On October 13, Tulane University, a bastion of privilege in the South, hosted war criminal Ehud Olmert as a featured speaker. In response, more than 70 demonstrators engaged in protests and direct actions both inside and outside the event, and were interviewed by local media. Despite much hostility, they also found a lot of support, and have found their organizing now has even more momentum. Below is one person’s perspective on the event.
We were students, teachers, activists, and community members. We were Muslims, Jews, Christians, Palestinians, and allies. We were many, many more than the war criminal and his Mossad protectors. And we were powerful, more powerful than his security checkpoints and his electronically amplified lies. We strapped red tape to our bodies and stashed fake-bloodied clothes in our packs. Those of us who had the required documents, who had student IDs from New Orleans’ universities, passed through the checkpoints while our barred friends and allies gathered outside, armed with truths painted on posterboard and voices amplified by our growing numbers. With less than two weeks’ notice, we had formed a broad coalition that planned a multi-phased action to reclaim the same campus that is home to TIPAC (the Tulane-Israel Public Affairs Committee), that hosted Ann Coulter for “Islamo-Fascism Awareness Week” in 2007, and that was now inviting Ehud Olmert for a brief respite during his flight from international and Israeli courts. As Tulane University constructed a safe-haven and solicited interviews and meetings on behalf of its delinquent guest, dozens of our neighbors began to organize. And scores more responded to the call for action.
Tulane has long been an unwelcoming environment to our broader community, as well as to Muslim and Arab students. The culture of the white Northeastern American upper class dominates the campus, creating a space that vehemently reinforces a racist and elitist status quo and virulently quells dissent. Olmert’s strategists and local friends had chosen the city’s most Zionist and “secure” nonreligious institution for his visit, and many activists questioned the wisdom of challenging a hostile student body and a sometimes even more hostile private police force. Tulane voices have been almost entirely absent in a great many community dialogues and meetings about Palestine solidarity work, and the prospect of initiating a campaign for boycott, divestment, and sanctions on Tulane’s campus has always seemed laughable. But New Orleans is a city where so many feel linked to the Palestinian struggle through shared themes like the experience of diaspora, the right of return, and near-daily racist violence and oppression by police and military authorities. There is no space in our city where Israeli war criminals will not be challenged.
Tulane was as hostile an environment as we expected. Hundreds of Tulane students showed up to hear Olmert speak, and many laughed and applauded when he made jokes about the comments of overwhelmed Palestinians who threw up their hands in exasperation at his lies and walked out of the building. Many of our own group were only kept silent by the red tape we’d hidden on our bodies and then used to cover our mouths when Olmert first walked onto the stage. Scrawled on the tape were words that enumerated some of Olmert’s administration’s crimes, such as “human shields,” “illegal settlements,” “white phosphorous,” and “occupation.” We breathed deep and sat through an onslaught of racist lies about our Palestinian friends and family, until Olmert began to talk about the mistake Israel had made in “withdrawing” from Gaza. Then, one by one, our jaws aching from biting down on our testimonials of what we have seen with our own eyes and what our families and friends continue to suffer, we rose from our seats throughout the auditorium, slowly made our way to the aisle, and walked out.
Olmert’s audience, which for a moment became our own, gasped and whispered as more than twenty people stood, staring daggers at Olmert and his Mossad agents speaking into their sleeves, and then trailed down the aisles to the auditorium’s exit. Some of us cried, others shook with rage, but we all celebrated our action, small but fluid, and impenetrable by Olmert’s snide remarks and Mossad’s hidden weapons.
As we left the auditorium we heard the chants of our friends, and breathed freely for what felt like the first time in over an hour. The hostility had been palpable inside the auditorium, but our friends cried out to us and embraced us, and their numbers had easily tripled since we’d last seen them. They’d been shouting for two hours now, competing with calls of “Heil Hitler” and “Palestinians are Nazis” from students passing by. A Muslim woman in hijab had been hit with plates of food thrown from an adjacent third floor balcony while campus police looked on. Within twenty minutes we’d set up the next phase of our action: Four people dressed in bloodied clothes laid down on the ground in front of the auditorium, and we placed cardboard grave markers with the numbers of massacred Palestinians and Lebanese around them. As students began to flow out of the auditorium, we handed out fliers detailing Olmert’s war crimes and tried to prevent passers by from spitting on our friends on the ground. We were mostly successful, and managed to keep a student from urinating on one of the participants.
We were not at all surprised by the hostility we faced, but we were surprised by the positive responses of far more Tulane students than we expected. Members of Tulane Amnesty International, Tulane American Socialist Students United, and individual undergraduate and graduate students printed fliers, spread the word, and were an unmistakable presence in every phase of the actions. A day that we had dreaded and actions we had hated having to plan had resulted in a broadening of our local Palestine solidarity network into a community we had dismissed for too long. Our new friends and allies at Tulane know first-hand how much they are up against in an institution that is between one-quarter and one-third Jewish and regularly equates Zionism with Judaism, but they are aching to take up the challenge. They are Muslims, Palestinians, Jews, and allies. They are freshman, upperclassmen, and graduate students. On October 13th, they joined students from the General Union of Palestine Students and Amnesty International of University of New Orleans, as well as students from Loyola University, in standing up to hundreds of aggressive classmates, taping their mouths shut to announce their presence and their intentions. Suddenly the challenges we face in our local solidarity work seem more surmountable. The despicable war criminal inadvertently gave one gift to New Orleans during his visit: He gave the beginnings of Tulane’s Palestine solidarity movement an unforgettable debut.
Emily Ratner is an organizer and mediamaker based in New Orleans. She is a member of the International Jewish Anti-Zionist Network, and a graduate of Tulane University (class of 2007). In June, she joined a New Orleans delegation to Gaza. She can be reached at email@example.com.