The Jewish Riot That Wasn't

There is a time and a place for all things.

Rabbi Yehuda HaKohen,

 Rabbi Yehuda HaKohen
Rabbi Yehuda HaKohen
King Solomon (and The Byrds) teaches us that there is a time and place for all things in this world. Laughter and sorrow, healing and killing, war and peace - all have their
No one need take the pro-Israel crowd seriously.
appropriate context in life. No actions or feelings are truly erroneous, so long as they are channeled in the proper time, place and circumstance. But the Jewish community often overlooks this wisdom in favor of taking what many believe to be the high road.

Last Monday, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad addressed Columbia University in New York. Several outspoken Jewish organizations mobilized their flock and held a demonstration outside the university. Thousands of Jews, a good percentage of them college age, were bussed in from near and far to express their opposition to Ahmadinejad being given a platform at Columbia. And that was it. They expressed their opposition, heard some jingoistic speeches (blurring the lines between Israeli and American interests), held some signs and went out to eat. But Ahmadinejad had spoken and thousands of young active Jews proved to all who cared to listen that they pose no threat and can easily be ignored.

Back in September of 2002, when former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was poised to address the students of Montreal's Concordia University, anti-Israel student activists stormed a university building and physically forced the cancellation of Netanyahu's speech. The student activists had decided that they were not going to permit Netanyahu to address the student body and they did everything in their power to prevent him from speaking. They initiated a riot that, on the one hand, sent many of them to prison (for the night), but on the other hand, cowed the university into canceling the event and made it clear to all involved that these students meant business. In fact, this tactic was so effective that, two years later, when Netayahu's political rival and successor Ehud Barak was scheduled to speak at Concordia, the university's risk assessment team concluded that no locale on campus could be made sufficiently secure for such an event.

A passionate riot against Netanyahu had been so powerful that its memory caused the university to cancel Barak's address two years later. Concordia understood the need to take the anti-Israel crowd seriously.

No one need take the pro-Israel crowd seriously. The thousands of people at the demonstration against Ahmadinejad ultimately failed, because he did, in fact, speak. And there is no doubt that the thousands of Jews at this demonstration were fully capable of knocking down the barricades, storming onto campus and preventing the Iranian president from addressing Columbia University. But this did not happen, because, instead of deciding that they were going to stop the speech from taking place, the Jewish organizations came with an attitude of conceit. They are better than the anti-Israel activists at Concordia and will therefore not sink to the level of violence. But the violence
Most Americans would have sympathized with a violent Jewish protest.
at Concordia not only prevented two former Israeli prime ministers from speaking, it also created the perception that Israeli political figures (or at least Netanyahu) are so despicable that their very presence on campus is illegitimate.

If Ahmadinejad is really as evil as Jews claim, would not ferocious riots have broken out against his visit? If an objective observer with little knowledge of the Middle East were to witness both the situation at Concordia and then the one at Columbia, he would most likely conclude that Netanyahu is a greater monster than Ahmadinejad.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad speaks openly about wiping Israel off the world map. And he is currently aspiring to make Iran a nuclear power. When a public figure who openly calls for, and works toward, Israel's annihilation comes to speak at a university with a large Jewish faculty, student body and donor roster (not to mention being situated in a city with one of the world's largest Jewish communities), the most natural thing to expect is a riot. Under such circumstances, most Americans would have sympathized with a violent Jewish protest. And it is clear from the number of American flags at the demonstration that American public sympathy is very important to the pro-Israel community. But waving stars and stripes is a transparently shallow attempt to garner the support of the American people.

Most Americans are good people with strong moral compasses who would sympathize with Israel if presented with the justice of the Zionist struggle. But people who cannot resort to violent action even when the survival of their nation is at stake are very difficult for moral people to sympathize with.

If a Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizard were to address Columbia University and advocate segregation for Black students, there is no question that a riot would quickly erupt. So, why is it that when a world leader who advocates and advances the destruction of the Jewish nation comes to campus, thousands of Jews travel to Columbia only to do essentially nothing but stand around holding signs and flags?

There is an idea among many respectable Jews that violence is entirely inappropriate and off limits. But the leaders of every self-respecting ethnic group in the United States understand that there are times when non-violence is completely inappropriate. The Jews who came to Columbia and allowed Ahmadinejad to speak made several comparisons
The peaceful Jewish demonstration sent the message that Ahmadinejad is merely controversial.
between him and Adolph Hitler. But had Hitler come to speak, would these Jews have fought to stop him? Or would they have stood across the street peacefully while comforting themselves with the knowledge that they, unlike others, are too civilized to riot? And does being too civilized for violence really make Jews morally superior to others? Or does our inability to act naturally and express legitimate rage in the face of injustice actually make us inferior to other groups?

Like most normal people, I am generally opposed to violent behavior. But I understand that, although violence is inappropriate in most circumstances, there are rare situations when it is the only appropriate action. In the specific situation that took place at Columbia, the peaceful Jewish demonstration sent the message that Ahmadinejad is merely controversial, but not illegitimate. And it clearly taught the university that pro-Israel activists pose no threat and that their feelings needn't be taken seriously. Certainly not as seriously as any other ethnic group - whose members would certainly riot if a speaker calling for their annihilation was invited to address Columbia University.