An event at the School of Oriental and African studies (SOAS) has drawn a heated backlash for hosting the Ambassador of Israel to the UK, Mark Regev.
The event, put in place to discuss the Israel-Palestine conflict, was fiercely contested by the student’s union and the SOAS Palestine society, who felt the university was giving Regev, an individual who they criticised for his defense of “brutal and repeated attacks” on the Palestinians, a “cover of an academic setting” to push an “exercise of state propaganda.”
Controversially, the Palestine Society raised the unions thriving support for The Boycott Divestments and Sanctions Campaign, a discriminatory campaign which dissuades against trade and cultural exchange with Israel, to argue for a bar on the ambassador, stating:
“This [the event] comes flying in the face of a landslide (73%) SOAS vote that included the entire SOAS community, contract staff, academic staff and students, in favour of endorsing the Palestinian call for an academic boycott of Israeli institutions. The Palestinian Campaign for Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI) guidelines, explicitly state the refusal to host official representatives of the Israeli state.”
“The response to the announcement of the event only confirms the SOAS community’s stance. For example, over 100 members of the academic staff have already signed a statement rejecting Mr Regev’s presence on campus.”
A vast series of misconceptions such as the presence of “armed embassy personnel” being permitted on campus and the possibility of BDS activists being barred from entry to Israel, stirred further tensions among the Palestine society, who then called for a mass protest on social media.
The Jewish society responded, releasing a statement addressing the issue of free speech at SOAS:
“In 2015, 20% of our student body voted to censor and cut all ties to anyone associated with Israeli academic institutions. Banning by association though contravenes one of the main tenets of a University, free speech. In order to form complete and reasoned conclusions not solely based on emotion and void of facts, we need to hear all sides, no matter how incorrect or correct they are and challenge them. If someone says something you disagree with, don’t censor them and cry propaganda, engage and outline your point.”
Avrahum Sanger, President of SOAS Jewish Society spoke to CUB magazine addressing the concerns of Pro-Palestinian students, stating:
“I’m always open to hear criticisms and concerns and will act accordingly in order to address them. We met the student union in order to address their two concerns, none were about Student safety or the anti-boycott law.”
“Our society has been at the forefront of bringing another dimension to the debate often intimidated off university campuses. We have hosted Israeli students with a wide variety of opinions on campus, hosted talks with grassroot movements and activists and have even managed to host a student led panel discussion on Zionism.”
“Hosting the Ambassador fits within our guidelines of providing an additional viewpoint that we will be able to challenge throughout the course of the evening, this will be an evening of discussion, not an unchallenged lecture.”
Subsequently, The group “censorship of campus” organised a counter-protest claiming that the “Apartheid off campus” campaign aims to “degrade the basic human right of freedom of speech by censoring debate & discussion and limiting access to knowledge and different narratives on campus”
The protest drew significant upset among Jewish students on campus, some of which were subjected to anti-Semitic abuse. The chant “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free” – a chant which calls for the forced expulsion of Jews in Israel, was only a minor point of complaint for Jews in attendance, in comparison to a number of serious anti-Semitic incidents that occurred. one student, Joe reported that he was told “get out of Palestine, Jewish scum”, by a protester who later referred to the Jews killed in the gass chambers as “cowards” and like “lambs to the slaughter”:
Joe, who filmed the video, later took to facebook to make a statement on the shocking comment made:
“Footage I got today from an Anti-Semite going on about how “6 million Jews were slaughtered because they were cowards”. Welcome to UK campuses. This is what Jewish, Israeli and Zionist students have to deal with every single day! He was shouting things like “Get out of Palestine, you Jewish scum” but please continue to tell me how Anti-Zionism has absolutely nothing to do with Anti-semitism.”
The man featured in the video, evidently a regular in the pro-Palestinian movement was filmed in 2012 repeating the remark in the video above to a Jewish man who was bitten in the face and bloodied by a protestor that “6 million jews went into the gas chambers like lambs to the slaughter”
he then continued, saying: “you people are hitting out at the Arab people like the germans did to you people because you’re too cowardly to even think of hitting at a german”
A man handing out communist pamphlets was recorded yelling “Victory to Hezbollah, Victory to Hamas” – two terrorist organisations who rocket and bomb Israeli citizens.
Posters were handed out telling protestors “don’t speak to Zionists”, which added to an “anti-free speech attitude” among students. Pro-Israel students were largely ignored by protestors and thus struggled to engage protestors with their side of the argument, which they claim “added to a climate of division”
Avraham Sanger, commented on the protest, suggesting that he would have preferred protestors attended the event instead, stating:
“Valid concerns and opinions against Israeli policy exist. I’m always pro engaging with those of different viewpoints in order to ascertain what people believe in and understand how people react to critical thinking and questions asked. Attendance at this event would’ve allowed people to challenge Israeli policy and hear how the Ambassador of Israel responds, this information undoubtedly is useful in forming opinions and conclusions.”
The event ran to its full duration, although, with some interruption. Protestors were reported to have tried to break into the venue but failed to enter the heavily guarded building. At the event the Guardian reported that Mr. Regev insisted on further peace negotiations with Arab nations, saying:
“Israel wants to see larger and greater involvement from the Arab world” in new peace negotiations. Pragmatic Sunni Arab states saw a “convergence of interest” with Israel in relation to Iran and had “significant cards to play”, he added. He said that Israel had approached Donald Trump’s administration about “trying to get the peace process back on track”.
Mr. Regev also addressed the ongoing protest saying:
“Israel cherishes freedom of expression and freedom of speech. To the people outside, I would say this: they claim to be the friends of the Palestinians. But by supporting a hardline, maximalist Palestinian position, are they friends of the Palestinian people? They are chanting, ‘From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free’ – meaning Israel has no right to exist. I’d like to tell them that Israel is not going away.”
Mr. Regev later took to twitter to comment on the success of the event
— Mark Regev (@AmbMarkRegev) April 27, 2017