An anti-Israel group’s disruption of a presentation at the University of Georgia has helped unify pro-Israel organizations on the Athens campus.
The confrontation Monday night, Feb. 22, came during a two-day visit to the Atlanta area by the StandWithUs Israeli Soldiers Tour. Lauren Feibelman, the Southeast campus coordinator for StandWithUs, brought Israel Defense Forces veterans Shir and Isaac to the Atlanta Jewish Academy Upper School and UGA the first day and Georgia Tech and Emory the second day.
The soldiers said they experienced nothing but support at AJA and Tech. At Emory, they faced tough questions, including some from a Palestinian woman. But the exchange was respectful: The woman listened to the whole presentation, then raised her hand to ask questions and disagreed without engaging in a shouting match.
The story was different at UGA, where the soldiers’ appearance was sponsored by Dawgs for Israel and UGA Hillel.
Paula Baroff, the vice president of Dawgs for Israel, and Rachel Schwartz, the group’s programming director as well as the Hillel president, said 17 members of Athens for Justice in Palestine showed up, helped themselves to free pizza and settled in.
Schwartz said she and another Dawgs for Israel board member attended an AJP event with a Latino group to hear what they had to say. They took notes, asked a question and caused no trouble.
When the anti-Israel activists sat through Shir’s presentation in silence, there was hope they would return the respect.
“I was personally thinking they were planning to stay until the end,” Isaac said. But while Isaac was talking about growing up in Argentina and visiting Israel for the first time, the AJP president stood and “just screamed that he was against us talking on his campus.”
Advised that he had to leave if he couldn’t wait until the 30-minute question-and-answer session to talk, the AJP leader walked out, followed by the rest of his group, in what Baroff said appeared to be a planned action.
“That hasn’t been the worst that we’ve seen,” Shir said. “Sometimes it’s much worse. They interrupt, trying to not let us concentrate or talk to people.”
A video of the incident shows that Isaac and Shir pleaded with the protesters to stay and talk after the presentation.
“It would be really great to understand their point of view and have a dialogue,” Isaac said.
“We’re willing to have a discussion, an open discussion,” Shir said. “I think it’s a very sad thing that the anti-Israel groups are not willing to have any kind of dialogue.”
It was the first time AJP protested a Dawgs for Israel event, Schwartz said, but relations between the pro- and anti-Israel groups haven’t been peaceful.
“They yell at us a lot” when Dawgs for Israel has an informational table on campus, Baroff said. She said the harassment extends online, and “it’s getting to the point where we do feel a bit threatened.”
Dawgs for Israel President Emilie Vainer said Athens for Justice in Palestine is growing stronger, in part by seeking common ground with other rights-focused and minority groups.
That new strength has raised the issue of boycott, divestment and sanctions before the student government, Baroff and Schwartz said.
But Vainer said the walkout at the StandWithUs event served as a wake-up call for pro-Israel students.
Schwartz said all the pro-Israel groups on campus — Dawgs for Israel, Students Supporting Israel, UGAIPAC and Christians United for Israel — are forming a unified community for the first time, starting with a newly planned Israel Peace Week from Feb. 29 to March 4. The plan for the week was to staff informational tables, show the positive side of Israel, and promote peace and dialogue.
Vainer said the pro-Israel students are trying to build coalitions with other organizations, such as the Indian Cultural Exchange, to show that Israel is about more than politics.
“Other students and other people in the community know that we are working hard to ensure that a peaceful campaign is going to be happening on campus,” she said.