On 17 January 2018, the Warwick for Justice in Palestine group hosted an event at the University of Warwick, which has been described by pro-Israel blogger David Collier as “anti-Semitic pseudoscience”. The talk, which was delivered by KCL Research Fellow Dr. Siggie Vertommen, was entitled “Anticolonial Resistance is Fertile: Sperm Smuggling and Birth Strikes in Palestine/Israel”.
Vertommen accused Israel of selectively implementing a policy of ‘pronatalism’ – promoting higher birth rates for Jews – aimed at serving “the reproductive rights of its Jewish population at the expense of the indigenous Palestinian population”. In turn, she argued that “a reproductive sabotage framework” would be necessary to overturn Israeli demographic patterns. She highlighted particular examples of ‘resistance’, such as sperm smuggling and birth strikes.
This libel amounts to a collective accusation against the whole of Israeli society, which is charged with deliberately promoting a Jewish majority over the rights of Israel’s minorities. Not only is there no evidence that this is a policy that has been promoted by any past or present Israeli government (which guarantees the rights of Israel’s non-Jewish citizens), but the charge of eugenics is especially potent, given the history of Nazi Germany and its anti-Semitic racism towards Jews. These connotations will not have been lost on Jewish students.
Vertommen once wrote an academic article about social protests in Israel in 2011 which was entitled “Help, the oppressors are being oppressed!”. Vertommen clearly promotes a biased narrative which alleges that the Jewish collective is seeking to promote a racist state endeavour.
Furthermore, her arguments feed off prejudices about a supposed Jewish conspiracy as she obsessively focuses on the malign intent of the State of Israel. With regard to Israel’s demographic majority, she accuses Jews of imagined wrongdoing, and applies double standards towards Israel by requiring of her a behaviour not expected or demanded of any other nation state. All of these tropes fall under the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of anti-Semitism.
It is concerning that the group hosting Vertommen consisted of both faculty staff and students. This gives a veneer of academic respectability to the unpleasant arguments made by the speaker. Disturbingly, Collier also reported that organisers refused to let some attendees enter the event, despite the fact that the event was advertised publicly.
One of the organisers allegedly told them that they could not enter because of the Prevent strategy. This is an extraordinary statement; it says nowhere in the strategy that audience members can be arbitrarily denied entry. This suggests a fundamental dishonesty and lack of transparency amongst the organisers.
We are extremely disappointed that Collier and his fellow activists were refused entry to the event, as they could have done much to dispel the bigoted arguments made by the speaker. Collier rightly notes “that if they allowed us entry, then during the Q&A we would [have] provide[d] an alternative argument to the one they wanted students to believe”.
Freedom of speech means nothing if it does not also mean the freedom to challenge extremism. We are glad that Collier is lodging an official complaint with the university and we urge other concerned students or faculty members to do likewise.