Friends of Palestine societies at universities across Britain are coming under what appears to be a coordinated attack from pro-Israel pressure groups.
At least three universities have cancelled or interfered with events and meetings hosted by Palestine societies for the annual Israeli Apartheid Week.
Management at the University of Central Lancashire (Uclan) in Preston cancelled a meeting organised by the Friends of Palestine society. A group called North West Friends of Israel had lobbied to have the meeting scrapped.
Uclan said the event “contravenes” the definition of antisemitism recently adopted by the government—although did not explain how (see box).
Management at Exeter University intervened to stop a mock Israeli checkpoint organised by the Friends of Palestine Society.
A similar event at University College London was cancelled but is set to go ahead at a later date. Other universities are also being targeted.
The Israel Britain Alliance has called on its supporters to pressure universities to cancel Israeli Apartheid Week events. And Tory university minister Jo Johnson emailed university vice chancellors’ organisation Universities UK asking them to target Israeli Apartheid week. This is under the guise of clamping down on antisemitism.
Universities UK also wants universities to use the government’s Prevent agenda—which targets Muslims—to target Palestine societies. A presentation lists “opposition to Israeli settlements in Gaza” and “opposition to Prevent” as signs of “radicalisation”.
Prevent already targets Islamic societies (Isocs) and anti-Islamophobia campaigns on campuses—as events at Kingston University last week show.
The Stand Up To Racism society invited ex-Guantanamo Bay detainee Moazzam Begg to speak on Thursday of last week. But university management judged the visit to be “high risk”.
They demanded that security guards were at the meeting and insisted all speech had to be in English. Kingston Isoc has the same restrictions placed on their meetings.
Students and university workers are preparing to resist the assault. Exeter students protested on campus on Monday against the ban.
Around 250 academics have signed a letter condemning the attempts to stop criticism of Israel on campuses.
It ends, “It is with disbelief that we witness explicit political interference in university affairs in the interests of Israel under the thin disguise of concern about antisemitism.”
Pro-Israeli groups hope the new antisemitism definition and the Prevent agenda can halt growing support for Palestinians.
Student groups, lecturers and their unions have to be prepared to challenge them.
Boycotts under attack
Uclan management used the government’s new definition of antisemitism to cancel a meeting on the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign this week.
The definition says examples of antisemitism might include “the targeting of the state of Israel, conceived as a Jewish collectivity”.
It also says it could be antisemitic to apply “double standards” to Israel “by requiring of it a behaviour not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation”.
BDS targets Israel because of its 50-year long occupation of Palestinian territories—not because it is Jewish.
And it is legitimate to criticise Israel for its settlement building and its brutality towards Palestinians.
The move could be one of the first times the definition has been used to shut down a pro-Palestinian event.
Preston-based group Children of the Ghetto was set to host a meeting off campus to make sure that it goes ahead anyway.
Immediate Threat to Academic Freedom, and Freedom of Speech
* you are being asked to add your name to this letter of concern *
You may have heard of the multiple attempts this week to close down debate on campuses over the Israel/Palestine issue. You may also have heard of the Government’s adoption late last year of the ‘definition’ of antisemitism proposed by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance. It is this definition that is being used to prevent campus meetings taking place that are critical of Israel, and supportive of the Palestinians.
The proposed definition is deeply flawed, conflating as it does criticism of Israel and antisemitism. It has been sent by the HE Minister, Jo Johnson, to Universities UK with the request that it be disseminated to all universities, and with the suggestion that the universities seek to ban events in Israel Apartheid Week.
The results of this intervention are accumulating. One university banned a student group meeting with an outside and academic speakers, on the grounds that its topic (‘Debunking misconceptions on Palestine’) was ‘not lawful’ because of the definition. In another case a visiting academic speaker was told by the university that he would only get permission to speak if he signed off his acceptance of the IHRA definition of antisemitism – which he regards as profoundly flawed.
These developments have to be seen in the context of the recent revelation in a TV documentary of the attempt by Israeli Embassy staff in London to subvert the political process by encouraging and facilitating attacks on politicians (including one current Government minister) for their past or current criticisms of Israel. This compounds the difficulties of organizing resistance to the increased incidence of real antisemitism that has become obvious with the rise of extreme right-wing parties in Europe, and the election of President Trump.
What we are seeing is an unprecedented interference with free speech and academic freedom in UK universities. If this infringement is not successfully opposed it will undoubtedly turn out to be the first but not the last erosion of freedom of speech and expression on campuses.
People can and do have a range of views on this flashpoint in the Middle East. Yet there should surely be no two views about the importance of defending the right to free expression in our institutions. It is in this spirit that we invite you to add your name to this letter that appeared in The Guardian on 28th February over the names of 243 university staff (copied below).
If you believe
· that open debate on campuses over the future of Israel/Palestine should not be prevented by Government, and
· that criticism of Israel is not ipso facto antisemitic,
then please add your name to the hundreds that are registering their solidarity with academic freedom.
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