The protest was ineffective. I went into the talk perceiving Prime Minister Olmert as a warmonger- I was against the Lebanon war. I left with a new appreciation of Olmert. That's probably not what the protesters- who were from SAIA (Students Against Israeli Apartheid), at least according to their t-shirts- were hoping for.
When the protesters' shouts weren't incomprehensible, they were hyperbolic. Their interruptions were rude at best. This was not a case of the voiceless making themselves heard. There was a question and answer period after Olmert spoke and they could have raised their hands and asked an informed tough question, which would have been a better alternative. If they were ignored then, that would have been the time to protest. Instead, they shirked their chance to add to the conversation productively and resorted to a gimmick.
The protesters could have asked if the justification for killing numerous innocent Lebanese and stoking the flames of anger against Israeli were really worth the short-term goals of the war. They could have asked what kind of impediment the Jewish settlers will present to the peace process. Instead, they turned their positions into a caricature by shouting nothing of substance.
Olmert answered the heckles with patience, grace, and humor. He was in complete control. He later received an inappropriate question from a Judge Grossman, who apparently is extremely right wing, and answered it convincingly. I came away impressed with Olmert's calm after receiving attacks from all sides. Jane Harmon, the head of the Wilson Center, reaffirmed her belief in free speech, but noted that the protesters, though well within their rights, had shown bad judgement. Her comments were appropriate and well-received.
For their part, the students were more nervous than anything else. The first boy paused in horror after Olmert's bodyguard motioned to security personnel. The boy cried, "What?!" in panic. Another boy's voice cracked as he whispered his inaudible protest.
Perhaps the protest would have been more effective if the students had been better trained, but I've never seen the interrupting tactic work well. I once went to a talk where Karl Rove of all people was the speaker. Rove made an ass of himself, yelling offensive rants at students who asked tough questions. The only time Rove looked good was during the interrupting protests. He merely sat there and smiled.
I also witnessed a Jewish group who berated Al Jazeera English's Washington correspondent. The Jewish group ruined the evening with their accusatory questions and statements, which were calmly and effectively answered by the journalist. But the Jewish group wouldn't quit and a chance at meaningful dialogue was missed.
I'm sure SAIA has some important things to add to the Middle East discussion. It's a shame they marginalized themselves yesterday at the Wilson Center.