The ‘Rhodes Saga’ has brought ‘safe spaces’ out from the shadows of student politics into the sight of the broader public. This may not be such a bad thing, because whilst Oxford students quibble over the removal an historical statue, and student unions stipulate the minutia of which hand gestures are appropriate in meetings, actual rather than trivial safety on campuses appears to have eroded.
Even when I wrote my last blog on the subject, in which I stressed my concerns that universities were not doing enough to tackle what can be a hostile environment for Jews and Israelis, I would never have predicted that almost a year later, more than 20 police officers would be called to an event because the ‘safe space’ officers could not protect the students from the chanting activists, who banged on the windows, set off fire alarms, damaged university property, threw chairs, and allegedly assaulted KCL Israel Society President, Esther Enfield. The outrage was sparked by the presence of Ami Ayalon, and advocate of the Two-State Solution, who Action Palestine regard as a war criminal due to his involvement with the Shin Bet.
The opposition had been expected, and the intent and opinions of Action Palestine were aired beforehand, but no one had expected anything to happen on such a scale. After the event, Esther wrote on her Facebook page, “Protests by KCL action Palestine at this event was inevitable but it was never inevitable that it would turn violent, not to the point that I have just reported being assaulted to the police (which is also being investigated under a hate crime), not to the point that there were chairs thrown at the room and at me.” She described how she was “terrified” as protesters ran up and down the stairs of the building setting off the fire alarms. Attendees were eventually evacuated underground and out the backdoor to safety because, as Esther wrote, “college security and the police were so scared that they would light a real fire and that we wouldn’t know because of the false alarms.”
LSE student, Joe Grabiner, who was outside of the event as it all unfolded was shocked by the appearance of police cars and frustrated by the exchanges between the activists and supporters of Israel outside; he recalls how he was “considering starting a chant of ‘NUANCE! NUANCE!’”
Whilst it is worth noting that KCL Action Palestine have since ‘categorically condemn[ed] any aggression that took place’ denying any incitement on the part of its committee members, it is still deeply concerning that this could happen at all, incitement or not, and it reveals a certain culture on campus that has been simmering below the surface for some time — to put it crudely, ‘safe spaces are for me, not you, and I will set off fire alarms until you can’t be heard.’ It appears, regardless of any ‘official endorsement’ there are students who believe that certain groups are exempt from the normal standards of conduct and respect that they demand for themselves.
This situation calls for some serious reflection on the part of universities, particularly in relation to their Student Unions, on whether they are going about creating campus culture in the right way. After all of the costume bans, debates about appropriate music, and banned speakers, we have been left with a situation in which students were actually targeted simply because they were attending an event, or were presumed to have certain political views. Oddly, current ‘safe space’ culture seems to have chipped away at respect by preventing debates and closing minds.
In a personal correspondence, Senior Reform Rabbi Laura Janner-Klausner said “it is vital to have safe spaces for debate about Israel-Palestine on campus. Robust discussions build identity and strengthen confidence, violence and intimidation is corrosive and destructive” (my emphasis). Debate is not being protected by our student unions, and intellectual respect on our campuses is disintegrating— if it had not, the events of last night would not have been possible.
Originally posted in edited form on Student Rights