December 7, 2019

SJP Protesters Chant ‘From the River to the Sea Palestine Will Be Free’ During Hen Mazzig Speech

Hen Mazzig; Photo from YouTube

Around 25-30 Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP)-led protesters chanted “from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free” during pro-Israel activist Hen Mazzig’s Nov. 14 speech at Vassar College.

Vassar Organizing Israel Conversations Effectively (VOICE) hosted the Mazzig event, titled: “The Indigenous Jews of the Middle East: Forgotten Refugees.” The chanting can be heard on video from the event.

Mazzig told the Journal in a phone interview that the chanting went on for 15 minutes outside of the auditorium and it was so loud he couldn’t speak until the protesters left.

“I was so disturbed,” Mazzig said. “It was probably the worst talk I gave. Just to hear those chants ‘from the river to the sea Palestine will be free’ – which means death to Israel – just so horrible to me.”

Prior to the event, Mazzig pointed out that the protesters were handing out flyers accusing Mazzig of “pinkwashing,” – the allegation that Israel provides the LGBTQ+ community with rights to distract from the Israeli government’s treatment of Palestinians – and stating that Mazzig’s “queerness will never make up for the violence underlying his advocacy for a settler-colonial occupying state.”

“It had nothing to do with the talk,” Mazzig said. “My talk was about Mizrahi Jews. I had to talk about being gay because in the flyers they mentioned it.”

Photo courtesy of Hen Mazzig.

Photo courtesy of Hen Mazzig.

He speculated that the protesters had dissuaded people from entering the event because their chants and the music they were blasting were loud.

Vassar College President Elizabeth Bradley addressed the incident in a statement.

“A group of students disrupted the speaker by chanting outside the lecture hall for some time,” Bradley said. “People who were in the lecture expressed that the chanting was intimidating and hard to listen to. The words have been associated by some people with anti-Semitism.”

She added that while the university allows for peaceful protest, the students protesting Mazzig’s speech violated university protocol with the chanting and the university would address the matter internally.

“Vassar aspires to a culture where people feel they belong, where diverse views are welcomed, and where respect for persons is paramount,” Bradley said. “Today, we let ourselves down in the pursuit of these values. Despite this, I believe in our ability to learn from this event. Given the strong voices on this campus, and the commitment of faculty, administrators, staff and students to education, I remain confident that multiple ideas, even opposing ideas, will continue to flourish.”

Mazzig told the Journal that he thought Bradley’s statement was weak and that the university should have apologized to him for the incident.

 “The fact that the [Vassar College] president mentioned that the calls for the destruction of the Jewish state might be considered as anti-Semitic or considered by some as anti-Semitic, no it’s considered by 97% of Jews as anti-Semitic,” Mazzig said. “It’s just ridiculous and tokenizing to say that it isn’t, and no other minority would be treated this way on campus.”

Anti-Defamation League (ADL) New York and New Jersey tweeted, “This is wrong. Preventing others from speaking is not “free speech.” We are appalled that some students at #Vassar repeatedly interrupted @henmazzig as he was telling his story to the students that invited him.”

In a subsequent tweet, ADL New York and New Jersey praised Bradley’s as “strong.”

StandWithUs CEO and Co-Founder Roz Rothstein said in a statement to the Journal, “Anti-Israel activists at Vassar are not seeking to change Israeli policy, but to end Israel’s very existence. When someone like Hen can’t speak without facing hateful chants because of his national identity, our very core values, including the right to free speech, are at risk.  We appreciate Vassar’s president for recognizing that this violated the university’s commitment to the free exchange of ideas, and urge the administration to follow through by holding the disruptors accountable.”

Jews Indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa (JIMENA) tweeted, “Jews in Arab countries were ethnically cleansed just a few years after the genocide of European Jews. Anti-Semites continue to make clear our existence isn’t accepted anywhere – not even in our indigenous land.”

Vassar’s SJP chapter wrote in a Nov. 15 Facebook post that they had chanted “Stop the killing stop the hate, Israel as an apartheid state!” and “How do you spell justice? BDS!” in addition to the “from the river to sea” chant and then left after 15 minutes.

“Although we do not believe that Zionism should have a platform, especially not one funded by our student government, we did not prevent anyone from attending the talk or stop Mazzig from speaking,” they wrote.

SJP at Vassar also argued that the “from the river to the sea” chant is not calling for the destruction of Israel.

“The phrase is a popular slogan among a wide range of Palestinian resistance and nationalist groups. It was used by the Palestine Liberation Organization in its 1964 founding and served as a rallying cry during the intifadas and other popular uprisings,” they wrote. “However, the inception of the slogan comes directly from early Zionists under British Mandatory rule as they were imagining the boundaries of their future state. This conception was later cemented in the 1973 founding charter of Likud, [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu’s political party, which states ‘between the Sea and the Jordan there will only be Israeli sovereignty.’ Subverting this rhetoric with their own use of the phrase, Palestinian activists have articulated their right to live freely in the entirety of their homeland.”

They added that saying that anti-Zionism is anti-Semitism obfuscates legitimate criticism of the Israeli government is “an anti-Semitic tactic, as it falsely represents the Jewish community and tells them what they ought to believe.” SJP at Vassar also called Bradley’s statement reckless.

“By not providing any detail, or even taking a concrete stance in the statement, Bradley’s response plays into Mazzig’s tactic of fear-mongering,” they wrote. “Bradley refers to the chant as potentially anti-Semitic, thereby conveying to Jewish students that they have something to fear without specifying anything that actually happened.”