Israeli Visitor Draws Crowd

    John Hanacek/Guardian

    A dozen security officers lined the back wall of Price Center Theater as Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren, surrounded by another half dozen escorts, spoke to an audience of about 500 people on Feb. 8.

    Outside, 40 more gathered to protest Oren’s visit to the school and his role in Israeli military affairs, chanting, “Occupation is a crime! Free, free Palestine!” and “Killing children is a crime! Zionists out of Palestine!”

    Oren’s presence stirred discussion of the historical dispute between Israelis and Palestinians over the West Bank, Gaza and Israel.

    Oren — who was appointed Israeli ambassador in May 2009 by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — visited UCSD to speak about the U.S.-Israeli economic, military and political relationship.

    John Hanacek/Guardian

    Tritons for Israel with Hillel of San Diego organized Oren’s visit. Oren chose UCSD as one of the two schools in California he would speak at.

    “We very rarely can have speakers like this come to our campus,” Tritons for Israel President Dafna Barzilay said. “He has a lot to say, and he has ways of explaining the political conflicts to everyone in all spectrums of political beliefs.”

    Oren also spoke at UC Irvine on Feb. 8, where protests grew so raucous that they disrupted the event, resulting in the arrest of 11 students.

    Oren said he encourages discussion and debate; however, he did not agree with the extent of the Irvine protests.

    “Freedom of speech is a right cherished by Americans and Israelis alike, and safeguarded by our universities,” Oren said. “As Israel’s ambassador, I am eager to engage all students in meaningful dialogue, but we must resist attempts to bring Tehran to American campuses.”

    Barzilay said the Irvine arrests made her worried the Feb. 10 event would be disrupted as well; however, the protests outside Price Center Theater did not end in any arrests or major disruptions to the event inside.

    The rally was primarily led by members of the Free Palestine Alliance and Act Now to Stop War and End Racism. Most of those who attended were adults, although there were several students present.

    “The reason we’re here today is that we all witnessed with horror and shock the war crimes that occurred to the people of Palestine last year,” Free Palestine Alliance San Diego Chapter member Mahmoud Ahmad said. “Michael Oren spent a lot of his time putting a positive image on a horrific tragedy we haven’t ever seen before. We’re shocked a university would invite him to speak here. That, in and of itself, should not be tolerated.”

    Extra security was called to Price Center to ensure Oren’s safety.

    “He’s an international figure and an ambassador,” Senior Public Events Manager of University Centers Tom Colley said. “It’s our responsibility to maintain his life.”

    Event planners employed security officers from UCSD, San Diego State University and the State Department, according to Colley. Attendees’s belongings were checked upon entrance and all audience members were required to pass through a metal detector.

    “We knew what to expect,” Colley said. “We began inspecting the area at seven in the morning. Every trash can was emptied. Every area was checked. Everything was cleansed, and then we waited.”

    During a public questioning period after Oren’s speech, about a dozen attendees posed questions for the ambassador. Marshall College Senior Yuki Murakami inquired about Israel’s treatment of Palestine.

    “You mentioned a prisoner of war of the [Israeli Defense Force],” Murakami said. “There are over 10,000 Palestinian, including the children and the elderly, that are held by Israel as political prisoners. According to Amnesty International, Israel is the only country in the world to legalize the use of children. When will the torture end, and will these prisoners be free?”

    Oren responded by stating that Israel has higher torture restrictions than the U.S. and numerous European countries. He argued that in actuality, they look to Israel as a model.

    Students for Justice in Palestine, a UCSD student organization, was not involved in organizing the rally. However, they did issue a statement of condemnation, and a number of SJP members asked questions at the event.

    “We encourage open dialogue and discussion,” Students for Justice in Palestine Media Relations Director Leena Barakat said. “We did take advantage of the question-and-answer section, and we did our best to keep it as civil and respectful as possible. However, they had cut our mics off for some questions, and did not allow us followup questions, which could be a free-speech issue. But he was here to speak and not debate, and we respect that.”

    Barzilay said she was happy students posed difficult questions for the ambassador, because it stimulated discussion.

    “I’m really, really appreciative of the students from the other end of the political spectrum who came in and were respectful and asked questions,” Barzilay said.

    At the end of the event, Oren thanked audience members for their attendance and participation.

    “I’ve really enjoyed this tonight,” Oren said. “I come to campuses to hear the types of questions I’ve heard today. It’s important that I listen to you, just like you listen to me. The respect for freedom of speech is extremely important, and I’m grateful we had this discussion tonight — a civil discussion.”

    Readers can contact Ayelet Bitton at [email protected].

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