How no-platforming suffocates dialogue about Israel on campus

University of Nottingham's Trent Building (Wikipedia/Author	Barry Mangham/ (CC BY-SA 3.0)
University of Nottingham's Trent Building (Wikipedia/Author Barry Mangham/ (CC BY-SA 3.0)

In my time as the Israel and Campaigns officer on the board of the University of Nottingham Jewish Society, I set out with a simple goal: to foster positive and constructive conversation about Israel. My aim was to present as much information to my fellow students about Israel as possible; try to show them how I, as well as most Jews feel when they talk about Israel; and try to create an honest and pragmatic framework for discussion when addressing the ongoing conflict. I wasn’t interested in slogans and signposting – just good, honest, healthy discussion and debate. I thought that this would be an easy task, to bring intelligent and well thought-out conversation to an intellectual space… but I was mistaken. The task of hosting productive discussions about Israel on campus was possibly the most difficult I have ever undertaken in my life.

The reason for the difficulties that I experienced can boil down to one thing: suppression. In my role, I faced persistent and continuous attempts to shut down every meaningful discussion I attempted to host. The term usually attributed to these kinds of actions is called no-platforming, and it’s one that I’m sure you are all familiar with. What I experienced, however, was somewhat deeper than no-platforming, as it wasn’t just specific speakers that they attempted to shut down, but the entire conversation about Israel. Even discussions which had nothing to do with the conflict and had no bearing on that dialogue were turned down. Frequently, anti-Israel voices within these societies would dominate the committee phase. There was always a different excuse, but the same underlying message.

Our Jewish Society organised Israel related activities run by me, a Zionist student. This led some groups to reject collaboration with us on events totally unrelated to Israel. This was textbook ostracism, as it was based on their political biases and not ours. One example of this was during the peak of the recent Labour antisemitism scandal. I reached out to Nottingham Labour Students, whose president seemed keen to host an event with us. It was supposed to be called Nottingham Jewish Society and Nottingham Labour Students Untangling Labour Antisemitism Together. I was assured by the president that the event would go ahead. I was later informed that it was voted down in committee by students who didn’t want to be seen to be working with a pro-Israel society. This struck me as ironic, perhaps even indicative of the situation in the Labour Party prior to the election.

Another example of this is the Politics Society rejecting a speaker from The UJS at the committee stage. The speaker was slated to outline the ongoing electoral turmoil in Israel and explain why there is no government. This was in order to spark conversation about the viability of proportionally representative electoral systems. As far as talks go, this was about as non-polarising as you can get. However, it too was called off due to a vote in the committee phase. Or so I was told — initially the president simply ghosted the event planning group chat and only told me what had happened when I eventually confronted her in a chance encounter. The reason she gave for turning us down last minute was that they wanted to stay apolitical. In both these cases, it seems the logic that they operate on is that acknowledging and engaging with the State of Israel, even when taking no position on the conflict, is a political action because it deviates from the endemic anti-Israel group think on campus. It seems that the only debate to be had about Israel is whether or not it has a right to exist, and taking the non-anti-Semitic position on this question constitutes showing disproportionate bias to one side of the debate. Even the Politics Society bends to radicalism on campus when it comes to Israel, and if the President’s impolite actions show anything, it’s that they know it and are ashamed.

This fundamental dishonesty soon spread to the traditional form of no-platforming that I experienced. There appeared to be a huge effort on the part of the anti-Israel coalition of student Societies to shut down our speakers in the name of ‘protecting people’. One of my biggest achievements in the position of Israel and Campaigns Officer was to have acclaimed professor and lawyer Alan Dershowitz Skype in for a lecture and extended Q&A on his book The Case for Israel. Immediately after I had submitted an event form, I was informed by the Student Union that multiple societies had submitted requests to have the talk banned due to unproven sexual allegations against Professor Dershowitz. Supposedly this was in order to defend victims of sexual assault on campus who could be traumatised by his presence. As the allegations were unproven, it was not in accordance with university policy to ban any speaker on those grounds. What was interesting to me was that when the event took place, and over eighty students attended in protest, not one of them held any signage or asked a single question to do with these allegations in the forty minutes of Q&A. The narrative they brought was that “no, there is no case for Israel”. What this tells me, and hopefully it indicates to you too, is that those who use no-platforming have no one’s interests at heart except their own. Whatever reason they give, their motive comes from shutting down the positions they disagree with, not out of caring for others. It is a purely selfish action that impedes the dialogue. If dialogue and discussion are the best route to peace (and I strongly believe that they are) then it is these conceited extremists who are the enemies of peace.     

Despite these setbacks I continued to try to collaborate with these Societies. After a year, almost all Societies had held committee elections (including my own) and I had hoped that perhaps I would have more luck in the new landscape. I reached out to the Palestinian Society once more and offered them the opportunity to host an event with a speaker called Fleur Hassan-Nahoum. I thought Fleur would appeal to them, as she was different from other speakers I had proposed: she is the Deputy Mayor of Jerusalem, and therefore she directly and democratically represent Palestinian Jerusalemites. I presented the talk as an opportunity to hold someone who has bearing over the lives of everyday Palestinians to account. The offer was of course rejected in the committee stage. I was naïve to believe that they were what they claimed to be — the Palestinian Society, they are not; they are the anti-Israel society. It’s no wonder that their highest turnout events were always their protests of my events. I am making no commentary on Palestinians themselves, only those who claim to represent them on campus and fail to do so out of a blind ideological hatred.

In conclusion, If we take The University of Nottingham to be typical of the dialogue about Israel on UK campuses, then the entire conversation is degraded by lack of engagement and the fact that no-platforming is a tactic of these extremist groups. Whether or not the continuous attempts to shut me down were malicious and active, or simply symptomatic of campus culture, I remain suspicious that there was an organised campaign against the Nottingham Jsoc.

The result is that topics of discussion on campus do not mirror the topics of discussion on-the-ground in Israel. No-platforming is a toxic and dishonest part of the vocabulary of the anti-Israel narrative. Representation on both sides is eroded and positions polarise to extremism. The ostracism of the Israel conversation on campus must end.

About the Author
Daniel is Israel and Campaigns officer at Nottingham Jewish and Israel Society, and a 2019/20 CAMERA Fellow.