Ambassador’s talk cancelled at London University

Barely an hour before Ambassador Regev was scheduled to arrive on our campus, ticket-holders were notified by City University’s Student Union that the event had been ‘‘deferred’’ (euphemism for ‘permanently cancelled’ as far as we were concerned). No warning, no reasons and no explanations.

Students who had travelled in just for the event began to arrive only to be told that their journey was a waste of time. Not only would they not hear the speaker, but they would be greeted by abusive chants of screeching activists at an anti-Israel apartheid protest organised by the university’s Palestinian Society.

 We immediately expressed our dismay and frustration at the Student’s Union’s decision to cancel. Cue the age-old chorus of the bureaucracy: we were informed that it was Counterterrorism Police who had prevented the event from going ahead. The Police had called it off because the University had allegedly not put in place the required security measures meaning that the safety of the students and the Ambassador could not be guaranteed.  Students were at risk for listening to an Israeli diplomat. Yes, it sounds ridiculous and it appears absurd but that is the state of some UK campuses.

All of us involved put in a lot of immense hard work and time to make this happen. Naturally, we are extremely disappointed and appalled at the fact the University failed to do their moral and legal duty to uphold freedom of speech… and yet, it would be dishonest to say that we were totally shocked that it ended this way.

This is nothing new. Students involved in pro-Israel advocacy know very well that pro-Israel events on campus will always be met with tacit and occasionally overt opposition from the academic institutions where they are hosted, and it is guaranteed that events giving a platform to Israeli policymakers and diplomats will be met with vocal and aggressive resistance from anti-Israel student bodies.

In this case too, the Student Union had made our lives as difficult as possible from the very beginning. Meeting after meeting we faced unreasonable demands and the need to overcome unnecessary barriers at every stage. We could not have access to our own guest list and yet it was our responsibility to ensure guests bought tickets. It was Kafkaesque bureaucracy at work.

In this hostile environment, we launched the City Israel Society last year as we felt only a divisive pro-BDS narrative was being presented on campus. It was not right that an alternative message presenting the Israeli case was not heard, and that there was no platform for both Jewish and non-Jewish students alike to voice their legitimate alternative views on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Our event with Mark Regev was set to be a unique opportunity to present a different but compelling point of view which students genuinely want to hear. The event was to be co-hosted with the Politics Society and chaired by an academic from the University. A large lecture theatre was completely sold-out for the event.

Upon hearing about the event, the Palestinian Society immediately issued unreadable statements, contending that their rights and personal safety were infringed by the mere presence of Mark Regev on campus. The duplicitous intentions behind these messages were undoubtedly to put pressure on the University to pull the plug…and it worked. Rather than defend free speech, the University caved in to the pressure and gave in to the tactics of bullying and intimidation.

While this is nothing new, it is disturbing how ‘normal’ this situation has become.  Notwithstanding the efforts of Jewish and non-Jewish students willing to stand up for what is right, a pro-BDS motion was passed at last year’s Student’s Union AGM. During the debate, any student brave enough to speak against the motion was aggressively jeered at and mocked. Those who raised their hands to vote against the motion were even photographed in a threatening intimidating manner. Simply put, the anti-Israel apartheid campaign at City in recent years has been nasty and hateful. It has become so bad that Jewish students simply avoid walking past the main corridor during apartheid week. Last year a group of non-Jewish students – and even an academic, Professor David Stupples – were accused of being racist for simply challenging the pro-BDS narrative.

As campus director for the Pinsker Centre, this trend of aggressive censorship hurts twice as much. The Pinsker Centre prides itself as a grassroots student-led organisation that aims to provide a platform for free speech, thought-provoking dialogue and critical discussion on campus. University must be a space for ideas and debate and we’ve made it our task to defend the democratic principle of freedom of speech. We collaborate with societies, help them bring high profile speakers and organise events for large groups of students, both on and off campus.

We cannot surrender. We cannot allow anyone to silence us. We will redouble our efforts to ensure Mark Regev is heard on campus at City University this academic year. He has every right to – and only anti-free speech left or right wing fascists will disagree.

About the Author
Avi Garson was born in London but grew up in Gibraltar. He spent two years in Gateshead Yeshiva and then lived in Jerusalem for a year. Currently reading Politics at City, University of London and is an Evening Beis Programme attendee. He helps run the University's Jewish and Politics societies and helped launch the Israel Society. In 2018 he became campus director for the Pinsker Centre.
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