This fall, the Anti-War Committee learned that the University of Minnesota Law School would host Moshe Halbertal, a co-author of the the Israeli Defense Forces Code of Ethics. Halbertal has a long public record of standing behind many of Israel’s atrocities, and is a professional war crimes apologist.
The University of Minnesota is wrong to spend $5000 in public funds for any speaker who gives cover to war crimes. In particular, there is an international movement to boycott Israel. That movement calls on academic institutions to NOT sponsor or participate in projects that whitewash Israel’s human rights abuses. We could not ignore the University’s decision to provide a platform that legitimizes apartheid and occupation.
Students for Justice in Palestine-UMN, Students for a Democratic Society-UMN, Women Against Military Madness, and Jewish Voices for Peace joined us to speak out against the use of “ethics” to justify Israel’s ongoing violations of human rights and international law.
Moshe Halbertal has put his views on the public record, clearing acting as a spokesperson for Israeli occupation, and an apologist for the crimes of its military. Halbertal distorts the language of international law to justify the apartheid wall and the military occupation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem, and to trivialize the horrific conduct of the Israeli military in repeated massacres of Palestinians living in Gaza.
Halbertal praised the Netanyahu government for “showing restraint” in Gaza. Unbelievable, given the real facts of the 2014 war on Gaza. The Israeli military used on Gaza the equivalent explosive force of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima, and the effects were devastating.
UN reports document the losses in Gaza during summer 2014 (also here, here and here): Israel killed some 2,250 Palestinians, including at least 551 children. 140 families in Gaza were partially or completely obliterated in Israeli attacks. Some 18,000 housing units were destroyed, leaving over 100,000 people homeless. IDF targeted civilian infrastructure, with flagrant disregard for international law prohibiting such acts. The sole power plant was bombed, the largest sewage plant was destroyed, and 7 UN schools being used as emergency shelters were bombed. 22 Gaza schools were blown apart and 118 more were severely damaged. 24 medical facilities were damaged. As we said directly to Halbertal: That’s not restraint, that’s criminal!
Halbertal has attempted to justify and explain away such atrocities with statements such as ‘war is messy,’ admitting mistakes were made, but only ‘sporadically,’ that the IDF maintained ‘a serious effort to minimize collateral harm and to target only combatants,’ and that so-called “standards of proportionality” were maintained. Halbertal dismisses the harsh truth — that Israel indiscriminately, callously, carelessly and indifferently killed civilians — as ‘nonsense.’
Aware of his record, we set out to challenge Halbertal, and his University hosts. As the introductions were just beginning, one protester stood and asked, “Why is the Law School spending $5000 for a war crimes apologist to defend Israel, while University students can’t afford tuition rates that have doubled in ten years? Why is the university flagrantly violating its commitment to human rights by refusing to honor the academic boycott of Israel, hosting a speaker that gives legal cover to apartheid?” She was pressed to leave by the U of M police, but the crowd joined in chants of “Free, free Palestine!” as she exited.
Over half of the audience was with us, many of them from the Arab and Muslim community. Community members rose from their seats, one after another, making it impossible for Halbertal’s talk to proceed. Some 20 people intervened in the event, challenging Halbertal on Israeli war crimes in Gaza last summer, and the current violations of international law and human rights in the West Bank. Most ended their remarks with chants, such as “These are massacres, not mistakes! These are war crimes! Free, free Palestine!” and “Occupation is a crime, free, free Palestine!” While many joined the chanting, some people were removed by police simply for wearing keffiyehs (Palestinian scarves) and pro-Palestine t-shirts. We were troubled to see police use disproportionate force in removing Palestinian and other Black and brown protesters. This is especially troubling in light of Law School praise for the actions of police, who they called in to shut down protesters.
Palestine supporters delayed Halbertal’s speech with interruptions for more than a half an hour. After we were ejected from the lecture hall, we continued in the hallway for another 30 minutes, with chants that could not be ignored. Ultimately, we were forced to leave the Law School under threat of arrest. In fact, three people were arrested.
The first arrest was of a man acting as an informal legal observer, arrested for taking video of the police. A second arrest took place when one activist, who had been removed for disrupting the speech once, re-enterred the room chanting, “Free free Palestine!” The last arrest was of an activist who spent most of her time outside the lecture hall, covered in mock blood, holding a baby doll, visually representing Palestine’s civilian dead. Each of them acted on their conscience, with the full support of the Anti-War Committee and other protesters present.
Responding to our actions, Dale Carpenter wrote in the Washington Post, “There are legitimate criticisms of Israeli policies and innumerable legitimate ways those criticisms can be aired. But preventing others from hearing Israeli speakers who aren’t even defending Israeli policy cannot be one of them.” Halbertal is, in fact, a professional defender of Israeli policies. Given that Israel has never let itself be bound by the legitimate constraints of international law, or UN resolutions calling for change, it’s disingenuous to hold Palestinians and their supporters to arbitrary standards of “legitimacy.”
Indeed, we are compelled to challenge Israel’s policies of apartheid and occupation, and its defenders, at every turn. Carpenter views this debate from the ivory tower, while we understand that this is a matter of life and death for Palestinians and their families. Halbertal’s Code of Ethics for the IDF is not some academic discussion of ethics. Rather, it gives legal cover and practical guidance, for Israel to justify their killing of thousands of Palestinians during the war on Gaza, and the daily crimes of a 67-year military occupation.
In a commentary in the Star Tribune, UMN Law School Professor Oren Gross claimed our protest was anti-Semitic, which is a misleading effort to silence criticism. Conflating Zionism and Judaism is inaccurate, offensive, and dangerous. Anti-Zionist Jews are among the most outspoken critics of Israel, including Noam Chomsky and Norm Finkelstein. Zionism is a racist ideology, rooted in settler colonialism that seeks to ethnically cleanse Palestine, just as Minnesota historically sought to erase Dakota and Anishinaabe peoples, peoples which suffer from that on-going racism and colonialism to this day. Palestinian resistance is not fueled by anti-Semitism, but by opposition to an occupying military force. Since 1948, Israel has robbed Palestinians of their rights to self-determination, land, and the right of return. And since then, Palestinians have remained determined to win their own liberation. We stand with them.
Since 2000, the Anti-War Committee has been organizing in solidarity with the Palestinian liberation struggle, against U.S. military and diplomatic support for Israeli apartheid and occupation. We are committed to challenging U.S. aid to Israel and to shining a light on the atrocities fueled by U.S. tax dollars. Our work is part of the BDS movement, a global campaign of boycotts, divestment and sanctions (BDS) against Israel until it complies with international law and Palestinian rights.
Actions like the protest at the UMN Law School are critical to advancing this work. We call on people of conscience to seize every opportunity to challenge the normalization of the Israeli occupation, including directly confronting Zionist voices on our campuses, in our communities and in the government! It’s time we stop giving racist, Zionist, war apologists a free pass to speak on any public platform. Their words are hate speech and distortions, while their politics promote apartheid, occupation, and the denial of Palestinian liberation, including the fundamental right of return.
One day, from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free!