As one-party spaces, encampments are anathemas in liberal societies

Who wants to be heckled in their workplace by people who think they are entitled to define the parameters of your faith for you, asks Joseph Mintz

May 18, 2024
Tents behind a fence
Source: iStock/Wanda Jewell

The chants of student protestors at SOAS, University of London, faintly penetrate my office window at the UCL Institute of Education as I answer emails, mark assignments and help my students with their various problems: the mundanities of university life. I can’t quite make out the words – but I know that they appear to have included “We love Hamas”.

If I walk up the road to the main UCL building, I can watch the now permanent encampment in the main quad, with its banners calling for “resistance”. It might not be the case that, as in many US campuses, Zionists are formally banned by the protestors, yet as the chants declare it is “Judaism yes, Zionism no”, I don’t suppose, as a card-carrying Jewish Zionist, I would feel very welcome. And who wants to be heckled in their workplace by people who think they are entitled to define the parameters of your faith for you?

Does it really matter, though? Students have always been suckers for a cause – when you are young and newly independent but still without much responsibility for anything apart from your next essay, it’s thrilling to get involved with things that make you feel you are actually doing something the adult world takes notice of. It was no different when I joined demos for Soviet Jewry as a student in the 1980s.

Yet there was a big difference. We were protesting against the Soviet government and the Soviet embassy in London. Similarly, the Vietnam demos of the 1960s were against the US government. They were not against fellow students and staff. They did not designate other people on campus as personae non gratae due to their beliefs or suggest that there were spaces they were not allowed to enter.

This is important because in liberal democracies, public spaces are open to all. This openness is predicated on the key liberal settlement following the religious persecution of the reformation – that it is not for the state to specify what people should believe. And it used to be more or less universally accepted that universities should be crucibles of open debate and that students and staff could adopt, express and try out a multiplicity of ideas in the context of civil, critical discourse.

That was, of course, before the reimaging of the university’s main function as that of activism by French philosophy in the late 20th century. And activism embraces both the certainty of one view of the good life and the virtue of adhering to it. As in the Soviet Union, it inverts John Rawl’s famous liberal notion that the “right” (i.e. liberty for all in society) comes before the “good” (i.e. defining the good life: what it is that people should believe and do). It insists that everyone embrace the accepted notion of the good or else.

The notion of encampments – one-party spaces – are particular anathemas in liberal societies. I cannot, for example, go into my local public leisure centre, put up a marquee and make a rule that because I hate the UK Prime Minister and he is a vegetarian, vegetarians are not allowed into my encampment. It would be both a ridiculous and hateful thing to do, and, of course, the leisure centre would be entitled to call the police and have me arrested and removed. A somewhat parallel example is the recent decision by Google to remove and fire employees who, in protesting for Gaza, had started impeding the work of others and causing damage.

Universities also have rules designed to put the right before the good. Employee and student codes, including those created by human resources for staff, require people to treat each other with respect and consideration. If I decided, whether as a student or an academic, to set up my awful anti-vegetarian encampment in a university library, the university would surely waste little time in calling the police and having me removed.

Why, then, is it different if students set up an encampment excluding Zionist Jews? There is no one view of the Israel-Palestine conflict. The accusations against Israel of colonialism and genocide are just that, accusations, and many see them as rooted in antisemitic ideology. There is no a priori rule from on high that some Jews are OK but only if they renounce what many, if not most, see as an integral part of their historical faith: the call to return to Zion, the Land of Israel.

Universities, of course, can and should have public debate about different perspectives on the “good life”, but in the context of civil critical discourse: in seminars and debates. If they want to be part of a liberal democracy, they cannot allow the good to be put before the right. They cannot allow parts of their campus to be off limits to certain members of their community. They cannot allow people to attack Jews because of their beliefs in Zionism and to promote an environment in which only Jews with the correct opinions are made to feel welcome.

Don’t doubt that university leaders know all this. They know that what they have been allowing to happen is not about freedom of speech but about freedom of activism. Jewish students and staff are entitled to so much better. If they cannot guarantee that public spaces on campus are truly open to all, they should follow the principled lead of the University of Florida and close the camps.

Joseph Mintz is an associate professor in education at UCL.

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