There is a 40th anniversary celebration for Israel at the UIC Campus, in Lecture Center A1, and a Palestinian protest outside in the Forum.
The protest is about what you’d expect: 75 or so demonstrators walking around in a circle, carrying signs and Palestinian flags. A woman with a bullhorn shouts slogans. Students, faculty, a few children, a baby in a stroller; many are Palestinian, but some are not. Many are wearing the checkered kaffiyehs that have become the symbol of the movement. Some of the students have their kaffiyehs wrapped to hide their faces. They have relatives in the West Bank or Gaza, and they don’t want to be identified for fear of Israeli retribution. I used to think that was paranoid.
I didn’t wear my kaffiyeh. I was afraid there might be trouble and I didn’t want to get arrested. Now I wish I had it on. Partly to show solidarity with the demonstrators, and partly because it’s cold, and starting to rain.
The UIC Forum is a concrete amphitheater in the center of campus; about a hundred students have gathered along the upper walkways around its rim to watch the demonstration below. Most are quiet, but one large group has set up a noisy counterdemonstration, with their own signs and slogans.
The Palestinians’ signs say:
Down With Israel
Jews Yes, Zionists No
A Democratic Palestine
Long Live Abu Jihad
Shamir Is Fascist Butcher
Stop Killing Children
and so on.
The counterdemonstrators’ signs say:
To Hell With Abu Jihad
If You Love Palestine So Much Why Don’t You Go Back There
Go Slam a Camel
Camel Jockeys Eat Shit
Ragheads Go Home
The Palestinians are shouting, “No No Israel / Yes Yes PLO!” And “Hey Shamir, You Should Know / We Are the PLO!”
The upstairs demonstrators are shouting, “No No PLO / Yes Yes Israel,” and some other things, but they don’t have a bullhorn, so it’s hard to make them out.
It’s not like the old days. Then we marched in the streets. People saw you and heard you whether they wanted to or not.
Now it’s sanitized: The marchers have to walk in circles in this enclosed space. They’re surrounded by cops to prevent violence. You could be on campus today and not know this is going on. Distant shouting, what’s that, who cares? The TV cameras show up and take their pictures, and maybe you get your three minutes on the six o’clock news. But it is hard to solve the problems of the world with bumper-sticker slogans.
I want to believe this is like the peace marches and the civil rights marches of the 60s. Grant Park in ’68. Young people, their faces alive with excitement: we can change the world. But something’s wrong.
There was anger and hatred in the old days too, but this is worse. It scares me. I’m poised to leave at the first sign of trouble.
Some flowers and love beads, that’s what we need; some people sitting around a guy with a guitar; a couple necking in the grass, the smell of marijuana in the air. We were silly in those days, maybe, but we weren’t scary.
I see people I know here, but we can’t talk over the noise and shouting.
Michael and I walk in the circle for a while. He carries a sign, I don’t.
“Glad to see someone here from the English department!” I yell over the din.
“Everybody should be here!” he yells back. Later, on TV, I see him being arrested.
One of my students, Becky, is huddled in front of the bullhorn lady, talking to a young man with a red kaffiyeh around his head, writing things in a notebook. She’s reporting this for the student paper.
She’ll do a good job. She’s a better reporter than I am: I get too involved. I don’t just watch protest marches–I join them. I have an unerring instinct for leaving before the paddy wagons arrive, before the tear gas comes down. I never see the fistfights that show up later on Channel Seven. I take sides. I cry.
I stand for a while in the dead center of the Forum, right behind the bullhorn lady, to get a good view in all directions.
My student Sharon comes up to me and yells “Which side are you on?”
For a moment, I’m stuck for an answer. Do I have to be on one side or the other? I’m for peace, for human rights, what side is that? But this is no place for subtlety. “I’m for Palestine,” I shout.
Sharon tells me that some man just called her a carrot vetch. Or maybe a hairy witch.
“What? Say again?” I yell.
“Terrorist bitch!” she screams in my ear. She looks puzzled. I’m sure nobody has ever called her that before. For one thing, she’s Vietnamese.
The upstairs students are throwing down paper Israeli flags. One of the downstairs students picks one up and sets it on fire. This causes a loud roar, then a general rush from downstairs to upstairs. Something is happening up there, a fistfight? The cops run up too.
Time for me to leave. I don’t stick around when the violence starts. I wish these things could be peaceful, but when you get a bunch of 18-year-old males shouting hate at each other (e.g., “I shit on the face of your dead mother”) I don’t expect them to act like Gandhi or Martin Luther King.
Heading out, I come upon my student Jeremiah. He’s watching from a safe distance, wearing a Walkman.
“What’s it about?” he says.
I motion to take off his earphones so he can hear me. “It’s a demonstration.”
“Can’t you tell?”
He looks at me warily. Is this one of those tricky teacher questions?
“It’s the Palestinians,” I say. “They’re protesting Israel’s 40th anniversary.”
“Why are they doing it here?”
“Why is Israel having its birthday party here?”
He puts his earphones back on. We watch together for a while. Upstairs, the demonstrators have started a new chant. It’s loud and kind of ominous sounding; I can’t make out the words.
“What are they saying?” I shout to Jeremiah.
“Tastes great! Less filling!” he says.
I go over to A1 Lecture Center to check out the Israeli birthday party. The cops are there in force, outside. A woman opens the door a crack and asks me if I have any ID. You generally don’t have to show ID to get into a campus affair, and I have left all of my stuff in my office.
“Do I need an ID?” I say. “Isn’t this a student thing?”
“Yes, but we need to know you belong here.”
I raise my hands, open my jacket to show I’m not carrying anything. “I’m a teacher,” I say.
“OK, you look like a teacher,” she says, and lets me in .
Thank God for gray hair.
In the lobby are tables spread with pamphlets and a table with food: pita bread and stuff to make sandwiches and a big decorated sheet cake, half eaten.
This is supposed to be a birthday party, but not many people came. A1 is a large auditorium canted sharply down, to a long stage with a podium. The room will hold about 300 people, but it’s barely a quarter full; about half the crowd seems to be students. On the stage, where the teacher would ordinarily be standing, a man is speaking into a microphone. He’s introducing the next speaker.
I’m still getting my bearings, deciding where I’ll sit, when there’s a sudden commotion. It’s like outside, when everyone rushed to the second level to see the fight. A sudden rush, a feeling of violence, fear, excitement. Maybe a dozen students, girls and boys, are rushing the stage.
They’re wearing the usual student uniform: jeans, jackets, Adidas. The boys look very young, they still have the unfinished, soft-cheeked look of late adolescence. The girls are small and slender and extraordinarily pretty, as only Mediterranean women can be, all dark hair and eyes and fine fragile bones.
They unfurl a Palestinian flag–they are all wearing kaffiyehs–young Palestinian students have crashed the party.
One girl grabs the microphone. They’re shouting “PLO! PLO!” and giving the V for victory sign.
OK, I expected this. What better place to demonstrate? The cops will come and drag them off and that will be that.
But no; as soon as the Palestinian students take the stage, a middle-aged man from the audience charges into their midst and tries to grab the flag. The girls hold onto it, he punches one of them, punches another. The first girl goes down, her legs flying forward like a skater taking a fall. She struggles to get up, he pushes her back down, grabs a handful of her long black hair. He pushes away the boys who are trying to help the girl. More pushing and hitting for possession of the flag.
Some other people are on the stage now, ineffectually trying to pull the combatants apart, or maybe they are joining in the melee. It’s like a barroom brawl, the man throwing roundhouse punches, the students fending him off. The students are not hitting back, but they’re holding on to the space. Where are the cops?
I feel sick. The teenage boys scuffling outside were evenly matched; that’s bad enough. But here is a balding man in a suit beating a couple of teenage girls. The microphone is still on, amplifying the sounds of the struggle. I feel the blows on my own face.
The cops arrive–but not enough of them. They drag off half the protesters. Three or four girls still hold the stage, still chanting “PLO” but not as loud. Their hair and clothing are messed up. They look scared. The man who hit the girls is still trying to get at them, but cooler heads have prevailed and he’s being calmed on the other side of the stage.
No, now he’s broken loose and is mixing it up with the students again. This happens so fast I can’t make head nor tail–is he still hitting them? It seems to go on for a long time, too long.
I say to the woman standing next to me, “Why does he keep hitting her? She’s not hurting anyone. The police will take care of it.” She just looks at me. I’m glad I didn’t wear my kaffiyeh.
Finally all the demonstrators are dragged away–the campus police are very good–zip, zip, no violence, no hitting, and the stage is cleared. My heart is thumping in my throat. I hate this.
A woman comes on stage and says OK, everyone sit down and calm down, and we sit down. I see that I am sitting a few seats away from Peter Yarrow (from Peter, Paul and Mary), who is scheduled to sing later in the program. He is a slight, frail-looking man, attractive in the way we used to find folksingers and revolutionaries attractive. He looks disturbed.
I doubt he’ll just get up and sing “Puff, the Magic Dragon” after what just happened. But you never know.
On the stage, a man is introducing the next speaker, again. He is saying something along the lines of “as I was saying when I was so rudely interrupted . . .” and “This is just an example of the violent situation that faces Israel every day.” Then he says “I want to reassure you all that we got pictures of all those alleged demonstrators, and if they are students we will ask campus authorities to act in the appropriate manner.”
A lot of people applaud and cheer. Twenty or so students sitting down front are especially loud in their applause. People are acting as if what just happened was merely an annoying–slightly embarrassing–incident, a disruption, like the time a streaker ran across the stage at the Academy Awards. Sweep it under the rug, forget it.
The next speaker is state senator Arthur Berman. When he gets up at last to speak he is all good humor, making a joke about how he’s had enthusiastic welcomes before but this is a new one. He says “What we’ve seen here just strengthens our support of Israel.” Then he speaks for a few minutes about the beauty of Israel. He calls it Eretz Israel.
Eretz Israel, meaning “the land of Israel” or “greater Israel,” encompasses all the lands inhabited by Jews in biblical times, and includes not only modern Israel proper (1948 borders), but also the occupied territories (West Bank and Gaza), and large chunks of Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia. Many Zionists believe Israel has a divinely ordained right to all the lands in greater Israel. Some of them believe they should deport all the Arabs from these lands, to make room for Jews.
Most of the people in the room applaud and cheer when the senator says Eretz Israel. He goes on to praise Israel’s free and open democracy, its free press, its free elections where even Arabs can vote and sit in the government.
Then he reads aloud an advertisement that appeared in the Sunday Sun-Times April 17. The headline read, “Let’s Clear Up the Smoke Screen.” The ad was written and paid for by B’nai B’rith International and is about as factual and objective as you would expect a paid political advertisement to be: “Israel today is a nation under siege–by Palestinian Arabs, by a hostile press, by hypocrite governments.” And “we are with you in your hour of trial, confident in your essential decency, your commitment to democratic values, your yearning to live in peace with your neighbors.” And such like.
He’s interrupted a number of times by applause: when he reads about the “terrorist obscenities” of the PLO and that the Palestinians have been “betrayed and exploited not by Israel but by their Arab brothers who refused to integrate them into their societies and refused to invest one dollar of their oil billions to help the Palestinians become useful, productive citizens.”
He reads that Palestinians are far better off and far freer under Israel’s benign occupation: in “Judea and Samaria . . . Israel has opened universities where there were none before, reduced infant mortality, raised the standard of living, provided jobs, increased life expectancy.”
More applause when he reads “A separate Palestinian state in the territories would be a dagger pointed directly at Israel’s heart.” And about “terrorist thugs” and “young toughs who throw gasoline bombs.” And “there is already a Palestinian state . . . its name is Jordan.” And “must Israel commit suicide because rock-throwing teenagers in the West Bank and Gaza are frustrated?” And so on.
I’m getting impatient. I didn’t like this ad when I read it in the Sun-Times and I like it even less now. The senator closes by saying a few phrases in Hebrew–I recognize Eretz Israel again–and gets a lot of applause, especially from the students down in front.
Peter Yarrow is sitting on the edge of his seat; he looks even more worried than before. I’m worried. Clearly there are several ways one could respond to the melee on stage. I’ve just seen one: “This is an example of Arab craziness and violence; it should strengthen our resolve to go on with the good fight; now let’s get back to the celebration.” But this response ignores the central image: a grown man slugging a teenage girl in the face.
I wonder how Peter will respond. If he starts to sing “Hava nagila,” I’m out of here.
Now he comes up on the stage, a thin bald man with a guitar. He is wearing a sweater and khakis and soft red leather shoes. “I have something to say about what just happened here,” he says. “But first I want to sing. It helps me heal.”
As he starts to sing, the students start to clap and sing along, but he stops them with a frown and a sharp gesture; he wants them to listen to the words:
As I traveled the shores of the river Jordan
I looked into the faces, and I was looking at me
There is only one river
There is only one sea
That river flows through you
And it flows through me . . .
Then he sings:
If I were free to speak my mind
I’d tell a tale to humankind
Of how the flowers do bloom and fade
Of how we fought and how we paid.
When humankind has ceased to fight
I’d raise my head in thanks each night
For this rich earth and all it means
For golden days and peaceful dreams.
I knew I could count on Peter Yarrow.
The students down front are not paying attention. Yarrow’s not the hero to kids that he is to people of a certain age. They start to shift around in their seats and talk to each other.
Yarrow says, “We sang this in Chicago in 1968,” and launches into “Blowin’ in the Wind.”
This is a heavy-duty song. It was an anthem of the civil rights movement, of the peace movement. Those were the days when we believed we could stop the war by putting flowers in gun barrels; when we thought we could change the world with a song. Apparently Peter Yarrow still believes it.
We know all the words, we sing with him:
How many years can a mountain exist
Before it is washed to the sea?
How many years can some people exist
Before they’re allowed to be free?
How many times can a man turn his head
And pretend that he just doesn’t see?
The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind . . .
The kids are not impressed. This is a song from the distant past. They would rather be up dancing a hora. They turn around in their seats to look at the crowd. Some of them go out during the song and come back in with pita sandwiches and punch.
“I’m going to sing ‘Light One Candle,'” he says–the kids like this idea, apparently it is an informal national anthem of Israel–“But remember as I sing, that the candle stands not just for Israel, but for Judaism. Think of the moral and ethical principles that Jews stand for”:
Don’t let the light go out
It’s lasted for so many years . . .
This is a rousing song. The kids clap and sing along, but they’re still looking around the room, chatting to their pals, eating, walking around.
Yarrow tells how he sang “Light One Candle” a few months ago in a demonstration for Soviet Jewry in Washington, D.C. “I will stand up against injustice wherever it occurs,” he says. “Even if it means standing on the same stage as George Bush and Bob Dole.”
As he talks to the audience, he uses the guitar to punctuate, to stress, to make a point, to make a joke. He gestures with it, quietly picks notes on it while he talks, suddenly hits a hard, sharp chord to show his anger. Without the guitar, he’d be just an earnest middle-aged man giving a speech. With it, he holds the stage and a very tough audience.
“Jews,” he says, “having suffered so much, must acknowledge that other people are in pain: blacks–when we marched in South Africa, and when we marched in the south; the Nicaraguans; and now, the Palestinians.”
This is not what the kids came to hear. They don’t want to be lectured to by an aging hippie. He’s a folksinger, isn’t he? Why doesn’t he just sing? They don’t know that folksingers have a nasty habit of being on the side of peace and human rights.
“This event onstage. I’ve been traumatized by it. But I’m not going to turn away from the pain. This is a microcosm of the cataclysm going on in Israel.
“We’re all concerned about what is going on in Israel. I’ve been to Israel, and to Nicaragua, Africa, and so on, and I say to you: until you are there, you don’t know what you are talking about.
“But we can say: ‘We will not have that here.’ If we cannot resolve our differences here, on this campus, in this city, we have no right to talk about other people’s problems.”
He tells about another time when protesters took over a microphone: angry black students wearing chains, fists in the air, shouting. People were frightened, upset, angry.
“Now, it is not allowed to commandeer the microphone. We had to put a stop to it. But we did not get up and hit these people.
“Here we have some Palestinian students who take over the stage, commandeer the microphone. Yes, it was an insult. We’ve been insulted before. Yes, it was an act of moderate violence. We’ve experienced that, and worse, before.
“But a man jumped up on the podium. He hit these students, these girls, he escalated the violence, and I condemn it! What gave him the right to hit to get that flag away from the girls? Why is he walking around free and they are in jail?”
(Later I find out the man’s name is Avrum “Izzy” Weinzweig. He is a professor of mathematics at UIC. He justified his actions by saying that the demonstration brought back memories of when he was in the Israeli army in 1948.)
“Those words of insult are allowed in our democracy. Even Nazis are allowed to demonstrate in this country.
“If we are for peace anywhere, we must be for peace here. We must not enter into the cycle of retribution.
“There have been some famous photographs, terrible, unforgettable pictures. At Kent State, the young woman kneeling over a dead student, shot by the National Guard. In Vietnam, the young girl with her clothes burned off with napalm, running down the road and screaming. Another picture, last month, of a Palestinian girl being hit by a soldier. We will never forget those pictures, they are indelibly burned into our minds.
“What I saw on this stage today is now one of those indelible pictures in my mind.”
He starts to compare the Palestinian uprising with the struggle against slavery, the civil rights movement, the fight against apartheid. He sings:
They say the tree of loving
Grows on the river of suffering . . .
It’s no easy walk to freedom
freedom for all, freedom at last . . .
All this time the demonstration outside has been barely audible, like background static. Now suddenly it rises to a roar; people look toward the back of the auditorium, some of the students get up and leave. The ones who are still here are making no pretense of listening to the singer.
“If you young people are leaving because you don’t like what I’m saying, I want to say that an honest dialogue is imperative to solving any problem. No response. “If you’re leaving to go to a class, well then, God bless you!”
A well-groomed man in the audience speaks up (business professor, I decide; nobody in liberal arts could afford that suit). He says, “Oh, Peter, nobody’s leaving because of what you’re saying. You sing so beautifully, we’d listen no matter what your views might be.”
There is an awkward little pause. “I’ve been insulted gracefully before,” Yarrow says, and continues. “I’m not going to accept my fee for appearing here today. I don’t want money to get in the way of my saying what I think.”
He talks about what students did, peacefully, in the 60s, to end injustice, to end war.
“What can we do now? First of all, we have to speak the truth. Of course there is the absolute need for Israel’s security. That is a given. Alongside that, and of equal importance, is this: It is not disloyal to disagree with Israel.
“Was it disloyal to protest segregation, to protest the Vietnam war, to protest our dealings in Nicaragua? I say no. Is it disloyal to protest a policy that takes a Palestinian prisoner and then breaks his bones? If we do not speak out, we are disloyal to Judaism. We are coconspirators, we are equally guilty.
“I see a man here, a college professor, ‘Izzy’ I hear you call him, who attacks a girl. She is raising the Palestinian flag and shouting ‘PLO!’ and he socks her. I call this wrong.
“The next election in Israel is for the soul of Judaism. And you have work to do here. I challenge you to form a committee of reconciliation on this campus, Jewish and Palestinian students. To break the impasse, end the pain.
“We must start somewhere. Start here.”
The business prof breaks in. “Oh I’ve heard about all this pain before,” he says. He doesn’t say it but clearly he thinks Peter is a bleeding heart. In Israel they call such people “beautiful souls.” “This was a disruption of law and order. You don’t know what we’re up against. They’re not even students, most of them. They disrupt this celebration every year. Ten years now. They broke a university law. They have to be punished.”
Peter says, “Obviously it was an illegal act. Don’t meet an act of words with an act of violence. Stones with guns.
“As a Jew I am not mandated to use violence. Let them chant their slogan for two or three minutes. We can stand it. Let the university police take care of it. They’re trained to deal with these things without violence.”
The prof says, “You don’t understand. We’ve tried everything. Nothing works. They won’t even talk to us.”
“So you are saying, ‘We tried, we failed, and we give up,'” says Yarrow. “If you give up, you are not marching with me. Try new tools. You try this, you try that, you keep on. You do not give up. If you are committed to peace, there is no giving up.”
I feel hatred radiating from the prof: “How dare they disrupt the celebration of the state of Israel!” he says. “The girl grabbed the microphone. This was an act of violence.”
“Nobody hit anybody until Izzy hit the girl. That escalated the violence,” says Yarrow. “When does the retaliation stop? Look at Ireland today, centuries of violence. Nobody remembers who grabbed the microphone first. . . . Izzy’s violence was not in my sense of Judaism, and I am covered with shame . . .”
The prof wants to argue some more, but Yarrow stops him with a sharp gesture. “You made your point, and I made mine, and now I want to sing one last song.
“This song was written for all of us who have to live with pain. And I say you do not take that pain and cause more pain. I challenge you to change things right here on this campus. Make peace. That is what my whole life has been about. We have done it before, and it’s your turn now.
“Some people think this song was written for Soviet Jews. It was not. Some think it was written for South African blacks. It was not. It was written for everyone who has felt pain, and today that includes the Palestinian people who are fighting for their human rights.”
Remember when we felt each person mattered . . .
Carry on my sweet survivor, carry on my lonely friend,
Don’t give up your dream, don’t let it end . . .
It’s over, some of us stand to applaud, others clap listlessly, gather their coats and books to leave.
A woman comes onstage and says, “Next on our program we have Hasha Musha, who will lead us in some folk songs. I hope you can all stay and continue our celebration . . .”
I’m a mess. I put on my sunglasses to hide my eyes, I look through my pockets for a Kleenex. I hear my name called; I find I have been sitting in front of my student, Eve. Her eyes are red from crying.
“They accepted me at Hebrew University,” she says. “I leave in July.”
(Eve had asked me to write her a recommendation, and I did. Among other things, I said, “Eve is devoted to the cause of peace. She will search for the truth and make it known. She cares about justice and fairness and human rights, qualities that are in short supply today in Israel.” I guess they took her anyway.)
I take her by the shoulders. “When you are there, talk to some Palestinians, will you?”
“I will,” she says. “I promise.”
I go down to shake Yarrow’s hand. Someone has carried his guitar away. He looks gray and dazed. All the energy has gone out of him. A man has his arm around him, whispering in his ear, a girl is holding up a notebook for his autograph. I wait until his hand is free, and I take it. His hand is small and delicate, like a woman’s. He looks at me, frowning: should I know you?
I shake his hand and say “Thank you.” I want to tell him that was the most courageous performance I have ever seen. But I don’t.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Allen Walker.