Yale Divinity Threatens to Withhold Degree from Pro-Palestinian ProtestorHillary Brownsmith I Spirituality & Religion I Commentary I June 9th, 2015
On May 12, 2015, Friends of the Israeli Defense Forces (FIDF) held their first women's luncheon at Temple Israel in Westport, Connecticut. The Westchester/Connecticut chapter of FIDF reports that annually, it raises $2.5 million for Israel's soldiers. Not only did luncheon attendee's $54 ticket price contribute to this multi-million dollar gift, women in attendance were treated to a keynote speech by IDF Brig. Gen. (Res.) Gila Klifi-Amir. According to the group's website, Amir, former IDF Chief of Staff's Advisor on Women's Affairs, celebrated Israel as "a world leader in integrating women into the armed forces".
Gregory Williams and Daniel Fischer went to Temple Israel on May 12th with plans to read a statement from a woman directly impacted by IDF. That statement detailed the story of Nabila Abu Hamila, a Palestinian mother who, as a statement from Williams notes, "watched her son be murdered by IDF" and "who had to flee her home during last year's Gaza massacre". According to a UN report, last year "Israel's activities in the Gaza Strip, West Bank and East Jerusalem resulted in the deaths of 2,314 Palestinians and 17,125 injuries". This dramatic increase in violence makes 2014 the deadliest year for Palestinians since 1967.1
Williams and Fischer were detained by guards before they could enter the luncheon to read Nabila Abu Hamila's statement. Police were called by synagogue staff and both men were arrested and later released on a $1,500 bond. If these non-violent protestors are found guilty of the crimes they were arrested for, first degree criminal trespassing and second degree breach of the peace, they could face 18 months in prison. Because synagogue staff falsely reported during the initial 911 call that Williams and Fischer were armed, the FBI responded and multiple schools and daycares were placed on lockdown.
Arutz Sheva, an Israeli media network, published the inflammatorily titled article "Protestors Arrested for Storming Synagogue in Protest of IDF" shortly after Williams and Fischer were released from jail. In the article, it is noted that "Sen. Toni Boucher called on Yale 'to condemn and take the strongest possible action regarding this student [Gregory Williams]. The Divinity program should be a model for peace, tolerance and understanding of all religions in the often hostile world we live in'." 2
On May 28th, Yale responded to the Republican senator's call for condemnation by requiring Williams, who completed Yale's Masters of Divinity program earlier this month, to attend a disciplinary hearing. When I contacted Williams via email on the evening of May 28th, he reported that he was asked by the disciplinary committee "to admit some moral fault" for participating in the protest. He was also asked to affirm that FIDF's response to his actions was "reasonable" and that their mission "is not based on racism". Williams refused saying "the equation of Palestinian activism with "terrorism" was absolutely racist".
Yale threatened to withhold William's degree but did not issue a ruling during the hearing. On Friday evening, William's was notified by Yale Divinity that he would be issued his degree. Reflecting on the action at Temple Israel and its consequences, William's said:
"I have been reaffirmed in my faith in the practices of solidarity, mutual aid, and direct action by locally gathered, autonomous communities as a praxis capable of creating real justice. We live in a world that is characterized by a fundamental conflict between organized money and organized human beings. Today, at Yale Divinity School, the human beings won a small victory in preventing the power of racialized capital from governing the disciplinary process of this institution. We can continue to win, if we stay strong, stay unified, and never lose sight of a vision of the world as it could be and really should be from the perspective of the love and justice of a God who exercises a preferential option for the exploited and the oppressed."
Below is a statement that Gregory Williams released to local media immediately following the protest at Temple Israel:
"Our apologies, good friends, for the fracture of good order, the burning of paper instead of children; the angering of the orderlies in the front parlor of the charnal house. We could not, so help us God, do otherwise, for we are sick at heart; our hearts give us no rest for thinking of the Land of Burning children." - Daniel Berrigan, S.J., 1968
At around 1 pm on Tuesday, 12 May, my colleague, Dan Fischer, and I calmly walked into Temple Israel, where the Friends of the Israel Defense Forces was holding a lunchtime meeting. So as to appear as non-threatening as possible, we had no bags, no literature - I had even left the small pocketknife I usually carry at home.
We were armed only with a written testimony by Nabila Abu Halima, a Palestinian woman who lives in the Gaza strip, who watched her son be murdered by the IDF during Operation Cast Lead, and who had to flee her home during last year's Gaza massacre.
Our intention was simple: to read the statement at the FIDF's meeting, which was hosting a brigadier general in the occupying, colonizing army that is responsible for her suffering, and the suffering of so many other indigenous Palestinian women.
We were there, first and foremost, because we are Jews (additionally, I am a scholar of religious ethics), and we wanted to take responsibility for the racism in our community that fuels Jewish American support for the Zionist Apartheid regime's continued occupation of Palestinian land.
Growing up, I remember hearing my mother and grandmother telling stories about members of our family who were killed during the Holocaust. One of the lessons that I learned from those stories was the lesson of collective responsibility.
History remembers kindly those Europeans and Americans who took responsibility for the racism in their community which had bred Naziism by protecting Jewish people, by lifting up their voices, and by working to build a political resistance movement to dismantle fascism.
I entered Temple Israel on Tuesday because I feel that, as a Jew living in the United States, the time has come to take responsibility for my community. Zionism is no less racist, no less hateful, and no less violent and threatening to human life and dignity than Naziism. Like Naziism, Zionism seeks to build a nation upon an ethnocentric vision which erases the lives of people it considers "undesirable."
When Dan and I reached the second floor of the synagogue, we told staff exactly why we were there. We said that we had come to read a statement from a Palestinian woman at the FIDF event, and that we would leave voluntarily when we were done, or when we were ordered to do so by a police officer.
The staff immediately assaulted us, and tackled us to the ground. We did not take any physical action against them. Instead, we started to read the statement that we had come to deliver and, since we were still outside the door of the meeting room, we did so loudly so that as many people would hear us as possible. The staff kicked our phones away, we began to say "Free, Free Palestine!"
Even though we had told the staff what we were doing, and had made clear that this was a nonviolent political demonstration, they turned around and, over the phone and in our hearing, filed a false police report, claiming that we were armed. "We're unarmed!" we said, "Tell them we are unarmed! We are Jews coming to a synagogue!"
Because the staff (and apparently several others) filed this false police report, we are told that several schools were put on lockdown - this is one of the dangers of filing a false report or making a frivolous 911 call.
Since then, people from senators to judges to newspaper reporters have called us "violent," "criminals," even "terrorists." I ask you, who is the terrorist? Someone who reads a statement from a Palestinian woman, or the general who helps murder that woman's child?
What is violent, to protest that general, or to hold a public event to support her and the illegitimate armed force that she serves? There are those who say that they felt threatened by our action. I ask, what does it say about your community that you feel threatened by two nonviolent protesters testifying to the violence of that racist hate-ideology called Zionism?
Could this mean that your community is committed to racism and hatred? There are those who say that they felt threatened by our volume. I respectfully submit that there are times, especially times when children are being murdered by a colonial regime and a racist ideology, when it is an act of violence not to yell and scream.