd who genuinely wanted to hear the ambassador…Latching onto slogans and attaching the word “Palestine”, reveals their goals of injecting hatred for Israel in minority rights movements.”
Meanwhile, inside the lecture hall, contingent after contingent of Palestine activists holding Palestinian flags and keffiyehs interrupted Danon’s speech. Before private security escorted out all the protestors, seven different groups situated around the hall stopped Danon from speaking, each time with a new chant.
Describing the coordinated interruptions afterwards, Jeff Jacobs said “We stood up, one by one and said our piece; that we’re not going to accept this hate purveyor coming to campus and spreading his ideas.”