Freedom of Speech — Under Siege at UCL

On Thursday evening, as a first-year undergraduate student, I witnessed an incident on a university campus which has changed the way I will view the rest of my academic studies. My faith in the university as an institution which upholds freedom of speech and protects members of all faiths and nationalities has been shattered through my first-hand experience of terrifying events.

Hen Mazzig, a former lieutenant in the COGAT unit of the IDF, was invited to speak at UCL Friends of Israel Society by CAMERA and in conjunction with KCL Israel Society. It was already known that there would be a protest against Hen’s presence, with the reason for this being his time as an officer with the IDF. Although I believe that protesting speakers based on their nationality is morally corrupt, I do think peaceful protest should be allowed on campus. However, any claims that the protest on Thursday night was peaceful are baseless and indeed such claims are an attempt to smear the pro-Israel community.

The protest was from the outset consumed with screams full of blind hate, which quickly blurred into physical aggression and violence. The aim of pro-Palestinian societies from across London gathering at UCL was not to simply protest the event. This could have been done by organizing a small protest in a confined area. In reality, the protest was an amorphous mob of over at least 100 people which sought to drown out our presence and voice on campus from the afternoon through to the evening, in an attempt to totally prevent the event from occurring. We ran from room to room, being made to feel like fugitives in an institution of higher education, during an event which was backed by both the university and the union. Eventually, we were corralled into our final room, secured by a few members of security, where we waited for the noise to die down around us so we could begin the event. Unfortunately, the evening descended further into chaos as more protestors joined the fray. We stood trapped inside this room for at least an hour and a half, surrounded by a sea of hatred and smirking faces chanting, yelling and banging on the windows and outside the walls. With only a few security guards present we felt truly helpless, isolated and ostracised.

The event could have been an opportunity for everyone to have an open debate. Pro-Israel students, those who want to learn more about the conflict, and those who have disagreements with Hen’s views could have discussed important issues in a free, secure environment. However, the event instead became an attack on our right to freedom of speech, the possibility for peace-building on campus and the safety of Israeli and Jewish students.

What struck me most about the divide between those inside the room and fellow students protesting outside were the clear differences in the ways in which we react to the reality of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The protest outside was deeply disturbing in part due to its frivolous nature- we could all see and hear students laughing, smiling, dancing and even playing Beyonce from speakers they had brought. Conversely, inside, we stood feeling anxious and under siege. As they chanted ‘Israel is a terrorist state’ we talked about ideas of peace and cooperation between both sides and heard Hen explain the humanitarian work for Palestinians he had undertaken during his time with the IDF. We wanted to have a discussion using facts, reason and empathy- all things which the protestors had clearly left behind that evening as they entered the university to mock, vilify and intimidate us.

I did not expect my time at university to be easy considering the hostile atmosphere for pro-Israel students on campuses throughout the world. Nonetheless, in light of the violence which occurred at Kings College London only a few months ago, I certainly did expect that the University authorities would have put in place proper security measures to ensure that Jewish and Israeli students and their friends could meet in safety. To have been so badly let down within the first few weeks of my academic study was deeply unsettling for me.  Over just a few weeks of beginning my studies I have witnessed the extent to which pro-Israel students are treated as threats due to beliefs and ideas which are supposedly ‘controversial’– whilst those who use concrete violence are tolerated. British Universities must act to protect the free exchange of ideas. The pro-Palestinian protestors were clearly not the ones who were ‘unsafe’ due to Hen, a speaker talking about peace and his humanitarian work with Palestinians, being on campus. It was the Israeli and Jewish students who were ultimately left victimised and fearing for their safety due to aggressive and violent behaviour. UCL and other Universities must take firm action and ensure that they uphold freedom of speech and provide security for all students. If not, the University’s commitment to its liberal values will continue to be further eroded.

About the Author
Tamara Berens is a second year undergraduate student at Kings College London and a UK Campus Associate for CAMERA.