Blog: On Israel, universities are becoming discussion-free zones

Attempts to shut down debate highlight a worrying trend on UK campuses, writes Yiftah Curiel

February 10, 2015

The diplomatic DNA shies from writing about failure. Our job is to market success, to improve a wide spectrum of bilateral ties, including cultural, academic and economic aspects of the always complex relationship between two countries. And so my fingers rest uneasily on the keyboard as I write about what is undoubtedly a failure on our part, in Israel and in the UK, to deal with an issue which stands at the core of our shared values, and which sadly is becoming worse.

Spiked magazine’s project on Freedom of Speech on UK campuses, which was published last week, points to self-censorship practised by many universities in the UK, based on a vague “potential to upset and offend”. Israel is one of the prime examples given in the study, as an issue which has been deemed “too controversial” to engage with on campus, for a variety of reasons which we have come to know all too well.

When I was invited to speak on Israeli-European relations at Glasgow University recently by the students’ Europe Society, it took just two students intent on disrupting the dialogue - combined with university security officials claiming they were “not permitted  to remove a student by force” - to eject myself and 50 other students to another venue in order to be able to speak with one another. A short while later, at the same university, TEDx conference organisers rescinded an enthusiastic invitation to an Israeli speaker, apparently caving in to pressure from elements within the institution.

The sad truth is that free speech can no longer be said to be applicable to discussions of Israel on many UK campuses. This will no doubt delight a small number of anti-Israel activists, but it should worry the rest of us, including the vast majority of students, professors and university officials who view their institution as a place of learning and dialogue.

It is worrying because freedom of speech is being curtailed by an extremist minority that emulates the world view of terror groups in the Middle East, who do not recognise Israel’s right to exist, reject dialogue and compromise and see no value in an exchange of opinion that is not theirs.

Last week at the London School of Economics, as the Israeli Ambassador Daniel Taub was engaging in a conversation with 100 students from various faculties, four or five students walked out of the class and  set off a  fire-alarm, in a noisy but ultimately failed attempt to disrupt the session.

Meanwhile at the entrance to the university building, a few dozen protestors are reported to have told an Israeli journalist who attempted to interview them that “all Zionist terrorists must be killed”, and threatened to film her using their cellphones and post the footage on internet sites best left unnamed. She suffered this harassment simply for being an Israeli, a news reporter doing her job outside a distinguished university campus in the centre of London. A police officer had to be called to the scene to intervene, so that she could leave the premises safely. This behaviour echoes that at a recent LSE Student Union event, in which a suicide bomber was glorified as “admirable” and “worthy of a standing ovation”, statements now under investigation by the university.

Living in London, it strikes me that one of the most significant differences between Israelis and most Europeans is that we Israelis are perhaps more aware of the values and liberties which we possess, because unfortunately we continue to pay the high price needed to defend them in our part of the world. Meanwhile, for many Europeans these core values have been a simple fact of life for a very long time, and today may be taken for granted.

But reality is telling us a different story; it’s telling us that Israel, though it receives blanket coverage in the media, cannot be discussed on a university campus. It’s also telling us that a choice needs to be made to defend freedom of speech, and decisions need to be taken to actively defend that choice.

Ambassador Taub spent half of his time at the LSE answering challenging questions from an eager and knowledgeable group of students - just the way it should be. “We don’t have all the right answers”, he conceded, “but we’re trying to ask the right questions”.

Universities across the UK, as well as the political leadership which guides them, must also ask the right questions: Should we allow small groups of radical, hate-filled individuals to dictate the borders of freedom of speech? Does the interest of the vast majority of students to engage and learn not trump that of the few who claim to feel offended?

We all know the answers to these questions. This is a battle which we cannot afford to lose.

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Reader's comments (1)

A very well written piece. While I have very little personal or political interest in the region and all of its skirmishes, I can't help noticing a disproportionate and morbid level of interest in and emotions surrounding Israel. Not only do Israel itself and Britain's belief that it is an open society suffer here, but the obsession with Israel makes other parts of the world suffer even more through ignorance, apathy and misguided focus on this issue. This is because we can only really get angry about one thing at a time. Why not Congo? Why not Species Extinction? I think unis are right, however, to try to avoid the publicity, security costs and damage to buildings that occur when the anti-Israel mob seeks to scupper what should be a legitimate debate on a minor and peripheral issue.