I recognized that look in their eyes. It was the same look I received several times throughout my service with the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) in Judea and Samaria. A look that showed the trauma of years of anti-Semitic indoctrination. When I was a soldier, I understood that look. After all, these Palestinian teens in Judea and Samaria had been, throughout their entire lives, led to believe that Jews were European colonialists who had no connection to the land and had orchestrated the displacement of the Palestinian people in 1948. I could at least understand the logic behind that look.
Receiving it by nearly one hundred students in the University of Florida on November 19th completely disoriented me. A similar look, with the only difference being that it was driven by the adoption of false information about the conflict and not necessarily blatant anti-Semitism.
These students did not know me. They did not know my story, and they were definitely not interested in dialogue. Had they been interested in a discussion filled with opportunities to challenge my premises, perhaps they would have stayed and listen to my ultimate message:
We need to humanize Palestinians. The way we will humanize Palestinians is by making a very clear distinction between the people and the leadership. Then we can hold the leadership accountable for repressing its own population for decades and refusing to abandon the rejectionist attitudes towards peace with a Jewish state. An attitude that, if abandoned, could have granted the Palestinian people a state as far back as 1937 with the Peel Commission. That is what my presentation, “Why There is No Palestinian State,” sought to discuss.
As the majority of students participated in the protest and walked out of the room, nearly thirty students stayed behind, eager to find out more. Among the students who stayed were two reporters for the school’s newspaper, The Independent Alligator, and I rejoiced. I thought perhaps those who decided to walk out of the room because the content of the presentation would challenge their preconceived notions would discover that my intentions were to use objective historical truths to engage in meaningful dialogue.
The protestors decided to hold a vigil for Palestinians who had died in Gaza after Israeli air attacks during armed escalation that was recently ended by a temporary ceasefire between Israel and Palestinian Islamic Jihad. Had the protestors stayed for the Q&A session, they would have learned about how civilians in Gaza are used as human shields. They would have learned that Israeli airstrikes only served as a form of retaliation against a terrorist organization that was targeting Israeli civilians indiscriminately with a barrage of over 350 rockets.
But the role of the Palestinian leadership as an obstacle to peace is an inconvenient truth.
I offered the reporters a full interview after my speaking engagement. I answered all their questions with the outmost transparency; after all, they were professional enough to stay throughout my entire presentation and listen to what I had come to say. I was questioned about my experience in the army and the message I sought to leave the audience with my presentation. After a long night, I returned to my hotel and woke up early the next morning to see the article: “Hundreds protest Israel Defense Forces speaker at Little Hall Tuesday night,” published. The title, blatantly inaccurate, set the tone for a piece of writing that violated basic journalistic ethical norms. Not only were my quotes largely ignored or cut in half, but the article was dedicated to quoting the students who decided to storm out of the room without hearing a word out of my mouth.
Twelve thousand dollars. That is the average amount paid by students at the University of Florida for tuition after financial aid is applied. Nearing $50,000 per bachelor’s degree, one has to wonder — what type of education are the students who walked out interested in receiving? Do they want to remain in a social bubble that will continue to serve as an echo chamber for all their preconceived notions — even if they are erroneous?
More importantly, did the newspaper achieve its purpose of shedding light unto a story or did it perpetuate darkness and ignorance by refusing to publish the content of the presentation they had come to hear? The authors of this horrendous article not only failed to uphold journalistic ethics, but they also failed their own student body.
Towards the end of my interview with The Independent Alligator, I was asked:
“What message would you like to give to all those students who walked out in the protest?”
Despite the clear attempts to silence my message, I will answer that question now.
My message to the nearly one hundred students — not hundreds, as it was inaccurately described by the paper — who walked out is simple:
If you are planning to go into debt for at least five to ten years after you complete your undergraduate education, at least have the courage to challenge your own positions. Your conviction was not proven by your decision to preemptively exit the room before I began speaking; rather, it would have been proven if your positions would have remained the same after hearing everything I came to say.
I would hope that the school’s administration might consider the negative implications of this protest and take this as an opportunity to encourage its students to accept the principal factor guiding all of academia: Open-mindedness.
Yoni Michanie is a former IDF Paratrooper and has a MA in Diplomacy and International Security from IDC Hertzeliya. He is an Israel advocate, public speaker, Middle East analyst, and is campus advisor and strategic planner for the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting and Analysis (CAMERA).