Harry Markham
Harry Markham

Free speech matters for all at UCL, and so does disruptive thinking

Part of UCL's campus (Credit: Wikipedia Commons. Author: 	Steve Cadman)
Part of UCL's campus (Credit: Wikipedia Commons. Author: Steve Cadman)

University College London, a self-proclaimed institution of ‘disruptive thinking’, takes great pride in its origins. And rightly so. At a time when only white men of the Church of England could benefit from tertiary education, the opening of the ‘Godless institution of Gower Street’ to people of all backgrounds, was groundbreakingly disruptive. It angered the establishment and the prevailing orthodoxies of 19th-century England.

For the Scottish clergyman, Edward Irving, London University (as it was known then) was the ‘Synagogue of Satan’. King George IV was so incandescent by the opening of London’s new secular university, that he ordered the creation of a new place of learning in London, King’s College London (KCL) which set out ‘to imbue the minds of youth with a knowledge of the doctrines and duties of Christianity’.

Thankfully, despite the widespread condemnation against UCL, it survived. And it has produced some of the world’s greatest minds, including John Stuart Mill, Mahatma Gandhi, Roger Penrose and Frances Crick. These individuals have made invaluable contributions to their fields. This is UCL at its finest. This is UCL, as a true academic institution of ‘disruptive thinking’.

Tragically, almost 200 years later, this university is no longer so welcoming to those who dare challenge the prevailing orthodoxies of our age. Just look at how students and academics have responded to the question of the Israeli-Palestine conflict.

In recent weeks and months, there has been a great deal of pressure put on the provost to retract the IHRA definition of antisemitism. UCL’s governing body adopted the IHR definition in 2019. In December 2020, a working group of academics produced a report rejecting the definition. This was followed in February 2021 by UCL’s academic board concluding that the IHRA definition was not fit for purpose.

In response, the UCL Students for Justice in Palestine Society (SJP) in a statement said: ‘UCL was founded upon principles of acceptance and tolerance, academic autonomy, and freedom of speech. As a university that prides itself in being the home of disruptive thinking, the academic board’s decision shows its continuous commitment to tackling discrimination and carving a new, innovative path.’

And yet, despite the SJP’s apparent enthusiasm for ‘freedom of speech’ and ‘disruptive thinking’, on a recent Instagram post, they said that they would not engage in dialogue with Zionists. The society also refuses to engage with anyone who rejects the narrative of ethnic cleansing in Palestine and does not acknowledge ‘apartheid’ within Israel, those who do not accept BDS as a legitimate form of resistance, and lastly, those who do not agree with the so-called ‘right of return’ idea. In other words, the group’s mindset is: if you do not agree with us, we refuse to debate you. They must enjoy talking to themselves!

Back in 2016, protesters disrupted a talk by Hen Mazzig, a former IDF soldier, organised by the UCL Friends of Israel. The protests turned violent and the police had to be called. At the time, UCL stood up for Mazzig’s free speech, disciplining five of the students involved and inviting Mazzig back to speak in 2018. But now UCL’s academic board seems to be in agreement with No Platform advocates, all while professing a commitment to free speech.

There is a great deal of hypocrisy here. It seems the only time free speech matters to these activists is when it comes to the vilification of Israel. Whenever Israel is brought up, suddenly, they become staunch advocates of free speech.

Defenders of Israel, on the other hand, are often silenced on UK campuses. Take, for example, an incident from November 2019 at KCL. One evening, a former senior IDF officer was set to give a talk on Israel’s humanitarian work for Syrians caught up in the civil war. A loud mob of 80 pro-Palestinian students protested this outside the event calling for him to be No Platformed. Despite the attempts of the few pro-Israel activists to engage in respectful dialogue, they were subjected to insults and abuse. The pro-Palestinians in attendance could have voiced their views on Israel and Zionism at the event. They could have challenged the IDF officer. But no. They chose division over discussion.

To be clear, I am not for one moment suggesting that Israel should be immune from robust criticism. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is one of the most complicated and multifaceted conflicts on earth. The beauty of free speech is that it allows us to hear different perspectives. This paves the way for understanding, and understanding, of course, is the backbone of peace and tolerance. What is unacceptable, however, is for free speech to only exist for those who wish to demonise the world’s only Jewish state.

Free speech matters for all, and so does disruptive thinking. We should never forget that.

About the Author
Harry is a student at UCL and the incoming president of the UCL Friends of Israel Society.
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