Robert Festenstein
Robert Festenstein

Bristol is not news

Freedom of expression is not freedom to tell lies

The last week has seen a considerable amount of exposure of a certain professor at the University of Bristol in the UK who has published various comments said by some to be openly anti-Semitic.  Student groups have with justification called for action to be taken against a background of support for the professor from various mostly left-wing activists.  A number of MPs have now taken up the fight on behalf of the students and Jewish Communal organisations have also pledged their solidarity.

What is odd about the outrage concerning the professor and the university is that there should be any at all.  Students for years now have been subjected to lies told on campus both in front of and behind the lectern about Israel.  The intensity of criticism of Israel as a country and Zionism as a movement for self-determination long-ago fell into the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition of anti-Semitism.  Some universities are so openly hostile to anything to do with Israel that Jewish students simply avoid them.  Others tolerate Jewish societies and allow them Student Union funds if they agree not to mention Israel.

In 2016 police were called to Kings College London where the Israel Society were hosting an Israeli lecturer.  I remember at the time being concerned about this but was told that this was an isolated event and Jewish students had few difficulties on campus. That was not the point then, and it is not the point now. Why is it that only Jewish students have to face this level of hostility whenever they go near Israel on campus and why has the community decided to live with this?

At this time of year, again for many years now, there have been campaigns on campuses in the UK known as Israeli Apartheid Week.  Lies are routinely told about Israel up and down the country in the form of exhibitions, demonstrations and social media campaigns.  Sometimes these descend into open intimidation of Jewish students. Sadly when demands are called for action to be taken by Universities, these are usually met with much hand wringing about how this is free speech, the activities take place on student-owned property and then usually followed by an invitation to make a formal complaint.

I am sure that if there was a campaign entitled ‘Celebrate Slavery Week’ the Universities would not be so reticent in taking action and in all likelihood such a campaign would not even get off the ground.  I am just as sure that decades of Israel bashing at Universities has resulted in those who run these institutions now cheerfully accepting the lies told about Israel as being true.  The natural consequence of this is the Jews who complain about Israel Apartheid Week are trying to interfere with the right of expression and an atmosphere of open debate.

Except there is no right to tell lies and the Universities have long ago given up the idea of open debate.  There are many subjects which cannot be raised for fear of a social media onslaught with the consequent effects on either course grades or a career.

I don’t know why Jewish communal leaders have been reluctant to act against Israel Apartheid Week.  The lies told in this campaign will continue to influence future decision makers for generations to come unless action is taken.

We all need to ensure that the lies told today do not become the accepted truths for tomorrow’s politicians, union leaders and business owners.  Combatting it is not just a job for the students immediately affected by it; it is the responsibility of the whole community.

The Zionist Central Council of Manchester accepts this responsibility and will be rolling out over the next few months a strategy designed to bring this campaign to an end.  The task might take some time, but a successful result will be well worth the effort.

Robert Festenstein

President – Zionist Central Council

About the Author
Robert Festenstein is a solicitor based in Manchester with considerable experience in Court actions. He is active in representing groups opposing BDS and fighting the increase in anti-Semitism, particularly amongst the left-wing in the UK.