On November 5, Israeli television personality Assi Azar took to the stage at Goucher College in Baltimore for a screening and discussion of his film, “Mom and Dad, I Have Something To Tell You,” about Israeli parents’ dealing with their children’s coming out of the closet.
Azar, a noted LGBTQ activist, told The Times of Israel this week that he had been looking forward to an engaging and productive dialogue with the 70 students who had shown up at the Hillel-sponsored event. But when he noticed that 15 of them had pink duct tape over their mouths, he had a feeling things might get ugly.
As he feared, the event turned out to be highly upsetting for both Azar and many of the students. It was “one of the most horrifying experiences I have ever faced,” Azar wrote on his Facebook page.
According to Azar, when the film was over, the 15 students — apparently from the campus LGBTQ organization — removed the tape and stood up. They chanted anti-Israel slogans and waved signs with various anti-Israel messages, including some accusing Israel of mistreating Palestinian gays.
“These chants were combative and filled with distortions of facts — mostly anti-Semitic,” he wrote.
This was Azar’s fifth tour of US campuses and film festivals with his 2010 film. On this trip he visited Cleveland, San Francisco, Pittsburgh, Nashville and Washington, DC, in addition to Baltimore. In none of the other cities, nor on any of his previous tours, had he encountered this kind of disruption and confrontation.
“When I saw the duct tape on their mouths and their signs, I asked the event’s organizer if they could be removed from the hall. But the organizer said that it was a public event so those students couldn’t be asked to leave. So, I turned to them and said that I wanted to have a productive dialogue with them,” Azar told The Times of Israel upon his return to Israel a few days later.
He reported that the protesters were trying to shut down all dialogue and were aggressive toward those students who were trying to have a calm, respectful discussion.
“I found myself under attack, accused of ridiculous accusations. I was arguing with 20–year-old students who were brainwashed against Israel, had never visited Israel, and who were targeting pure hatred against us,” Azar, 36, wrote on Facebook.
“It was very threatening. I could see the fear on the faces of the Jewish students that were sitting in the hall. Most of them did not take part in the debate that transpired. Students reflected afterward that they were simply afraid to speak as they would likely be targeted and possibly assaulted the next day.”
The Goucher College administration issued a letter to the college’s community members on November 10 upon reflecting on what had transpired. Signed by Goucher president José Bowen, vice president and dean of students Bryan Coker, and provost Leslie Lewis, the letter stated that the administration had reminded representatives of Goucher Hillel and Gopher Israel and TALQ BIG (the college’s LBGTQ group) prior to Azar’s presentation of the college’s code of conduct, which does not allow for one group of students to disrupt or obstruct the event of another group.
‘It was very threatening. I could see the fear on the faces of the Jewish students that were sitting in the hall’
The letter also stated that five public safety officers and five staff members were present at the event from start to finish, and that students were safe the entire time.
“After the film, protesters verbally disrupted the event temporarily, but the speaker then actively engaged them in reciprocal dialogue. After 45 minutes of Q&A, college officials became concerned about the dynamic of the dialogue and decided to end the event,” the letter continued.
As a result of the incident, Goucher concluded that it needs “to create a comprehensive protest and dissension policy… [that] clearly affirm[s] the right of student organizations and academic departments to sponsor events on campus without disruption, regardless of ideology or topic… [and] also will affirm community members’ rights to dissent and protest, as long as they respect the college’s policies, property, and processes.”
The administration promised to keep students, staff and community members up to date on progress made toward the formulation of the new policy.
Azar told The Times of Israel that he was especially disturbed to learn that many of the anti-Israel protesters at the Goucher event were Jewish.
“They don’t understand that they shouldn’t join these [anti-Israel] groups that want to erase Israel. Their actions are just going to cause other Jews to be attacked, even physically,” he said of the Jewish students who protested.
‘I’d rather see these young people trying to help solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict rather than fight against Israel’
As far as Azar, who is known in Israel for his leftist views and willingness to publicly criticize Israeli politics and society, is concerned, it is not acceptable for Jews anywhere to attack Israel.
“I’d rather see these young people trying to help solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict rather than fight against Israel,” Azar said.
He also doesn’t believe the Palestinian issue has to always be front and center. He wants people to know that there is more to Israel than just the conflict and what people read in the international press.
Azar has been accused of pinkwashing, the term used by those who claim Israel highlights its liberal, tolerant attitude toward LGBTQ individuals in order to direct attention away from its 48-year-old occupation of the West Bank.
“I have no problem being accused of that,” Azar claims. “I tell the students I meet, ‘I am here to pinkwash you, because you are colored only black and white when it comes to Israel.'”