Outside UCLA School of Law on the evening of February 8, a tense, anticipatory group sat in a small circle, chatting and trying to stay warm. Inside, Daniel Taub, Principal Deputy Legal Advisor of Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs began the evening’s lecture.
Fifteen minutes in, a handful of the group’s members suddenly rose and filed into line in front of him. With gray duct tape over their mouths and signs taped to their stomachs reading “Turn Your Backs on War Crimes,” they stood in silence until police escorted them out.
The group was a collaboration between two UCLA student groups – Law Students for Justice in Palestine (LSJP), and undergraduate group Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) – and a local community organization, Women in Black.
“This [lecture] is the perspective of the Israeli government,” said Rachel Roberts, a member of LSJP. “The Israeli government shouldn’t be able to speak with no response” from the Palestinian side.
Taub’s speech was the third part of “The Goldstone Report and International Law: Three Perspectives,” a three-part lecture series being hosted by UCLA. The series was a discussion of the controversial United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) fact-finding mission to look into violations of international and humanitarian law following the Gaza conflict in December 2008. Previous lecturers included Sarah Leah Whitson, Director of the Middle East and North Africa Division of Human Rights Watch, and David Kaye, UCLA Law School Professor and Executive Director of the International Human Rights Program.
The resulting document, said Taub in an interview, is “very political, it ignores context, it’s written in a way that is extremely underhanded…[and it] makes all sorts of extremely controversial allegations about Israel, without any real foundation.” Taub came to Los Angeles as part of a speaking tour sponsored by the Anti-Defamation League, during which he has been addressing college campus groups, law school classes and conducted briefings at law firms.
But protesters had another opinion.
“Our view of the Goldstone Report is that it presented very valid claims, incidents that need to be addressed…people need to be held accountable for what happened in the war on Gaza,” said Mahmood Bakkash, 18, a UCLA sophomore and member of SJP, in a later interview.
As protesters began to rise and take their planned places in the auditorium, turning their backs to Taub, some members of the near-full audience became visibly upset. A few teared up, while others expressed anger over the interruption. Requests to have the protesters removed by police who were standing by began echoing through the auditorium, and a suggestion from one audience member to allow the protesters 5-10 minutes of microphone time was ignored by protesters and ultimately lost in the back and forth.
Addressing the audience, Taub seemed disappointed as he pointed out the irony of the group “standing here with tape across their mouths as advocates of free speech” while blocking free speech.
Police escorted the protesters out after about five minutes, without incident.
After protesters left, Taub continued to discuss the report as well as the difficulties it presented for Israel, which did not cooperate in the fact-finding mission. “The decision not to cooperate was a hard one,” he said. But “if Israel had cooperated, it [likely] wouldn’t have changed the outcome of the report.”
Meanwhile, protesters convened outside. Sitting in a circle, the first young woman to address the group brimmed with adrenaline. “I think any of us could tell you what happened in there,” she said, smiling and pulling her hair away from her face.
Few audience members felt that the protesters had overstepped their bounds. “They have a right to a freedom of speech,” said audience member Roy Absher, 65, in a later interview. But “when that action halts free speech, there needs to be a compromise.”
For some, though, the violence associated with the Israel-Palestine conflict came to mind, perhaps corroborated by the three police officers guarding the entrance to the lecture.
“What concerns me,” said audience member Marguerite Perkins Mautner in a later interview, “is that we weren’t frisked on our way in here. The protesters were “harmless, but it could have easily become dangerous.”
Taub remained intent on conveying the message that regardless of U.S. protests or popular news stories, many Israeli and Palestinians truly want to see an end to the conflict.
“I have met a number of people who are reaching out to each other,” he said, and yet their stories are often overshadowed by accounts of war and conflict. “There is more [desire for peace] going on than you know.”