Taping Our Mouths Shut to Scream Our Dissent

Ehud Olmert's Visit to New Orleans Brings Pain, Hostility, and New Allies to the Local Palestine Solidarity Movement

On October 13, Tulane University, a bastion of privilege in the South, hosted war criminal Ehud Olmert as a featured speaker. In response, more than 70 demonstrators engaged in protests and direct actions both inside and outside the event, and were interviewed by local media. Despite much hostility, they also found a lot of support, and have found their organizing now has even more momentum. Below is one person’s perspective on the event.


We were students, teachers, activists, and community members. We were Muslims, Jews, Christians, Palestinians, and allies. We were many, many more than the war criminal and his Mossad protectors. And we were powerful, more powerful than his security checkpoints and his electronically amplified lies. We strapped red tape to our bodies and stashed fake-bloodied clothes in our packs. Those of us who had the required documents, who had student IDs from New Orleans’ universities, passed through the checkpoints while our barred friends and allies gathered outside, armed with truths painted on posterboard and voices amplified by our growing numbers. With less than two weeks’ notice, we had formed a broad coalition that planned a multi-phased action to reclaim the same campus that is home to TIPAC (the Tulane-Israel Public Affairs Committee), that hosted Ann Coulter for “Islamo-Fascism Awareness Week” in 2007, and that was now inviting Ehud Olmert for a brief respite during his flight from international and Israeli courts. As Tulane University constructed a safe-haven and solicited interviews and meetings on behalf of its delinquent guest, dozens of our neighbors began to organize. And scores more responded to the call for action.

Tulane has long been an unwelcoming environment to our broader community, as well as to Muslim and Arab students. The culture of the white Northeastern American upper class dominates the campus, creating a space that vehemently reinforces a racist and elitist status quo and virulently quells dissent. Olmert’s strategists and local friends had chosen the city’s most Zionist and “secure” nonreligious institution for his visit, and many activists questioned the wisdom of challenging a hostile student body and a sometimes even more hostile private police force. Tulane voices have been almost entirely absent in a great many community dialogues and meetings about Palestine solidarity work, and the prospect of initiating a campaign for boycott, divestment, and sanctions on Tulane’s campus has always seemed laughable. But New Orleans is a city where so many feel linked to the Palestinian struggle through shared themes like the experience of diaspora, the right of return, and near-daily racist violence and oppression by police and military authorities. There is no space in our city where Israeli war criminals will not be challenged.

Tulane was as hostile an environment as we expected. Hundreds of Tulane students showed up to hear Olmert speak, and many laughed and applauded when he made jokes about the comments of overwhelmed Palestinians who threw up their hands in exasperation at his lies and walked out of the building. Many of our own group were only kept silent by the red tape we’d hidden on our bodies and then used to cover our mouths when Olmert first walked onto the stage. Scrawled on the tape were words that enumerated some of Olmert’s administration’s crimes, such as “human shields,” “illegal settlements,” “white phosphorous,” and “occupation.” We breathed deep and sat through an onslaught of racist lies about our Palestinian friends and family, until Olmert began to talk about the mistake Israel had made in “withdrawing” from Gaza. Then, one by one, our jaws aching from biting down on our testimonials of what we have seen with our own eyes and what our families and friends continue to suffer, we rose from our seats throughout the auditorium, slowly made our way to the aisle, and walked out.

Olmert’s audience, which for a moment became our own, gasped and whispered as more than twenty people stood, staring daggers at Olmert and his Mossad agents speaking into their sleeves, and then trailed down the aisles to the auditorium’s exit. Some of us cried, others shook with rage, but we all celebrated our action, small but fluid, and impenetrable by Olmert’s snide remarks and Mossad’s hidden weapons.

As we left the auditorium we heard the chants of our friends, and breathed freely for what felt like the first time in over an hour. The hostility had been palpable inside the auditorium, but our friends cried out to us and embraced us, and their numbers had easily tripled since we’d last seen them. They’d been shouting for two hours now, competing with calls of “Heil Hitler” and “Palestinians are Nazis” from students passing by. A Muslim woman in hijab had been hit with plates of food thrown from an adjacent third floor balcony while campus police looked on. Within twenty minutes we’d set up the next phase of our action: Four people dressed in bloodied clothes laid down on the ground in front of the auditorium, and we placed cardboard grave markers with the numbers of massacred Palestinians and Lebanese around them. As students began to flow out of the auditorium, we handed out fliers detailing Olmert’s war crimes and tried to prevent passers by from spitting on our friends on the ground. We were mostly successful, and managed to keep a student from urinating on one of the participants.

We were not at all surprised by the hostility we faced, but we were surprised by the positive responses of far more Tulane students than we expected. Members of Tulane Amnesty International, Tulane American Socialist Students United, and individual undergraduate and graduate students printed fliers, spread the word, and were an unmistakable presence in every phase of the actions. A day that we had dreaded and actions we had hated having to plan had resulted in a broadening of our local Palestine solidarity network into a community we had dismissed for too long. Our new friends and allies at Tulane know first-hand how much they are up against in an institution that is between one-quarter and one-third Jewish and regularly equates Zionism with Judaism, but they are aching to take up the challenge. They are Muslims, Palestinians, Jews, and allies. They are freshman, upperclassmen, and graduate students. On October 13th, they joined students from the General Union of Palestine Students and Amnesty International of University of New Orleans, as well as students from Loyola University, in standing up to hundreds of aggressive classmates, taping their mouths shut to announce their presence and their intentions. Suddenly the challenges we face in our local solidarity work seem more surmountable. The despicable war criminal inadvertently gave one gift to New Orleans during his visit: He gave the beginnings of Tulane’s Palestine solidarity movement an unforgettable debut.

Emily Ratner is an organizer and mediamaker based in New Orleans. In June she traveled to Gaza with a New Orleans delegation. This month she will be joining thousands of Palestinians and internationals for the Gaza Freedom March on December 31st. Help us get there. She can be reached at: emily@nolahumanrights.org. Read other articles by Emily, or visit Emily's website.

8 comments on this article so far ...

Comments RSS feed

  1. Leslie Jones said on October 16th, 2009 at 12:10pm #

    Very moving narrative…

  2. Connie said on October 16th, 2009 at 3:08pm #

    Thank you Emily for sharing with us what I can only imagine was both a tense and powerful experience. Your actions along with others, influenced individuals otherwise narrow perspectives and made a positive difference, and additionally was a very inspiring read for me today.

    Thanks again and keep awakening and inspiring****

  3. russell olausen said on October 16th, 2009 at 7:06pm #

    The night describes a triumph by the few to escape class conditioning, at no small physical risk. Entering the den of the dragon is heroism and I thank you for your bravery.

  4. mary said on October 16th, 2009 at 9:25pm #

    Well done Emily and friends for standing with your brothers and sisters in Palestine.

    Olmert probably wishes that he had stayed at home. There was a similar reception for him in Chicago.

    And they absolutely HATE this type of protest and disruption. The appearance of respectability at learned institutions in the West is critical for Olmert and his fellow criminals.

    We need more of this wherever they speak publicly. They must be challenged.

    Chicago activists disrupt Olmert speech

    How has he escaped jail on the charges of fraud by the way?

  5. Robert Desmarais Sullivan said on October 18th, 2009 at 6:48am #

    Sunday, October 18, Pax Christi and the First Unitarian Universalist Church of New Orleans are holding a ceremonial exorcism of the Spirit of War as a Vigil for Peace on the eighth anniversary of the attack on Afghanistan. My wife and I marched in the last Palestinian demonstration, and along with our friends in Pax Christi, we consider the excessive support of the US government for Israel and its neglect of Palestianian rights a major contributor to hostility toward the US. So not only do I judge this imbalanced support as unjust and immoral in itself, but I also consider it a poor strategy for US security. I hope all the groups in New Orleans that can imagine a world of justice will work together and be ready to do what was done at Tulane with Olmert. Though I was in Baton Rouge the day of Olmert’s visit, local television showed many friends of mine in the crowd holding signs in protest.

    I am interested in developing through the Peace and Justice Action Team of First Church a synergistic cooperation with all the groups working for justice in New Orleans.

  6. Annie said on October 19th, 2009 at 3:33pm #

    Thanks so much for this article. I learned something new.

  7. alex said on October 20th, 2009 at 12:29am #

    What you did in your protests made disinterested parties feel uncomfortable and resentful. You presented your case poorly and by and largely did an injustice to your movement. Don’t fret too much –chanting for the destruction of Israel would not be convincing even under the best of circumstances, but understand that wearing make up and lying on the sidewalk makes you look foolish. If what you wanted was to elicit this feeling, realize how ephemeral it was, and also recognize that turning people against you is seldom beneficiary. Realize also that the rich and privileged of whom you seem to resent so much are the ones who can make differences. I highly recommend you alter your approach

  8. mary said on October 24th, 2009 at 12:27am #

    Olmert speech disrupted in San Francisco

    Another excellent action by these fine people:

    Bay Area residents attempted a citizen’s arrest of former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, while he gave a speech to the World Affairs Council in San Francisco on 22 October 2009. Twenty-two people were arrested for challenging Olmert directly and demanding he be tried for war crimes and crimes against humanity in the Gaza Strip and Lebanon. Olmert has faced protests at Tulane University, University of Kentucky and the University of Chicago. The recent International Independent Fact-Finding Mission, headed by Judge Richard Goldstone, found evidence that Israel had committed war crimes and crimes against humanity during a three-week long attack on the Gaza Strip last winter, killing more than 1,400 Palestinians, mostly civilians, and destroying much of the area’s infrastructure. In 2006, similar Israeli attacks on Lebanon killed 1,200 people. Olmert has refused to be held accountable.