This story was updated Friday evening with comments from NU Hillel executive director Michael Simon.
About 20 students walked out on a pro-Israel lecture, a program hosted Thursday by Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America and NU Hillel, in protest of the speaker’s “biased approach” and “belittlement” of NU students, according to representatives from Students for Justice in Palestine.
The event, “63 Reasons to Like Israel,” featured alumnus Gil Hoffman (Medill '99), chief political correspondent and analyst for The Jerusalem Post and a reserve soldier in the Israel Defense Forces Spokesperson Unit. The lecture was meant to show “why American Jews should be optimistic about Israel,” according to the event flyer.
SJP members and other concerned students walked out because they felt the speaker disrespected students and neglected to address all viewpoints, Communication junior Rayyan Najeeb said.
“You would learn nothing from his speech except a little bit about Israeli suffering that is happening now,” Najeeb said. “He mentioned nothing about the humanitarian crisis that is happening in Palestine.”
The walkout was not meant to cause a “disruption” but rather highlight the lack of voice granted to Palestinians, said Weinberg freshman and SPJ member Cory Behroozi.
“We know we’re not going to convince anyone,” Behroozi said. “They’ve already formed their opinions. The point is to get them to see the other side. And by walking out, they will know that students are here to protest. That is all we want.”
A similar demonstration occurred Nov. 1 at Wayne State University in Detroit, where students staged a silent mass walkout that left Hoffman speaking to a nearly empty room. Many had covered their mouths with red tape and held signs protesting Israeli war crimes.
Hoffman said he was unsure of what the students were trying to achieve in both the Wayne State and NU walkouts.
“It seems like they want to delegitimize Israel,” Hoffman said in the lecture, “but I don’t see why they didn’t stay until the end of the talk. I invite them to a dialogue. They should ask me questions, and I will respond. I wish they would have been able to hear the other side of the story.”
Najeeb, however, said the environment did not allow for “fruitful discussion.” The fact that guests had to submit questions via written notecard kept them, he said, from speaking aloud and put them at risk of being censored, or of having their question be ignored altogether.
“There was nothing we could say or ask that would open up dialogue,” Najeeb said. “They were preaching to one particular demographic. With the diction and vocabulary [Hoffman] used to describe Palestinians, you could tell he was only willing to discuss pointed issues. Northwestern shouldn’t support something like that.”
Najeeb said many of the students are friends with NU Hillel executive Director Michael Simon and do not want to blame Hillel for their frustration.
“We have much respect for [Simon],” Najeeb said, “but we feel we have the agency to protest if they bring in a speaker who is not willing to engage in discourse.”
Reached by phone Friday, Simon said he had hoped "the event would be a starting point for conversation and dialogue."
"The presence of students who might disagree very strongly with the perspective of the speaker, had they stayed through the end, could have been a point for a productive give-and-take. I’m disappointed that didn’t happen," Simon said. He added that he valued his relationship with the students who were there and appreciated that "Hillel has a positive relationship with student groups across campus."
NU Hillel Israel Fellow Paz Barzilay, who helped organize the event, said it is a “shame” that students left during the lecture.
Meanwhile, members from Chicagoans Against Apartheid in Palestine and independent Chicagoland activists were leafleting at the Arch in protest of the Hoffman lecture.
Chicago resident Noah Lepawsky, one of the protesters, said the Jewish population plays a crucial role in achieving peace, and that NU Hillel should help make that happen.
“It’s particularly important for Jews to speak up,” Lepawsky said. “A strong – but wrong – part of the narrative is that Israel has the support of all Jews. But being Jewish and being Zionist are not the same.”
Lepawsky’s goal at the Arch was to “raise awareness” about the Palestinian movement, and to encourage NU students to engage in the cause.
“You have to educate yourself and realize that the narrative you hear in the media is not only incomplete but also biased in favor of Israeli aggression,” Lepawsky said. “Students can write letters to editors and politicians. Do whatever you can to speak up.”
Responses from student passersby were “good,” CAAP member Neal Resnikoff said.
“Many have been taking leaflets and stopping for discussion,” Resnikoff said. “I don’t know what they really think or what they did with the papers after they left, but at least they’re more educated on these issues now.”
Robinson Meyer contributed reporting.