In Israel, almost all of the protests against the navy’s assault on the relief flotilla took place in Palestinian space. Palestinian citizens in almost every major town and city, from Nazareth to Sachnin and from Arabe to Shfaram, demonstrated against the assault that left nine people dead and many more wounded. The one-day general strike called for by the Palestinian leadership within Israel was, for the most part, adhered to only by Arab citizens.
In Jewish space, by contrast, business continued as usual. Except for a demonstration in front of the Ministry of Defence in Tel Aviv, which brought together a few hundred activists, the only site where there was some sign of a grassroots protest against the raid was on Israeli university campuses. While numerically these protests were also insignificant – there were fewer than 2000 demonstrators from all the different campuses, out of a student body of more than 200,000 – they were extremely important both because they took place within Jewish space and because the protestors were Jews and Palestinians standing side by side.
Perhaps because of the widespread international condemnation of the attack on the flotilla, the Israeli police were relatively careful when handling these protests. Their caution is particularly striking when compared with the police reaction during the war on Gaza. Twelve students from the Technion and Haifa University were nonetheless arrested, and one at Ben-Gurion University was detained by undercover agents.
There was a visceral response to these campus protests, however, from pro-government students. Counter-demonstrations were immediately organised, bringing together much larger crowds that rallied around the flag. While demonstrations and counter-demonstrations are usually a sign of a healthy politics, in this case the pro-government demos revealed an extremely disturbing trend in Israeli society.
A group of opposition students from Ben-Gurion University prepared a big banner on the street near their off-campus apartment: ‘15 Dead. The Israeli government, as usual, has its reasons, and the Zionist majority, as usual, extends its support.’ Their neighbours spat on them and called them ‘cunts’, ‘whores’ and ‘traitors who love Arabs’ until the students fled.
The following morning these students and their friends rolled the same banner down from the administration building, initiating a third wave of protests on campus. Both those opposing and those supporting the Israeli government use Facebook to tell their friends about these spontaneous demonstrations, and so within minutes a couple of hundred students from both sides of the fray had gathered and were shouting chants in the middle of campus.
A Palestinian student with a Palestinian flag was shoved and had his flag torn from him by some of the pro-government protesters, who were chanting: ‘No citizenship without loyalty!’ In response, the Jewish and Palestinian oppositionists shouted: ‘No, no, it will not come, fascism will not come!’ and ‘Peace is not achieved on the bodies of those killed!’
At one point a Jewish provocateur, who is not a member of any group (and could even be a police agent), raised his hand in the air: ‘Heil Lieberman!’ The response of the pro-government students was immediate: ‘Death to the Arabs!’ Luckily the university security managed to create a wedge between the protesters, and in this way prevented the incident from becoming even more violent.
Pro-government students interviewed in the press said they were ’shocked to see faculty members, together with students from the left and Arab students shouting slogans against Israel’. Their classmates posted pictures of the protests on Facebook, asking likeminded students to ‘identify their classroom “friends”’.
A Facebook group was created to call for my resignation: by the end of the day more than 1000 people had joined. As well as hoping that I die and demanding that my family be stripped of our citizenship and exiled from Israel, members of this Facebook group offer more pragmatic suggestions, such as the need to concentrate efforts on getting rid of teaching assistants who are critical of the government, since it is more difficult to have me – as a tenured professor – fired.
What is troubling about these pro-government students is not that they are pro-government, but the way they attack anyone who thinks differently from them, along with their total lack of self-criticism or restraint. If this is how students at Israel’s best universities respond, what can we expect from the rest of the population?
NEVE GORDON is an Israeli activist and the author of and author of Israel’s Occupation (University of California Press, 2008).