There is a tremendous temptation to insist that those who say the most deplorable things have no right to speak. There is free speech, goes the thought, and then there is taking liberties. The UK National Union of Students, taking the lead, has a ‘No Platform’ policy on its books: no member of a proscribed list of “racist or fascist” groups may address the student body or share a stage with its leaders.
This is a temptation that must be resisted, especially by those concerned to challenge anti-Israel rabble-rousing. For whatever the justifications for regulating free speech in principle, supporting No Platform policies is a grave strategic error: it is liable to backfire and leave Zionists the victims of the No Platform policy themselves. One may win a tactical victory by banishing bigots off campus; but one bears the risk of a strategic defeat, if this precedent is misapplied and used to silence all and any supporters of the Jewish state.
It is one thing if an omniscient sage could determine who counts as “racist or fascist”; it is another thing if that determination is left to student organisations that contain powerful elements already inclined to view Israel as both racist and fascist. The power to decide whom to silence is a tremendous one: to put that power in the hands of groups that time and time again debate boycotting Israel is dangerously myopic.
Hate speech, already forbidden in UK law, should of course be banished from campuses – as should all criminal activity. There is a difference, however, between proscribing criminal behaviour and the presence of persons who belong to groups that student unions determine as “racist”. And therein lies the nub of the issue. Membership of a racist group may have probative value in indicating that the person is likely to incite hate on campus: but this has to be the grounds for refusing them admission – not their membership of a supposedly racist group, because there is no guarantee that (politically radical) student unions will always correctly identify such groups.
The ever-creepy British MP George Galloway has been placed on the NUS ‘No Platform’ hit-list for suggesting that having sex with a woman in her sleep is not rape but “bad sexual etiquette”. Oxford student Jonathan Hunter was so incensed by Galloway’s return to Oxford that he confronted him in Hebrew waving an Israeli flag. Hunter has since argued that Galloway should not be allowed on campuses, defending ‘No Platform’: he argues that universities may legitimately to ban inflammatory speakers – or more accurately, withhold invitations from them – lest their presence “unravel the delicate cohesion of student communities” or else leave students feeling “disaffected, isolated and even threatened”.
Such opposition to invitations to the bigoted member for Bradford West, however, are liable to backfire, because the exact same arguments may be turned on their heads and used to ban pro-Israeli speakers in the same breath. There is no shortage of pro-Palestinian activists who already gladly parrot Hunter’s words, and argue that the presence of Israeli politicians on campus also “unravel[s] the delicate cohesion of student communities” and may leave students feeling “disaffected, isolated and even threatened”. Regardless of the argument’s merits in itself, to legitimise this general form of argument in the knowledge that it may be turned against one is pure folly.
Consider how pro-Israeli voices are already being silenced, their pronouncements already taken as unsayable and unspeakable.
In 2011, Ishmael Khaldi – Israel’s most senior Muslim diplomat – was invited to address the Edinburgh University Jewish Society. No sooner did he open his mouth than he was swamped by a mob of angry anti-Israel protesters (carrying ‘Free Egypt’ placards – seriously, WTF?), who drowned him out with their hysterical yammering:
Where is the freedom of speech for the 1,500 Palestinians killed in Gaza? Where’s the freedom of speech for [drowned out by raucous cheering]? Apartheid state [loud whooping]! Viva viva Palestina! Boycott Israel! From the river to the sea, Palestine must be free! This man is a defender of terror, his boss [Avidgor Liberman] is a Nazi… We don’t discuss with the Ku Klux Klan – why should we discuss with this thug? Shame on you, shame on you! One, two, three four – Occupation no more! Five, six, seven, eight – Israel is a racist state! We stay, you go! You should not allow him in your university; you should not allow him the oxygen of publicity – he must go!
Khaldi took to scrawling on the blackboard: “There will never be peace with this anarchy. You’re shame for the Palestinians and the Free World.” Forty minutes later, unable to speak, he simply walked out, as the hooligans rejoiced, chorusing, “Cheerio, cheerio, cheerio…”
Khaldi was No Platformed.
Consider also the disgusting scenes at Galway University in Ireland last month, when Alan Johnson of BICOM was interrupted from giving his speech by a mob of irate Irishmen screaming:
You’re fucking Zionists, fucking pricks! Get the fuck out now! Get the fuck out! Get the fuck off my campus now! Get off the fucking campus! Fuck you! We don’t want your Israeli money around here!
Johnson was No Platformed too.
So yes, it is tempting to tell anti-Israel rabble-rousers to “get the fuck off my campus”. After all, “we don’t discuss with the Ku Klux Klan – why should we discuss with them”? Much better if they not be “allowed the oxygen of publicity”. But these exact same arguments are already being used to silence pro-Israel voices: and that means that to fight for our own right to speak, it is at the very least a strategic imperative to fight for the right of all persons to speak – except where incitement to hatred is liable to incur criminal sanction anyway.
One cannot protest the silencing of Israeli voices by arguing that the wrong voices are being silenced in this instance: the line has to be that it is wrong to silence any voices unless this is already criminal, full stop.
If Jewish history bears one overarching lesson, it is that the coercive power of centralised institutions is liable to be abused, and that minorities are often the victims of such abuse. This is the pragmatic, strategic thrust of Jewish liberalism: an awareness that only a free society can protect our personal and collective interests, and that restrictions on the liberty of the individual are not only unjust, they also disproportionately constrain those who need that liberty most.
Banishing Hizb-ut-Tahrir from campus is a pyrrhic victory if the same policy is also used to banish Israeli diplomats from campus too. To guarantee our own right to speak freely without intimidation, there is no choice but to suck it up and put up with an equivalent right for those we despise (again, unless this constitutes hate speech, which is criminal). The risk that this policy will be abused does not bear thinking about.