Opinion: Audiences should ‘RSVP’ to bullies

Over the past 10 years, we have repeatedly witnessed efforts to shut down guest speakers who present an Israeli perspective on college campuses and in communities.

There are times when sponsors publicize their upcoming Israel-related program, that anti-Israel groups mobilize to hijack the event and attempt to silence the speaker. Most often, members of these groups shout over the featured guest in a series of successive interruptions. They may also suddenly rush to the podium with large banners and shout slogans, or they may organize “silent” walkouts that disrupt the audience and distract the speaker. The lecturer becomes frustrated, unable to speak above the agitators’ commotion. Audience members become visibly upset.

Usually, audiences respond spontaneously with indignation and anger. When Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu spoke at the Jewish Federations’ General Assembly in New Orleans in 2010, anti-Israel hecklers stood up one by one to shout him down. Each time a heckler screamed, the surrounding audience members became incensed and began yelling back, “Get out of here!” or “You are an idiot!” or other expressions of outrage. When demonstrators crashed the breakout sessions on Iran and on-campus activities at the AIPAC conference in March 2012, attendees were furious, and some impulsively jumped up to surround the agitators and shout at them. The same audience scenario played out when two young Israelis spoke at UC Davis in February 2012, when agitators refused to stop hurling loud comments throughout the presentation. Similarly, during Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren’s talk at UC Irvine in February 2010, audiences reacted with outrage when the event was nearly hijacked by Muslim Student Association (MSA) students, who repeatedly interrupted Ambassador Oren according to their premeditated plan.

The audience reaction at these events should come as no surprise. Attendees have a visceral, almost instinctive reaction to the demonstrators’ aggression. They are startled. Their concentration has been rudely interrupted. They are outraged by the abuse of normally accepted decorum at public events and by the violation of their right to hear the speaker. Some audience members become particularly angry because they have been looking forward to the event or helped to plan or even finance it.

The agitators anticipate that the audience will react with anger. They have their video cameras ready to record the predictably unruly response by audience members. They then post their videos of the audience reaction on the Internet, often editing out their own provocations, and hope the footage will go viral because it makes the audience, not the disrupters, look aggressive and threatening.

Agitators at pro-Israel events are sharing their tactics with affiliated groups, so we anticipate similar disruptions at future Israel-related programs.

Sponsors and audiences of these events should not be surprised by these disruptions. They should expect them. But they can reply with “RSVP”—guidelines that will focus attention on the agitators instead of the anticipated anger of the audience.

R—Rules: Organizers should establish clear rules at the beginning of an event so attendees know how the audience should behave and the expected consequences for disrupters. After requesting that everyone participate civilly and respect the invited guest’s right to speak, the moderator should invite attendees to exercise their own right to free speech at the appropriate time during the Q and A. The moderator should also explain that those who do not follow these rules will be asked to leave.

S—Security: It would be wise to ensure that security officials are present and that they have been instructed to immediately escort any disrupters out of the room. If the police and school administrators are involved during the planning stage of an event, they are more likely to help reinforce the right to free speech, which includes the right to hear the speaker.

V—Video Camera: Audience members should bring their video cameras. Footage of the disruption can be extremely valuable. It can expose the thuggish tactics of the agitators and be used as evidence by officials to discipline or prosecute the offenders. Such footage provided important evidence for the proceedings against the MSA students who disrupted Ambassador Oren in 2010.

P—Professional: The atmosphere at an event would remain calmer if attendees would act like educated professionals, exercise restraint throughout a disruption, and refer agitators to security personnel instead of interacting with them. The agitators would be more conspicuous, and it would be easier for security to identify them and escort them out of the room. In addition, there would be no incriminating video footage for the anti-Israel activists to distribute. In some cases, audiences have spontaneously and calmly seized the upper hand by clapping and singing in unison, preventing the bullies from being heard or getting a “turn” to speak out of turn. This has been especially effective during events where anti-Israel attendees have conspired to make successive interruptions.

In short, event organizers and audiences do not have to simply be victims of the anti-Israel agitators. They can RSVP—act in constructive ways that counter and expose the bullies—and remain on the moral high ground, where they belong. It is important to RSVP and counter the disrupters, not just because they offend us personally, but also because they are trying to shut down pro-Israel mainstream voices, assaulting the very principles of free speech.

Roz Rothstein is a co-founder and CEO of StandWithUs, Roberta Seid, PhD is the research director of StandWithUs.