Israeli Ambassador to the United Nations Danny Danon was greeted by protests from pro-Palestinian student groups and outside organizations during his speech at Columbia Monday night.
The event was hosted by Students Supporting Israel and cosponsored by the Alpha Epsilon Pi fraternity, the Chabad House, and Alums for Campus Fairness. Over 50 demonstrators from Columbia University Apartheid Divest, Columbia Students for Justice in Palestine, Columbia/Barnard Jewish Voice for Peace, Barnard Columbia Socialists, Students Organize for Syria, and Columbia Against Trump gathered outside the entrance to Lerner Hall to protest Danon, while other protesters attended the event and repeatedly interrupted the speech.
Protesters outside expressed their opposition to Israeli policy with regard to Palestinians, holding signs reading phrases such as “Let Gaza Breathe” and “Collective Punishment is a Crime.” Counterprotesters, not affiliated with a student group, gathered holding signs reading “Jews for Trump,” “We Won,” and “Enough Double Standards.” By the time Danon’s speech began, four New York Police Department officers had set up barricades to keep protesters off the sidewalk.
SSI leadership said they hoped to encourage dialogue about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by inviting Danon to speak and anticipated some controversy at the event.
“Whether or not people agree with him, he is an official representative of Israel to the United Nations and he just came here as one viewpoint that is not commonly given on this campus,” Zander Wold, a student in the School of Professional Studies and an SSI member, said.
“We were hoping that people of all different viewpoints would come and listen and then offer questions and challenges even.”
Many of the students who attended the event said they did so to learn about how Israel navigates the polarized political climate of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict within the broader international community.
“I am very interested to see how Danny Danon will respond to different questions that are given to him about Israel’s position within the U.N., and I am interested to see how he will articulate Israel’s position within the U.N. with all of the biases,” Justin Fiszer, GS/JTS ’19, said.
Other audience members came to confront Danon, whose public views in favor of expanding Israeli settlements and reducing U.N. aid to Palestine have drawn the ire of pro-Palestinian groups.
“In my head he has been the person who has been most inciting the right-wing painting of Palestinians as these terrorists, these subhumans,” Jeffrey Power Jacobs, a second-year political science Ph.D. student and member of SJP, said. “As a Jewish person, as a person who studies the Holocaust, one thing you learn is that when you start calling people insects or rodents or snakes, these types of dehumanizations, that is a real red flag.”
Jacobs, an Israeli citizen, was among the protesters who disrupted Danon’s speech.
“The fact that he is invited to this forum at one of the major universities in America to spread his hate strikes me as not the right direction,” Jacobs said.
Danon spoke about his work at the U.N., focusing on Israel’s security issues because of its volatile relationships with its neighbors. Danon cited rockets sent from Sinai to Eilat this past week and an expected influx of Syrian refugees to Jordan as examples of these heightened tensions. He also expressed his hope for negotiations with Palestinians, but was skeptical of the viability of peace, describing an alleged bias against Israel within the U.N.
“Being [the] Israeli ambassador at the U.N. is a challenging position. When you come to the U.N. you think that they don’t have any other excuse in the world. Everything is focused only on Israel,” Danon said. “It is not about what Israel is willing to do or not. It is about finding a viable partner.”
Danon was interrupted seven times by protesters in the audience. Protesters stood and chanted phrases such as, “From Palestine to Mexico, border walls have got to go,” “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free,” and “From Standing Rock to Palestine, occupation is not right,” while holding signs reading similar statements. The final group, which included Jacobs, left the room with a large banner that read, “Boycott Israel.”
As the protesters chanted, audience members booed. One shouted, “You are not welcome,” while another said, “Thank you for leaving.”
Danon engaged with protesters, asking that they stay for the remainder of his speech and debate with him during the Q&A portion of the event.
Protesters who interrupted Danon were escorted out by security guards, and no one who identified as a protester asked Danon any questions during the Q&A.