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Standing up out of turn for human rights

Published: April 15, 2011
Section: Opinions


Brandeis is sending its students for a semester in the Hague to learn about international law straight from the source: the International Court of Justice (ICJ) and the International Criminal Court (ICC). Those students could tell you that torture is a crime against humanity, that extra-judicial killings are unlawful and that to kill innocent civilians carelessly in pursuit of a terrorist constitutes a war crime. But Brandeis, which claims to stand for social justice, has failed to bring those lessons home.

On Monday, April 4, our university played host to six Israeli parliament members at a town hall-style meeting with students. Among them was Avi Dichter, the former head of the Shin Bet, the Israeli Secret Services. Dichter was responsible for the torture of detainees and implemented the policy of extrajudicial assassinations, both of which are violations of international law. Multiple human rights organizations, including Amnesty International, have highlighted an incident in 2002, when Dichter ordered the use of a one-ton bomb to assassinate Hamas militant Saleh Shehada in his Gaza home. This reckless attack, which took place in a densely populated neighborhood, killed 17 civilians, including nine children.

Brandeis made the deliberate decision to host a man who is responsible for war crimes and crimes against humanity. These facts were not unknown to the organizers. Dichter is unable to travel to many European countries for fear of arrest and conviction; sadly, the United States shields him and other officials from facing justice.

I and several other members of Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) decided not to allow this to fly under the radar. We sat politely through the event but when Dichter was called to the stage we stood up and demanded he turn himself in for a fair trial. Recognizing we were unlikely to convince him to take responsibility for his actions, we planned our action to last no more than 40 seconds from the moment we stood up to the point when we all left the hall. As soon as we left, Dichter told a joke about us and continued his remarks.

Our action respected Dichter’s right to free speech. Our action challenged the normalization of war criminals and the whitewashing of crimes against humanity. The international justice system lacks implementation mechanisms; it cannot enforce its rulings and cannot arrest any individual who is not from a member of the Rome Convention. Thus, international law is currently more of a recommendation—a set of norms that countries are encouraged to follow—than an actual law. Our duty as justice-seeking citizens is to enforce these norms and we must begin by pointing out their violation. We must never accept impunity for war crimes and crimes against humanity.

In response to our interruption, some students have begun a finger-wagging campaign and published a disapproving letter charging us with curtailing Dichter’s right to freedom of speech. I would not mind the petition if the Student Union had not inappropriately endorsed it as a group. As the Justice noted earlier this week, a representative body such as the Student Union should not condemn some of its members when no Union bylaws were violated. Moreover, the Union made its decision without hearing from the students involved, relying on the charged caricature of our actions as the letter portrays them. I urge the Student Union to withdraw its signature and hear our version before it chooses to disapprove of us.

The writers of the petition have neglected to mention the context of our actions—our university’s embrace of a war criminal—and, in so doing, missed the point completely. If the action had been about silencing or opposing alternative opinions, a 40-second disruption would be exceedingly inadequate. Our interruption was not about stating our opinions but about setting norms. I expect U.S. citizens to hold their leaders accountable for their war crimes in the same way that I as an Israeli citizen do. If we will not set these norms, the ICC will remain a tribunal solely for African leaders.

As this goes to print, 273 people have signed the letter disapproving our actions. Only eight students, however, chose to disapprove of the fact that Brandeis hosted a war criminal. We would hope that more people would say something if a Hamas official responsible for war crimes were to be invited to Brandeis. Instead of pointing fingers, I urge the signers of the letter to actively seek an end to the crimes of your own country: Close Guantánamo, bring back the troops from Iraq and Afghanistan, and end the U.S. cover for Israeli war crimes. In the meantime, please permit me and other people of conscience to do the bare minimum—to stand up and oppose the violators of human rights. And you are more than welcome to join us!

Noam Lekach ’14 is a member of Brandeis Students for Justice in Palestine.