In November I blogged about an anti-semitic meeting at SOAS which I attended.
Under the Prevent law, Universities have a duty to assess whether to decide to host a particular speaker.
‘ ….when deciding whether or not to host a particular speaker, RHEBs [Relevant Higher Education Bodies] should consider carefully whether the views being expressed, or likely to be expressed, constitute extremist views that risk drawing people into terrorism or are shared by terrorist groups. In these circumstances the event should not be allowed to proceed except where RHEBs are entirely convinced that such risk can be fully mitigated without cancellation of the event. This includes ensuring that, where any event is being allowed to proceed, speakers with extremist views that could draw people into terrorism are challenged with opposing views as part of that same event, rather than in a separate forum. Where RHEBs are in any doubt that the risk cannot be fully mitigated they should exercise caution and not allow the event to proceed.’ ‘We would expect RHEBs to put in place a system for assessing and rating risks associated with any planned events, which provides evidence to suggest whether an event should proceed, be cancelled or whether action is required to mitigate any risk.’
I wanted to see if the meeting organiser (the Palestine Society) and the university complied with these requirements. So I submitted a Freedom of Information Request. It took some time to get a response but it is interesting, in particular a six page letter from Peter Baran (Chief Executive of SOAS Students Union) to Chris Sladen of the Charity Commission (21/11/16), in response to his letter (9/11/16):
- There is no indication that any risk assessment was done;
- The Charity Commission is conducting an enquiry into the organisation of the meeting (SOAS Student Union is a Charity);
- The trustees of the Union claim ‘we do not believe that there was any Anti-Semitism within the meeting, and the Trustees feel that this was an appropriate meeting for the Palestine Society to run in the way it was run’;
- The meeting room was booked for a different event! : “Palestine-Kurdish Awareness Event. The event will discuss avenues for solidarity within the contexts of Palestine and Kurdistan” Speakers: TBC”
- The Union follows up all bookings with speakers described ‘To Be Confirmed’. However the Palestine Society failed to respond with the name of the Speaker. The booking should then have been cancelled – but it wasn’t. So no risk assessment was done by the Union;
- The Palestine Society accepted that they broke the room booking procedure. The Union Trustees suspended their ability to book rooms until January 2017;
- The Trustees ‘believe that this was an appropriate meeting for the society to have held and, had the proper information been given to us, we would not have intervened or asked for the meeting to be run in a different manner. This was a book launch by a writer who had been recommended to the society by the Israeli Historian Professor Ilan Pappé of the University Of Exeter, which as part of their risk assessment of the event showed no reason why the meeting would be particularly controversial for the society. When accepting a speaker booking the Union will check speaker names via Google, and previous to this meeting Google hits for the speaker Thomas Suarez would either be for the book (State Of Terror – Thomas Suarez) or his activities as a Professional Violinist. The book is a history of the formation of the State Of Israel, which is an issue of interest to the SOAS Palestine Society and other SOAS Students – this being an area of study at this University.’ Nothing about the truthfulness of the allegations in the book!
- The Palestine Society has agreed for the rest of 2016-17 to only run events with internal speakers (from SOAS).
Suspending the ability of the Palestine Society to book a room ‘until January 2017’ was hardly a sanction! The meeting was on 3 November and it would have taken some weeks for the facts to have been ascertained. Effectively the Society was prevented from booking a room during the Christmas vacation only – when it would not have wanted to book one anyway.
In particular we need to know whether the Palestine Society was being deliberately duplicitous in submitting the wrong title for the event and not disclosing the name of the speaker.
It is gratifying that the Charity Commission is taking this incident seriously. In particular, despite the protestations of the Union that ‘we do not believe that there was any Anti-Semitism within the meeting’, there obviously was.
Yet again, someone is dictating to Jews what constitutes anti-Semitism.
What other minority has to contend with being challenged when it calls out prejudice against it?