Free Speech and the Alienation of Israeli Students at British Universities

Repost, because not much (nothing?) has changed; originally posted 10th of February 2015 on Student Rights blog


In the wake of the Paris shootings, with the Counter-Terrorism and Security Bill in its final Parliamentary stages, debates about free speech and its limits have surged and our universities have not escaped unscathed.

On Holocaust Memorial Day, the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau, LSE Palestine Society and Feminist Society hosted an event entitled, “Gender and Resistance in Occupied Palestine.” Described as a “discussion exploring gender and resistance under Israeli occupation,” the speakers represented Israelis as rapists and praised those who murder them.

Panelist Rena Baker, writer for The Electronic Intifada, praised Leila Khaled, who hijacked TWA Flight 840 in 1969 and El Al Flight 216 in 1970, saying that her “hijacking of planes was amazing.” She also said that Sana’a Mehaidli, who at sixteen killed two soldiers and injured twelve in a suicide attack, “deserves a standing ovation.” Zena Agha, also on the panel, promoted the representation of Israelis as rapists. She said “Rape for Israelis was almost a weapon of war against Palestinian women” and discouraged a western view of Hamas, Hizbollah and ISIS, suggesting that Hamas should not be referred to as ‘terrorists,’ as by this they are robbed of “any agency” and are “delegitimized.”

In response, LSESU Anti-Racism officer, Esther Gross, issued an open letter in which she wrote that she was “shocked beyond words” that they “condoned the indiscriminate killing of Israelis through random acts of terrorism.” In addition she wrote, “The simple fact that someone was able to stand in front of an assembly of students and declare that it is legitimate to kill someone because of their nationality baffled me, and I could not understand how people who claim to fight discrimination could stand by such statements without a single objection.” The LSESU Black and Minority Students Officer responded criticising Gross’ claims, and correcting them, but in doing so, distastefully likened Israelis to the Nazis. In the open letter, which accused Gross of not properly defending minorities, the NUS delegate and Vice President of the Palestine Society, Emily Haimeed is quoted referring to Gross as “their white Anti-Racism officer,” attempting to discredit her with reference to “white privilege” writing that she launched “a shamelessly racist attack trying to silence four women of colour” and accusing her of defending a “white settler colonial regime.” They have since called for her resignation.

Attempts to silence opposition, and personal attacks, are becoming commonly accepted rhetoric. Demonisation, not of Israel and it’s policies, but of Israelis themselves is in evidence across our campuses and may be creating an environment conducive to the alienation of Israeli and Jewish students, preventing Pro-Israel voices from being heard. Akin to the events at LSE, when Lt. Hen Mazzig was invited by King’s College Israel Society to speak, he was personally targeted. Although Mazzig served in the humanitarian unit of the IDF, his visit was objected to on the grounds of him being a “murderer.” This association was made, not on the basis of research, but by association with his being an Israeli and having served, as the majority of Israelis do, in the defence forces. The event being highly protested, the then president of the society was prevented from entering. Accusations were made against the student union on the grounds of their discrimination against Jewish students, in favour of the protesters, when trying to enter the event.

Similar events have taken place across the country. Recently Professor Thomas Scotto, of the University of Essex, told The Guardian that disruptive protests and heckling led to the abandonment of a talk by Israel’s Deputy Ambassador. The same article suggested, on the basis of research by Spiked, that policies, particularly of student unions across the country, are suppressing free speech. In response to his repeated attempts to rearrange the talk, Scotto recalls that he was told “Tom, just let it go.”

“Just letting it go,” however, may result in the marginalisation and alienation of Israeli and Jewish students. Events at the University of California have shown how the prevalence of Pro-Hamas groups, and the passing of a Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions motion resulted in anti-Semitism. “Allahu Akbar” (Allah is great) was allegedly shouted at Jewish students during the vote, and later, swastikas were painted onto a Jewish fraternity house. Such tactics of intimidation, the shouting down of speakers, the cancelling of events, and ultimately, the possible bias within student unions is creating an environment hostile to Israeli students.

Yakov Ashkenazi, an Israeli Political Economy student at KCL, recalled how “numerous times” he has been called a “Mossad agent” and that he feels that more than any other nationality, Israelis are being held responsible for the actions of their government, making them “a legitimate target for protest or bullying.” He describes how hatred, not of Israeli policies, but of Israel itself, has resulted in “anyone who supports Israel” being “bullied out of campus” leaving the Israeli Society “fighting for its existence.” Their events, he says, “are systematically being jeopardised by, generally, Muslim students from the Action Palestine Society. We are not only prevented from bringing Israeli speakers on campus, but even mainstream pro-Israeli guests are reluctant to show up for fear of verbal and physical harassment on campus. We recently had to cancel events with speakers such as Douglas Murray and Brenden O’Neill because they both were not willing to take the “risk” of coming to speak freely on a UK campus.”

His experience is one of drastic inequality and discrimination: “It would be a different story if there were often motions to ban various countries around the world for political reasons. It is, however, only Israel that is being discussed on campus in such terms as Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions. This double standard, singling out of Israel gives me as an Israeli student an absurd feeling of marginalisation and rejection. It is all those things combined: your country is implacably hated; you’re inherently responsible for your government’s actions; and no matter what you do it is justified to bully you. What kind of feeling does such an environment give me if not sad hopelessness?”

Sam Adari, KCL’s Israel Society President, spoke of a similar experience of the “singling out of this one country above all others.” He said, “As an Israeli student, I feel victimised and threatened by the large body of students on campus” who support a boycott of Israeli goods and ideas, complaining of the “double standard” in their not boycotting “North Korea, Syria, or Saudi Arabia”. Their “aggressive and bigoted behaviour” he feels is responsible for the “demonising” students.

This experience is not limited to Israeli students. In an article first published in February 2014 as a Union of Jewish Students blog, Hannah Brady, soon-to-be President of UJS and founder of Rethink2014, responded to Israeli Apartheid Week. She writes that it has “become a week during which Jewish and Zionist students are easily singled out, attacked and intimidated for choosing not to agree with the rhetoric and methods of Israel Apartheid Week supporters.”

The reality for Israeli and Jewish students within this environment is not one of free speech, but rather one in which one party has been allowed to shout the other down in the name of “free speech,” whilst the other has repeatedly been prevented from expressing its view through fear of hostility and personal attacks. What’s more, it does not seem to have received the appropriate attention from the institutions in which it is occurring.

About the Author
Emma has an MA Jewish Studies from King's College, London, and a BA Theological and Religious Studies at Trinity College, Cambridge.
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