On Sept. 12, it was announced that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas would potentially be meeting in Luxembourg to further negotiate a peace settlement. This is a potential step toward further diplomacy and peace between the two sides. However, within our own gates, the value and importance we grant to open and constructive dialogue came under protest Sept. 8.
The Center for Jewish Civilization hosted an event titled “The Netanyahu Premiership: A Retrospective,” with the hopes of exploring the policies and politics currently surrounding the soon-to-be longest-serving prime minister in Israeli history. The event hosted a panel of speakers, including academics, journalists and former bureaucrats, to dissect and explore the nuances of Netanyahu’s leadership while facilitating questions from the audience into the discussion.
Regardless of one’s feelings about Netanyahu and his policies, the event was not meant to heap unchallenged support and praise for the prime minister, but rather to earnestly discuss and criticize aspects of his tenure. The event presented itself as an example of what dialogue at Georgetown could look like when experts and students come together to learn and listen from one another on contentious topics.
Yet during the open question section of the event, various protesters began disrupting the event. According to present students, a few individuals pushed past other attendees to ask questions while others unveiled a banner before chanting “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free.” Eventually they were escorted out of the event by security, with a few able to linger for a few minutes longer before chanting different pro-Palestinian phrases, with one protester yelling “The panel lies to you” before being escorted out as well.
Nowhere in America should one’s freedom of speech and expression be more defended than on a college campus, where academic life pushes us to new intellectual curiosities and ideas while encouraging us to confront opinions with which we may disagree. Yet the issue with Thursday’s protest is in its conduct and procedure. Students essentially protested an open panel and dialogue, where a free expression of ideas was welcome, but disruption was certainly not.
While the event was interrupted only momentarily and the question-and-answer session was eventually able to continue, the protesters interrupted others’ ability to ask questions, momentarily preventing concrete dialogue from occurring on a contentious topic. Protests can be valuable tools and outlets for making points when other forms of expression fall on deaf ears. Yet when protests prevent dialogue from happening, they can become protests of the dialogue itself as opposed to the original issue. The chief problem is that this protest of dialogue strips the ability of others to develop their own freely created opinion on any issue.
A similar situation occurred in March 2015, when members of GU Fossil Free protested and interrupted a visit by President of the World Bank Group Jim Yong Kim. The protesters, who unfurled a banner on the stage where Kim was about to take questions from audience members, called for Georgetown to divest its endowment from companies in fossil fuel industries.
While the group succeeded in capturing momentary public attention, Kim’s whole talk focused on addressing the dangers of ignoring climate change and promoting concrete action — an issue in line with the very motives of the protesters themselves. Kim even praised the work of GU Fossil Free, claiming it has given a positive contribution by forcing the question of divestment onto a college campus. By the event’s end, it seemed the protesters, while eye-catching, would have made a greater contribution to the issue and conversation by asking questions when the opportunity presented itself rather than causing disruption to others’ learning and engagement.
The same could be said of those protestors at the Netanyahu panel. Our campus community should, as a whole, understand that freedom of speech and expression is a two-way street. Using speech as a silencer expresses a disbelief in others’ ability to engage in conversation. It would be best for future protesters to consider whether their actions further constructive dialogue or merely hamper students’ abilities to develop their own opinions after having the opportunity to hear both sides.
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