To see how illiberal and outright irrational anti-Israel sentiment has become, look no further than the fear and horror that has gripped SOAS over tonight’s visit by Mark Regev.
Yes, in a brilliant PR move, Regev, the colourful Israeli Ambassador to the UK, has agreed to speak about the prospects for peace in the Middle East at SOAS, a Uni known for its agitation with all things Israeli. It’s like the Chippendales visiting a convent, or Shane MacGowan crashing a meeting of temperance-movement bores. It’s hilarious.
People at SOAS don’t find it funny, though. It’s questionable whether they ever find anything funny, so steeped are their minds in the depressing creeds of postcolonial studies and ethnographic theory. No, they think Regev’s visit will cause “substantial distress” to the SOAS community. Really.
According to the Guardian, there are “fears” that Regev’s visit won’t only “spark unrest” — par for the course: every visit by an Israeli representative to a British campus sparks unrest — but that it will also lead to “substantial distress on campus”.
More than 150 academics from SOAS and other universities have written to SOAS director Valerie Amos to plead with her to call off the Regev meeting and save SOAS students from the “substantial distress” of having someone with a different opinion to theirs on campus.
The first thing to note here is how craven it is — a McCarthyite level of cravenness — for academics to demand the silencing of a speaker they disagree with.
The academy is meant to be a hotbed of chatter and philosophy and disagreement, and academics are meant to protect this free intellectual zone. Yet here we have 150 Uni workers calling for the silencing of someone, the Medieval-style expulsion of him from campus, simply because he thinks differently to them. For shame.
The second thing to note is the overblown and outrageous use of the word “distress” to describe how students might feel about Regev’s talk.
Distress, according to my Oxford English Dictionary, is “extreme anxiety, sorrow or pain”. I’m sorry, but if you feel extreme anxiety, sorrow or pain upon hearing views you don’t like — or simply knowing that someone with views you don’t like is on the same campus as you — then you shouldn’t be at university. You should be at home, hiding behind your mother’s apron.
The idea that Regev talking about the Middle East will cause students distress — maybe even “difficulty in breathing”, another part of the OED’s definition of distress — speaks to the censorious cult of fragility that has a hold on British campuses.
Books come with trigger warnings; the NUS creates Safe Spaces in which certain things must not be said; and now there are efforts to chase Israelis off campus lest their ideas invade student minds and disrupt their sanity. This isn’t only insulting to Regev; it’s more insulting to students, who are depicted as overgrown toddlers who cannot cope with this basic fact of adult life: some people disagree with you.
Israeli things — its politicians, its supporters, its academics, its produce — are the No1 victim of this new campus censorship. Campus intolerance of Israeli people and ideas has reached alarming levels.
At UCL last year, a mob hounded former IDF soldier Hen Mazzig and his supporters off campus. Academics demand boycotts of Israeli universities. Israel-supporting students say they sometimes don’t feel safe on British campuses: their meetings are shouted down, their societies threatened with closure. It remains to be seen what kind of reaction SOAS gives Regev tonight, but I’d be very surprised if it didn’t involve fits of fury.
The irony is that anti-Israel activists talk about “Israeli Apartheid”, yet they enforce a discriminatory system against all things Israeli. They treat that nation’s professors, artists, politicians and produce as poisonous almost, liable to warp minds — or cause substantial distress — and therefore deserving of censorship or destruction. They single out Israeli people for nasty, censorious treatment, and then have the front to accuse Israel of having apartheid attitude.
And why the obsessive focus on Israel, when there numerous other nations that are involved in war or tension with their neighbours? This is the million-dollar question. It’s always Israel. Curious. One might call their never-ending meltdown over Israel the Substantial Distress of Fools.