The misnomer that is freedom of speech at Cambridge University
Concern over the protection of freedom of speech on campus manifested itself once again, this time at a spectacle at the University of Cambridge. It was there, where a panel discussion took place on the role of the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign in the context of the “globalised struggle for human rights”. Featured on this panel was Omar Barghouti, the founder of the BDS campaign, former National Union of Students President Malia Bouattia and the new Executive Director of War on Want, Asad Rehman.
Regardless of the problematic composition of the panel, involving three individuals who have all either been directly accused or represent organisations that have been accused of pathological institutional anti-Semitism (or in the case of Bouattia, both), the panel was allowed to take place. Despite strong apprehensions expressed by several students, as well as the conveyance of these concerns to the university’s Vice Chancellor by senior figures in the British political establishment, the university’s firm commitment to the promotion of the free exchange of ideas allowed the panel discussion to go ahead.
The protection of offensive and hurtful opinions under the guise of free speech has of late, become a sensitive issue, with many utilising this claim to selectively silence minority opinions. However, if the integrity of our university campuses as institutions of higher education is to be protected, we must discuss where we draw the line.
At a time when anti-Semitism, islamophobia and hate crimes more generally are on the rise, alongside a burgeoning populist discourse, it is critical to address intolerance on campus as a means of exhibiting our commitment to vigorous debate, while still working to build of an inclusive community that is welcoming to all. The panel which took place at Cambridge, did nothing to contribute to the building of such an inclusive and welcoming community, exhibiting how the modern discussion about the “globalised struggle for human rights” is indeed a selective one.
A recent petition chastises the university for “interfering” with freedom of speech due to its demand for a neutral chair on a panel which would have otherwise ostensibly been an unhinged hate-fest. It seems to me, however, that the outrage is for the wrong reasons. The intolerance and lies spewed from the stage that evening, while a “neutral” university appointed chair supervised, was itself nothing short of appalling. This began with Mr Barghouti, who in one breath expressed his support for the right of all people to self-determination while in his next breath, called for the destruction of a UN member state.
A natural liar and hypocrite, he subsequently proceeded to express his support for a two-state solution, although he has quite literally been quoted as vehemently rejecting the idea, saying that he, “does not buy into the two-state solution”. While calling for the complete boycott of Israeli goods and services, the Tel Aviv University graduate proceeded to explain his justification for an academic and cultural boycott of Israel, exemplifying his selective political ideology, which is apparently only applicable when it doesn’t inconvenience his own lifestyle.
Following him was Miss Bouattia, who has, without shame or remorse, expressed a host of anti-semitic viewpoints as well as a vile hatred of Israel. She spared no time emphasising her view of Israel’s as a despotic regime as can be seen by its alleged “carpet bombing” of Gaza. Mr Rehman, who directs an anti-poverty organisation whose predecessor recently resigned after his anti-Semitism was exposed, and whose connection to and interest in the conflict remains unclear, proceeded by playing on identity politics. Garnishing his speech with the ever-so-predictable ‘radical’ vocabulary of those seeking to stoke identity politics, he drew on words such as “comrades”, “oppression”, “white privilege” and “colonial guilt”. Emphasising the university’s horrific crime of replacing the event’s original chair, SOAS’s Dr Ruba Salih, a Muslim woman of colour with a white male, Rehman proceeded to discuss the similarities between the Palestinian cause and that of other oppressed minorities, from the Rohingya in Burma, to racism in the Northern England of the 1980s, to apartheid South Africa. He never once paused to question the appropriateness of any of these comparisons, nor did he consider how offensive these comparisons might be to those whose families may have experienced actual apartheid, let alone ethnic cleansing. Apparently, the appropriation of historical narratives is a one-way street which is acceptable if the appropriation is being done by the right party.
Notwithstanding the problematic nature of the opinions expressed and the unproductive nature of fanning the flames of ethic divisions at an event on the “globalized struggle for human rights”, two primary issues stood out to me. Primary among these, was what purpose the university saw in appointing a neutral chair on an unbalanced panel of three hate-mongers, all spewing venomous lies that failed to stand under the most basic fact check. Removing Dr Salih served no conducive purpose, bar consolidating the organisers’ narrative of “institutionalised academic racism”, although I question if their reaction might have been the same had the intended chair been a white male. Similarly, why is it that events on topics as important as Palestinian rights, are always approached from a negative perspective, focusing on what they oppose instead of constructively emphasising what they would like their nation to become. When one’s identity is primarily defined by who you despise, it is no wonder that the BDS campaign is consistently accused of incitement and hatred. Is it impossible to advocate for the promotion of human rights in the region without unabashedly resorting to anti-semitic diatribes? Can one not be critical of the Israeli state without hating Jews as well as advocating for its destruction? More concerning than this however, is the thought of over 100 students, many of which have no informed opinion on the conflict, sitting in a university lecture theatre and listening an hour of intolerance and bigotry without opposition. While this was taking place unopposed, the neutral chair quite dramatically concerned himself with the harmless individual silently protesting the nature of the event in the front row by holding up A4 paper signs.
While I would like to believe that some of my fellow students left the event with the same concerns that I had, I am skeptical. After all, why should they be inclined to question an event that was not only approved by the university, but also obviously carefully monitored by its neutral chair. Surely, a panel taking place at such a prominent university could involve nothing but carefully checked and corroborated facts. Surely a room full of students who cheered as Mr Barghouti carefully danced his way around questions which would expose him as the raging anti-semite that he is, could not be wrong? As I watched this spectacle at the University of Cambridge taking place, I could not help but be reminded of the words of author Richard Wright, who as an African American growing up in America of the 20th century, was well-placed to comment on the true nature of racial discrimination. As he so aptly stated in his work Native Son, “They hate because they fear, and they fear because they feel that the deepest feelings of their lives are being assaulted and outraged. And they do not know why; they are powerless pawns in a blind play of social forces.” Why my fellow students could not see how they were being used as just such powerless pawns in this blind play of social forces is beyond me. Were they all really that blind or perhaps even more concerning, were they, as is usually the case in life, only as blind as they chose to be. After all, the eyes are useless when the mind is blind. It is my sincerest hope that the University reconsiders rubber-stamping such events in the future, and that students are not so quick in the future to give their applause or their signatures to such a problematic event or petition.
Shlomo Roiter Jesner is a final year HSPS student at Hughes Hall
specialising in politics and international relations. He is currently
the Cambridge University Camera Campus Fellow.