About 25 demonstrators gathered outside The Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center at the University of Maryland on Oct. 27 to protest the appearance of Israeli Ambassador Michael Herzog.
Carrying Palestinian flags and wearing keffiyehs, the group chanted, “From the river to the sea!” Most were clad in black and wore face masks and sunglasses. Some held signs at face level to obscure themselves. They accused Herzog of being a war criminal, said he is complicit in genocide and called for the denormalization of Zionism.
During his speech, Herzog focused deeply on Israel’s position on the international stage, addressing Iran, Russia and Ukraine in particular.
“Politically and morally, Israel unequivocally stands with Ukraine,” Herzog said, “We’ve provided quite significant, nonlethal capabilities to the Ukrainians.”
Herzog explained that providing lethal capabilities to Ukraine may heighten Israeli tensions with Russia, which has a presence in Syria. As for Russia-Ukraine, Herzog doesn’t see any solution in the near future, saying the Russia-Ukraine conflict may become a “long XYZ war,” similar to the tensions fuming in the Middle East.
“[There are] forces and actors who look at the future and want to bring about stability and wellbeing. And those who are stuck in the past, want to take the region backwards, want to thrive on hatred and incitement,” Herzog said.
Although he characterizes Israel as a “forward-moving” nation, Herzog acknowledges that the country is flawed, particularly its democracy.
“But I have yet to see a perfect democracy. At the bottom line, Israel is a success story. We’re strong militarily, economically and in democracy. It is challenged but strong,” Herzog told his audience, “I have great hope looking ahead.”
A mix of adults interested in hearing the ambassador and U-Md. students were greeted at the lecture hall with bag searches and body wands.
“I almost thought there would be more private security brought by the ambassador,” said freshman Erez Keler. “Israel is very contentious.”
Keler said that he felt the talk covered a wide range of subjects but it felt “very diplomatic.” When it came to specific policies and politics, Herzog was vague.
In reference to Israel’s multiple elections in the past few years, Professor Scott Lasensky asked Herzog, “What can Americans do to help Israel as it moves through this extended political crisis?”
“We have to have a hard look at our operating system,” Herzog answered. “The problem is the system grants disproportionate power to small parties because of the coalition system. But I don’t think anyone from the outside should do anything about it. It’s for Israeli society to fix itself.”
Guests asked Herzog about Iran’s revolution, the cultural tear that comes with being Israeli-American, the moral implications of stockpiling nuclear weaponry and more.
Lasensky said it was fascinating to hear about relevant, ongoing events from a “front-row seat” participant.
“He commented in real-time fashion on the Lebanon-Israel maritime agreement that was signed earlier that day,” Lasensky said, “He called it ‘tacit recognition of its recognition of Israel.’ That was a little bit of a newsy moment.”
Lasensky thought that in addition to students getting to see the ambassador, it was a chance for Israeli officials to see life on American college campuses.
“I fear sometimes that Israeli officials or Jewish community leaders have this image – even a caricature – of all things Israel and Jewish related being on fire on university campuses. But here, there’s respectful discourse, an atmosphere across the board that is generally positive.”
Herzog’s appearance was sponsored by the Gildenhorn Institute for Israel Studies at U-Md. It kicked off a year of events honoring the 75th anniversary of Israel’s establishment.