Protesters of Israel Block Party unjustly target culture over politics

Jordan Shenhar

“A celebration of culture does not require supporting a political entity. However, the Holi festival on the LBJ Lawn makes it unapologetically clear that it promotes India and proactively legitimizes the state.”

“A celebration of culture does not require supporting a political entity. However, the Pakistani Student Association’s Basant celebration makes it unapologetically clear that it promotes Pakistan and proactively legitimizes the state.”

In all likelihood, you haven’t heard anyone make such ridiculous arguments. And if you did, you’d correctly identify them as racist strawmen.

You most likely take for granted that the people of India should hold the power to govern themselves within the state of India, and that Pakistanis hold that same right within Pakistan.

You understand that Indians and Pakistanis of any religion or nationality, like all peoples, enjoy the right to celebrate their respective customs, free from harassment and persecution.

And you accept that people of all races, religions, and ethnicities are entitled to define the sounds and flavors of their culture as affirmations of a collective identity, not as political statements. By extension, you accept that a cultural event is not a political event, and that while protesting the latter is an essential feature of a free civil society, protesting the former dehumanizes the event’s participants, signaling that their very existence should be called into question.

So if student groups were to disrupt either Holi or Basant to call attention to military or ethnic conflicts in Kashmir, Gujarat, or Balochistan, you would (or should) criticize their behavior as intolerant and cruel.

But when an association of Israeli and Israeli-American students organized just such a cultural celebration, they were greeted with the following message, published on the event page of a protest organized by members of the Palestine Solidarity Committee:

“A celebration of culture does not require supporting a political entity. However, the Israel Block Party makes it unapologetically clear that it promotes Israel and proactively legitimizes the state.”

Sadly, such behavior is not unusual for the PSC, whose Facebook cover photo imperialistically features a silhouette of both Israel and Palestine draped in the colors of the Palestinian flag. By framing the self-determination of the Israeli people as a political controversy, it attempts to justify targeting anything related to the state or its inhabitants with aggressive and racially charged theatrics.

There are obvious moral concerns with this tactic, which directs vitriolic hatred towards a group of people on the basis of a characteristic as immutable as ethnicity. There is nothing Israeli students can do, save for renouncing their right to live in a safe haven from oppression and genocide within their ancestral homeland, to appease those willing to protest their culture and their customs.

That’s because the protest against the Israel Block Party falls within a broader movement intended to “anti-normalize” Israel, which requires that anything that might make an Israeli feel normal or human must instantly be shouted down, regardless of its relation to the country’s politics. The boycotters and their sponsors aren’t trying to protest settlement policies, call attention to security dilemmas, or question the morality of asymmetric warfare. They are targeting an event that, by sharing Israeli music and food and technologies and humor with the UT community at large, is designed to portray the Israeli people as more than a thorny political problem. 

By doing so, they’re targeting Israelis for exercising their basic right to human dignity. In that regard, the boycotters bear a strong resemblance to members of the Westboro Baptist Church, which uses similar protest strategies to promote an equally obstinate and equally shameful bigotry towards the LGBT community.

The protest’s organizers cloak this intolerance through the argument that the Block Party “excludes the voices” of Palestinians living outside of Israel. But that line of reasoning is both flawed and irrelevant.Because the Israel Block Party is exclusively a cultural festival, the political persuasions of its attendees are as tangential as they would be at a South by Southwest concert or a Memorial Day barbecue. And because the event specifically celebrates Israeli culture, its organizers emphasize Palestine as little as they do Australia, Bhutan, or Zambia. In other words, the protesters are calling out an event that has nothing to do with Palestine for not featuring their particular brand of a Palestinian agenda. By their own logic, they should be incensed by Events & Entertainment bringing Ra Ra Riot to campus instead of Rashid Khalidi.

Their bellicose racism doesn’t belie the protesters’ right to peaceably assemble. But, as with any hate group, no one should take their rhetoric seriously.

Shenhar is a Plan II, government and economics sophomore from Westport, Connecticut. Follow Shenhar on Twitter @jshenhar.