A leader of the Jewish people wrongly felt that the best way to respond to adversity was flippantly giving the bird.
Not only are the optics of such an incident terrible, but when Steinhardt extended his middle finger, he simultaneously challenged our community to consider this: how should we respond to protesters, with whom we vehemently disagree?
Obviously walking the red carpet into a gala is not the ideal time to sit and have a meaningful dialogue about Palestinian Human rights. No protestor could have reasonably expected a leader donor to Birthright’s trips to change his mind in the several seconds it would have taken to walk into the ballroom from the sidewalk. But groups like JVP thrive off of attention, and picketing a Birthright event with its leadership is well within its M.O. As the Jewish campus community knows well, attempts to silence opposition often backfire.
In August 2012, California Legislators passed H.R. 35, a resolution which conflated campus anti-Israel speech with anti-Semitism and was widely seen as an attempt to restrict anti-Israel activism on UC and Cal State campuses. At the time, Jewish students and organizations widely supported the move, despite its controversial nature and its apparent intent to limit speech.
The UC Student Association responded the next month by passing a resolution condemning H.R. 35 and included Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions Movement (BDS)-inspired language calling for divestment from Israel. The bill was passed on Rosh Hashanah, furthering divides between student leadership and the Jewish community.
Earlier this month, several IfNotNow activists were arrested for blocking the entrance to the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles—demanding the Federation condemn Israel for its response to Palestinian protesters on the Gaza border. Video and images posted online show Federation visitors and employees struggling to move past the protesters as they exit the building. Footage of the protest and the subsequent arrests became a sponsored advertising on the group’s Facebook page.
We’ve determined that restricting speech makes things worse and flipping off protesters adds fuel to their fire. What will we do when protesters block the entrance to the Hillel building, BruinWalk or even the Ha’Am office?
The “New York Times rule” is a good start. Do not do or say anything you wouldn’t want to appear the next day in publicity materials for an organization with whom you disagree. Recognizing that provocation is the desired endgame gives us a headstart in not making a less-than-ideal situation worse.
A bigger and more ideological shift would be to prepare for protests in advance, by rethinking how we engage with the pluralistic range of Jewish and campus voices. Genuinely adopting policies, as Jewish students, to fortify support for diversity of voices will eliminate the perception we aim to restrict speech.
There also needs to be an understanding that protests are as old as the United States itself and will not stop just because we disagree with them. Existing campus organizations already do a strong job of fostering positive Israel engagement for students, but there need to be avenues for actual dialogue on tough issues. Take the current Israel-Gaza protests issue: Is every single protester an armed terrorist? No. But is every demonstrator a peaceful activist? Also no. Finding the nuance in this issue is an opportunity area for pro-Israel activists to demonstrate high-level intellectual thought that rises above the standard rhetoric.
Supporting Israel is a worthy cause for the American Jewish community, as is participating on Birthright trips. But ignoring the tough issues enables the Israel haters to garner international attention. A nuanced approach to activism that acknowledges opposing voices and supports Israel with facts over rhetoric (and yelling) is the best chance in the battle for public opinion.
Finally, this should go without saying: do not flip off protesters.