Two days ago, a contentious uproar broke out in the area surrounding Lerner Hall as protestors and counter-protestors rallied to condemn or support the speech of Israeli Ambassador to the United Nations, Danny Danon. Prospective Bwog Writer Arielle Isack was present at the event and reports on her experience during the polarizing address.
On Monday evening, Danny Danon, Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations, spoke at Columbia about Israel’s fractious relationship with the UN. Danon is a hardline conservative and takes an extreme stance on such issues as West Bank settlements and immigration. He has a track record of making inflammatory, racist comments, such that African migrants to Israel are “infiltrators” and “a national plague.” Furthermore, he released a campaign video during his bid to head the conservative Likud party that features Palestinian members of the Knesset (Israeli Parliament) being thrown in prison. In 2012, he called for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to annex Jewish settlements in the West Bank, entirely disregarding any Palestinian claim to that land.
The Ambassador’s arrival on campus was contentious, to say the least––rallies erupted outside Lerner hall a full hour before he began speaking. Student activists from pro-Palestine groups such as Jewish Voice for Peace and Students for Justice in Palestine held up signs and chanted “hey hey, ho ho, the occupation has got to go” and “racists not welcome,” while passing out fliers that outlined Danon’s history of racism.
In response, many supporters of Danon and his political stance rallied back; several people held up signs denouncing Anti-Semitism, while others waved Israeli flags, and the occasional person screamed “TERRORIST” into the night.
Inside the actual venue, the Roone Arledge Auditorium in Lerner Hall, seats were absolutely packed with students, alumni, and faculty; many, in fact, were turned away from the event because it was at full capacity. It later became apparent that many of the seats were held by the same students that had been protesting Danon and his message outside––every few minutes of the ambassador’s speech was interrupted by a chant more innovative and more catchy than the previous. Danon was interrupted by protests a total of seven times, and security details escorted protesters out on each occasion.
Applause and cheers consistently followed the protesters being removed from the auditorium, as well as scattered cries of “shame on you” and “get them out.” Danon’s speech itself was peppered with tropes typical of the Israeli right––he echoed former UN Secretary General Ban-Ki Moon’s statement that the UN is “biased and obsessed with Israel,” spoke extensively on the dangers posed to Israel by its neighboring states, and referred to Israel as a “beacon of democracy” in the Middle East.
After being interrupted for the fifth or sixth time by student activists, Danon took a break from bemoaning the United Nations to acknowledge them. He somewhat condescendingly asked them to save their dissent for the Q&A session. During said Q&A session, several students lined up to ask him questions ranging from how to combat Anti-Semitism on campus, to how he reconciled his ostensible desire for peace with statements he made in the past about annexing the West Bank. In response to all questions, Danon was able to deftly circle back to major themes from his speech; wishing for more negotiation, touting Israel as “the oldest democracy in the Middle East,” and claiming Jerusalem as the eternal homeland for Jews. Every time such a statement was made, the crowd’s reaction reflected the contentious polarity of the issue––segments of the crowd erupted in cheers and applause, while other parts summarized their views with boos and hisses.