After listening to a presentation from former Israeli Defense Force soldiers, community members, students and representatives of Rice Left silently walked out of HUMA 120, where the talk was held.
Elad, an IDF soldier in reserve who could not give his last name due to security reasons, was discussing the composition of the IDF when protesters walked out.
“The IDF, like America, is a melting pot,” Elad said. “Like I said, there’s Jews, Christians, Muslims — guys, this is very unfortunate. I came all the way to tell my story hoping that you would stay and be respectful and let me finish.”
Hillel hosted the hourlong event, which was co-sponsored by the IDF and Stand With Us, a nonprofit, pro-Israel education organization.
Members of Rice Left planned the walkout, which students from the University of Houston and other community members attended. The protesters met prior to the event in an adjacent classroom. Four Rice University Police Department officers were present as protesters convened.
Jeremy Reiskind, vice president of engagement with Hillel, said the event was held to promote a dialogue between groups on either side of the issue between Palestine and Israel.
“The focus of [Stand With Us] is not about combat and hating of the Palestinians,” Reiskind said. “We want peace also. The biggest thing is in issues like this that are so big and have so many complex issues is dialogue.”
However, Rice Left member Heather Dial said she does not believe the event provided opportunity for a dialogue.
“They have only invited a very narrow group of people from one side of a discussion,” Dial, a psychology graduate student, said. “We’re walking out because there is no room for dialogue in a biased conversation.”
The talk was not listed on the Rice University Events Calendar, but was advertised through a Facebook event.
“The soldiers’ stories on this tour are inspirational, human, personal and demonstrate clearly how the IDF employs the strictest moral standards while fighting a terrorist foe that callously puts civilians on both sides in harm’s way,” the event description states.
Rice Left member and mathematics graduate student Kenan Ince said he found the description to be one-sided.
“If you look at the killings on both sides, there is an enormous … imbalance of Palestinians being killed by Israelis, and I thought that was something they were definitely keeping out of their dialogue as well,” Ince said.
Stand With Us Central Region Program Coordinator Vida Velasco introduced the event and said the purpose of Stand With Us is to convey the facts about the Israeli military. Velasco said she was aware of the walkout and preferred people stayed to promote a dialogue and understanding.
“You should be informed that in Texas, it is a misdemeanor to create a premeditated disturbance, verbal or physical,” Velasco said. “So if you do choose to leave, please do so quietly.”
Elad and another soldier, Tamir, spoke of their experiences in combat as well as their personal lives and background.
“I don’t hate,” Elad said. “Palestinians are not our enemies, nor have they ever been our enemies. I’m here today to share our stories.”
Elad said he unexpectedly came across different languages, religions and cultures as a part of the military, at which point the protesters walked out of the classroom.
“We came from the other side of the world to talk to you, from Israel,” Tamir said as the walkout proceeded. “We’d love to answer your questions.”
According to Rice Left member Michelle Pham, the event’s lack of publicity, despite its controversial topic, was problematic. Pham also said she did not think hosting a politicized event fell under the responsibilities of a cultural organization.
“People have looked at Rice Hillel as a cultural club,” Pham said. “Promoting Israel, the nation state, is a move away from that. That’s a different orientation.”
Reiskind, a Duncan College sophomore, said the role of Hillel extends beyond culture.
“Hillel deals with all aspects of being Jewish,” Reiskind said. “We are in charge of helping students in different ways, [including] connecting with Israel.”
Hillel member Zach Birenbaum said he would be open to hosting an event with Rice Left regarding Palestine.
“They showed a pro-Palestine propaganda film [Five Broken Cameras], and I didn’t feel like that was an open dialogue,” Birenbaum said. “So I guess you have both sides where we’re kind of showing both perspectives on the issue.
The event continued after the walkout, when Tamir and Elad more explicitly explained the combat zone and Hamas war tactics. During the question and answer session that followed, Hanszen College junior Aruni Ranaweera said she agreed with the sentiments of the protestors but planned to stay and listen to the presentation. Attendees applauded her choice to remain at the event, but Ranaweera said she questioned the goal of the discussion.
“In the case that this is supposed to be a dialogue, I felt it was very one-sided,” Ranaweera said. “There were only Israeli soldiers, and no Palestinians. I just want to know what kind of dialogue you were expecting.”
Velasco responded to Ranaweera’s question and said the goal is to start a more nuanced conversation.
“The full story of Israel is not being told,” Velasco said. “One of the most demonized groups when talking about Israel is the military.”
The soldiers provided information on Israeli tourism at the event’s closing.
In a private interview, Elad and Tamir said it is important to remember them as regular people, as opposed to representatives of the IDF itself.
Tamir said these events are not easy for him, considering how many people resent the existence of Israel.
“I am the IDF soldier you’ve seen on TV in the last operation,” Tamir said. “I am that guy you allegedly saw killing and murdering those innocent people on purpose. I am here, talking to you, and that’s not me and as that guy that you saw in the media, I tell you one on one: I want peace.”
Elad responded to criticism of bias towards the Israeli forces.
“We just tell the truth, that’s all,” Elad said. “I’m over here because I believe in the truth.”