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Who gets to talk about Israel?

Photo credits: Chris Helgren - Reuters

Staff writer, ‘CAMERA on Campus’ Writing fellow and founder of KCL Israel Society, Saul Levene, argues that the right to freedom of speech should be extended to both sides in the Israel-Palestine debate. 

Israel is an apartheid, genocidal regime and anyone who disagrees with that reading of history is a white-supremacist bigot promoting violence who should not be allowed onto campus. 

Sound familiar?

This radical reading of history, wholly unsupported by any evidence, is the standard vitriol that many university students are exposed to across the UK and America. Whenever individuals try to present an alternative view, or talk about how both sides can exist peaceably, the threat of violence looms over their events, and the inevitable protest used to shut down speakers on the grounds that their views are reprehensible and beyond the pale. 

On March 20, the KCL Israel Society, which I re-established this year, was due to have a Bipartisan Conversation between the two chairs of the Labour Friends for Israel and Conservative Friends for Israel, Steve McCabe and Stephen Crabb. They represent roughly 25% of the Labour Party and 70% of the Conservative Party

When Liberate KCL shared an Instagram post calling for people to protest our “white supremacist” event, the speakers grew concerned because of prior incidents of violent and unruly protests, and the event had to be cancelled.

There is a long history of violent anti-Israel protests in recent times. Hen Mazzig’s appearance in UCL in 2016 led to windows being broken and the police were called to evacuate him. Ami Ayalon’s visit to King’s was met with chairs thrown and destruction of property in 2016. Former deputy prime minister Dan Merridor’s speech in 2018 led to harassment and intimidation, with students facing with “fingers in their faces” as they left. Threats of were violence lobbed at Israeli Ambassador Tzippi Hotolevey when she visited LSE last year and protestors were calling for “Intifada” when Yosef Haddad spoke at UCL last month. 

What has happened is that the narrative has become entirely one-sided, where any nuance, any credence given to Israelis or to Zionism, the belief that Jews should have the right of self-determination in their historic homeland, has been quashed among the student community. This intolerance extends to any kind of alternative narrative, from Israelis having the ability to defend themselves against acts of terrorism, to even approaches to ending the conflict peaceably, as Hen Mazzig tried to do and KCL Israel were hoping to explore this week.

A common narrative within the anti-Zionist camp, a claim I heard at the Wadah Khanhfar event in November, is that the pro-Israeli lobby is silencing and targeting anyone pro-Palestine. Yet it appears as if it is nearly impossible for the pro-Israel voice to be heard on campus at all. In fact, people seem downright terrified to express opinions even mildly pro-Israel. Ask any Jewish student in the country if they feel comfortable carrying around campus any memorabilia that shows the star of David or the word ‘Israel’. Their answer should be entirely predictable. 

For illustration, last year on Strand campus, I ran a stall with the Union of Jewish Students during Peace Week, the pro-Israel response to Apartheid Week, engaging people in productive conversations about Israel and the conflict. This was branded a “pro-Israel protest” on my course WhatsApp group and people felt very comfortable expressing aggression towards me in person for my participation, as well as people expressing how awful they thought it that such a stall should be allowed to exist on campus.

This is profoundly unsettling for supporters of free speech. A culture of intimidation has emerged where nowhere, not even Parliament, is safe for people to express opinions that diverge from this new orthodoxy – even opinions which are entirely mainstream like the two-state solution, which both MPs back.

KCL Israel Society’s events cannot be assured to be peaceful through no fault of the individuals involved. People who want to represent a position outside of the narrative that Israel is a coloniser are forced to go through far more security processes and overcome a general fear of intimidation, violence and social ostracisation. For example, our event at Parliament was branded as “white supremacist” merely because we don’t agree with the ‘Apartheid’ claim.  

This week, Noam Chomsky will be speaking on Israel for the KCL Students for Justice in Palestine. There will be no protest. I’m not suggesting that there should be. I think many who are pro-Israel believe that there should be open discussion and the ability to express opinions from both sides.

No one who seriously values democracy and the ability to talk openly should be blasé about this. This cancel culture means that an ethnic minority, and many non-Jews who see Israel as a historically democratic country, are unable to express or hear opinions about Israel that diverge from the orthodox narrative. Liberate KCL have the right to protest peacefully. The university needs to make sure that ‘peacefully’ is the keyword here. 

This should be deeply distressing to many Jews, supporters of free speech and those who envision the university as a centre for open-mindedness and learning. The NUS scandal has shown us that institutions can ignore Jewish concerns for decades and allow a hostile environment to ferment. We cannot allow this to happen again in the university. Student activists need to leave their bubble of self-righteousness and intolerance, and realise that their views are not the only ones that deserve to see the light. As a society, we cannot allow these tactics of exile to dominate our political discourse.

CAMERA on Campus is a ‘non-partisan organisation helping North American, British & Israeli students share accurate education & correct misinformation about Israel on university campuses’.

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