There are few moments when it is not worth listening to someone. This should be an obvious truism, yet it feels like an increasingly contentious position. When a group of my fellow students interrupted Haverford College Professor of Political Science Barak Mendelsohn before he gave a lecture on Israeli Security Policy, and I felt like I had snuck into a Fox News wet dream, I was reminded of just how fraught this opinion is becoming. Mendelsohn was invited to Swarthmore on Tuesday, Oct. 24 to give the first of a series of lectures surrounding the Israel/Palestine conflict. Mendelsohn was an easy target for a pro-Palestinian protest: he was born in Israel, served in the IDF, and has written three books on Jihadi Terrorism. It is a reasonable assumption that he would be pro-Israel.
As students filed into the LPAC hall, many of whom I recognized as leaders from the pro-Palestine protest a week ago, I was increasingly excited to be there. I had expected a somewhat boring lecture followed by routine, courteous questions. As more and more students entered, it felt that this lecture could be a space for real discussion. Instead, after Professor Atshan’s introduction and before Mendelsohn could get a word out, pro-Palestine students stood up, distributed printouts of Mendelsohn’s tweets, and gave a speech about the atrocities being committed in Gaza. The speech ended with a call that all students in the audience stand up with them and walk out to show Swarthmore that its students wouldn’t stand for injustice. Nearly all of the students stood and walked out, chanting “shame,” leaving only a few other students and me with a mix of faculty and staff members. Professor Atshan got up again, apologized, and the talk began. Halfway through the talk students began to chant outside of the auditorium. Mendelsohn spoke through it. When he finished, I walked out of the auditorium and some students waiting outside the doors to the hall chanted “shame” and pointed at me. Overall, it was a fairly interesting lecture.
My issue is that the protesters tried to stop Mendelsohn from speaking and stop students from listening. If the protestors had listened to the lecture and at the end walked out and refused to engage, or didn’t attend the lecture in the first place, I would have missed their voices but nothing harmful would’ve happened. The actions of the protestors tried to make it so there was no possibility of listening or thinking about what Mendelsohn said. The protest was not against a position that Mendelsohn held; it was against the possibility that he might speak at all.
If we are not careful, this world can become an incredibly thoughtless place. It is far easier to be a sophist than a philosopher. It is easier to leave every argument than actually examine if you’re right or wrong. It is easier to leave and shout “shame” about an Israeli professor’s lecture on Israeli Security Policy than to sit, listen and ask questions about it. In short, it is easier to not think than to think.
Hannah Arendt famously described the “banality of evil.” She meant that evil doesn’t come from malice: it comes from a refusal to think, listen, or talk to each other. The protest asked us to not think, listen, or talk to each other. They interrupted Mendelson before he said a single word. They asked all the students to leave the auditorium so they would not listen to him. They later tried to drown out Mendelsohn’s voice with their chanting. They weren’t asking us to think something different, to reconsider a position: they were simply asking us not to think. I transferred to Swarthmore this fall hoping to find peers that would never do the easier thing of leaving the room, peers that would always sit and listen. It made me heartbroken to find that these values could be abandoned here.
I don’t write any of this under the presumption that Mendelsohn would be easy to listen to right now. I am blessed to not have family in Gaza. I am blessed that my interaction with this atrocious war is limited to the news. As a Muslim, I know that hundreds of my brothers and sisters are being killed unjustly each day. I know all of this to be true. I went to the lecture because I know that my ignorance is enormous. I hoped that thoughtfully listening might help me learn something. At the very least, I thought it could help me understand how the Israeli state could ever act like this or how its citizens could ever allow it. I think that the actions of the pro-Palestine protests are generally aligned towards justice and a better world. But working to silence someone is never an avenue towards justice.
I left the lecture thinking about how Mendelsohn had ended: it was becoming increasingly impossible to imagine any productive discourse about Israel and Palestine. Without discourse between the two sides — without thought — there was no hope for resolution. As those waiting outside the auditorium pointed and yelled shame, I worried that a similar problem was facing us here.