Prior to a performance Wednesday by the Haifa Symphony Orchestra of Israel, a student group protested the event, saying it supports Israeli policies they find oppressive.
The protest, organized by Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP), began an hour before the orchestra was slated to perform in the Osterhout Theater in the Anderson Center for the Performing Arts. Thirty to 40 students carrying signs and Palestinian flags chanted outside of the theater as they handed out flyers to concertgoers.
Demonstrators compared Israeli policies, which they claim force Palestinians into second-class citizenship, to apartheid in South Africa. Shehryar Qazi, a graduate student studying sociology, said that Arab Palestinians are segregated to worse neighborhoods and worse careers, and live under constant suspicion from the rest of the population.
“This is well-known, I don’t think that’s up for debate whether Israel treats all of its citizens fairly or not, I think everyone knows the answers to that,” Qazi said. “I think what is up for debate is whether that is fair or just.”
In addition to the representatives from SJP, a handful of students representing different Jewish or Zionist groups, including Binghamton University Zionist Organization (BUZO) and Bearcats for Israel, stood near the door holding Israeli flags and offering to take pro-Palestinian literature from patrons and dispose of it as they entered the Anderson Center.
Some pro-Israel demonstrators like Eric Blumenthal objected to the comparison between Israeli policies and the apartheid policies of South Africa, calling these views “ignorant” and “uneducated.”
“Israel has Muslims, Christians on the Supreme Court … it’s very, very offensive to compare Israel to apartheid in South Africa,” said Blumenthal, a junior majoring in psychology. “If you look at the facts, it’s disgusting that anyone would even mention both countries in the same sentence like that.”
According to organizers from SJP, the group aims to raise awareness of pro-Palestinian viewpoints, which they said are lacking at BU.
“Basically we are trying to start up a conversation on campus which is much needed,” Qazi said.
Some pro-Israel demonstrators disagreed with the SJP’s stated intention. SJP demonstrators refused to engage in discussion when concertgoers and Zionist activists confronted them.
“We are here to protest, not to debate,” Qazi said to patrons who tried to start arguments on the way in to the concert.
Melissa Goldman, an undeclared freshman, said the lack of discussion was frustrating.
“They weren’t willing to debate or discuss anything at all. I really, truly believe that some of their facts are misguided and it’s unfortunate,” Goldman said. “I would love to explain to each and every one of them the true meaning of Zionism.”
Justin Hayet, a sophomore majoring in political science, said he was similarly disappointed with the tone of the protest.
“The fact that they said to us multiple times that they don’t want discussion,” Hayet said. “It just speaks to the movement that they are supporting and the kind of hate that they are bringing to this campus.”
Throughout the hour-long demonstration, SJP members chanted a number of phrases, including “music, culture, that’s all great, not when it’s from an apartheid state.”
“This institution, like any cultural institution, can be complicit in affirming support for Israel, which further supports settlement building and apartheid in the state,” said Julie Quinn, a protester and a senior double-majoring in history and geography.
Belle Yoeli, the president of Hillel at Binghamton, said she disagreed with the venue of the protest.
“I understand their reasoning, but this is a cultural event with the Haifa Orchestra,” said Yoeli, a senior triple-majoring in political science, Judaic studies and Spanish. “Haifa has one of the highest Arab populations in Israel, so it seems a little ironic to me.”
Qazi, on the other hand, said that musical events have always had political significance. He likened it to protesting a Wagner opera because of the composer’s well-documented anti-semitism.
“Music is political. We support music, but we don’t support music when it is bad and does not deal with the key issues of an apartheid state,” he said.
The SJP promotes “BDS” — that is, a boycott, divestment and sanctions program — to put political and economic pressure on the Israeli government to respect the rights of Palestinians in the State of Israel. Yoeli said that the BDS agenda is a “hard line” for many Jews and may inhibit discussion.
Tyler Albertario, the president of SJP, explained the group’s intention in an email.
“SJP is a group of students dedicated to education and action against the unlawful Israeli occupation of the Palestinian Territories being facilitated by the United States government, American industry, and American academic institution,” Albertario wrote. “We are protesting this performance because we recognize the complicity of Israeli cultural production in the normalization of the occupation.”
Binghamton’s chapter of the Students for Justice in Palestine is not yet Student Association-recognized. Nationally, SJP has over 80 chapters on college campuses and has gained media attention for their controversial protests, like setting up “apartheid walls” and fake security checkpoints on campuses.
Wednesday’s protest, however, remained peaceful. Three University Police officers were present and though there were some heated conversations between activists on opposing sides, nothing escalated beyond raised voices.
Some patrons, mostly community members, expressed support for Palestine and the students’ protest, though others crumpled or ripped up the SJP’s literature and threw it on the ground before they entered the theater.
“The students feel strongly about the issue that they would come out and protest … I think the position that they’re supporting has strong international backing, and I think they have a good reason to protest,” said Thomas O’Connor, a resident of Vestal.
Rabbi Barbara Goldman-Wartell, a rabbi at Temple Concord and teacher in the Judaic studies department last semester, was glad to see both sides represented at the protest.
“Everyone is entitled to their freedom of speech,” Goldman-Wartell said. “But I think sometimes I’d like to see more positive energy than negative energy be expended by everyone.”
Clarification: An earlier version of this article stated that a goal of the Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) is to open up communication with Zionist groups on campus. SJP clarified that this is not a goal of the group, but that the group aims to raise awareness of pro-Palestinian viewpoints on campus.