Pro-Palestinian Activists Disrupt Talk by Israeli Scholar at University of Minnesota

Activists attempt to silence IDF ethics code co-author Moshe Halbertal at lecture; Police clear protesters and make three arrests, as incident sparks condemnation from university officials.

Courtesy of the University of Minnesota Law School

Pro-Palestinian protesters disrupted a talk on Tuesday by Israeli philosopher and law professor Moshe Halbertal at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, witnesses and university officials said.

Halbertal, a co-author of the Israel Defense Force code of ethics, was scheduled to deliver a lecture on the protection of civilians in asymmetric warfare at the university’s law school but had trouble starting his talk as protesters stood up one by one to shout him down and scream slogans denouncing Israel. 

Around 50 protesters were cleared from the hall but continued to loudly chant slogans outside. Police were called in and three people, none of them students, were arrested and cited for trespassing, according to a university spokesman. 

Sami Rahamim, an undergraduate and the president of Students Supporting Israel at the University of Minnesota, wrote to Haaretz in an email that “this lecture was the first time I felt my safety was truly threatened” at the university. 

Rahamim said the protesters chanted "from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free," and that “police had to lock to doors to keep protesters from charging back in, in what was the definition of harassment and intimidation.” 

Courtesy of the University of Minnesota Law School

Halbertal, a prominent scholar who teaches philosophy and Jewish thought at the Hebrew University as well as law at New York University, was eventually able to deliver his talk and answer questions, including some from those who were critical of his views.  

The protest kicked off a wave of condemnations from university officials, who said they would continue to invite Israeli speakers.

David Wippman, dean of the Law School, said he “never encountered anything like this in 25 years in academia.”

“I applaud students who are politically aware and active,” he said, but that however “passionate one feels on an issue” it is necessary to have the “capacity to engage in respectful dialogue and respect the free speech rights of others.”

He said he would refuse to “self-censor” and avoid inviting Israeli scholars, noting that such a decision would “play into what people who shout down speakers are trying to achieve.”

Wippman noted the talk was not even about Israel, and was a more general discussion on human rights and the law of war. 

“I think he is an outstanding scholar and people should have listened to him,” Wippman said. “You learn a lot more from someone with whom you disagree than from someone who says the exact same thing you are already thinking, which is particularly critical in law school where we teach our students that there are multiple ways to view almost any issue.”  

Dale Carpenter, professor of civil rights and civil liberties at the university, denounced the protest in an op-ed in the Washington Post and added in a telephone interview that “the people most hurt by a world in which it is acceptable to shout down speakers are the minorities and the unpopular segments.” 

“We cannot allow that kind of ethos to reign,” he said.

Students for Justice in Palestine, one of the groups behind the protest, wrote on its Facebook page that it had interrupted the talk to confront Halbertal “about his support and justification of the war crimes that were committed in Gaza,” a reference to last year’s war between Israel and Hamas.

Halbertal declined to comment for this article.