Student Voice: Free speech and the alienation of Israeli students

The limits of freedom of expression on campus, and the difficulty in striking a balance between providing safe spaces and arenas for robust debate, have become increasingly pertinent issues in recent weeks. Here, King’s College London (KCL) student Emma Webb gives her take on how Israeli and Jewish students feel campus activism against Israel has left them feeling marginalised and unable to express their opinions. All views are her own and do not necessarily represent those of Student Rights…

In the wake of the Paris shootings, with the Counter-Terrorism and Security Bill in its final Parliamentary stages, debates about free speech and its limits have surged and our universities have not escaped this scrutiny.

This issue raised its head again on Holocaust Memorial Day, the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau, when students at the London School of Economics (LSE) hosted an event entitled ‘Gender and Resistance in Occupied Palestine’.

Described as a “discussion exploring gender and resistance under Israeli occupation”, the speakers represented Israelis as rapists and praised those who murder them.

In response, LSE student union (LSESU) Anti-Racism officer, Esther Gross, issued an open letter in which she wrote that she was “shocked beyond words” that they “condoned the indiscriminate killing of Israelis through random acts of terrorism”.

The LSESU Black and Minority Students Officer then responded, criticising Gross’ claims, and accusing her of not properly defending minorities. She was also accused of “a shamelessly racist attack trying to silence four women of colour” and of defending a “white settler colonial regime”. There have since been calls for her resignation.

This case highlights how attempts to silence the opposition, including through personal attacks, are becoming commonly accepted on-campus. Demonisation, not of Israel and its policies, but of Israelis themselves, is in evidence across our campuses and risks creating an environment conducive to the alienation of these students.

When Hen Mazzig, a former Israeli soldier, was invited to speak by KCL Israel Society last year, he was personally targeted. Although Mazzig served in the humanitarian unit of the IDF, his visit was objected to on the grounds of him being a “murderer”.

This accusation was made, not on the basis of research, but simply because he is an Israeli who has served, as the majority of Israelis do, in the defence forces. The event was protested, with the then president of the society prevented from entering.

Similar incidents have taken place across the country. Recently, Professor Thomas Scotto, of the University of Essex, told the Guardian that disruptive protests and heckling led to the abandonment of a talk by Israel’s Deputy Ambassador. In response to his repeated attempts to rearrange the talk, Scotto recalls that he was told: “Tom, just let it go”.

Just letting it go, however, will only result in the further marginalisation of Israeli and Jewish students. Events at the University of California, where the recent passage of a Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions motion saw swastikas painted onto a Jewish fraternity house, show the potential results of these tactics.

Yakov Ashkenazi, an Israeli student at KCL, recalls how “numerous times” he has been called a “Mossad agent” and says he feels that, more than any other nationality, Israelis are being held responsible for the actions of their government, making them “a legitimate target for protest or bullying”.

He describes how hatred, not of Israeli policies but of Israel itself, has resulted in “anyone who supports Israel” being “bullied out of campus”, leaving the Israeli Society “fighting for its existence”. Their events, he says, “are systematically being jeopardised” and that even pro-Israel guests are “reluctant to show up for fear of verbal and physical harassment on campus”.

He also says:

“It would be a different story if there were often motions to ban various countries around the world for political reasons. It is, however, only Israel that is being discussed on campus in such terms as Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions.

This double standard, singling out of Israel, gives me as an Israeli student an absurd feeling of marginalisation and rejection. It is all those things combined: your country is implacably hated; you’re inherently responsible for your government’s actions; and no matter what you do it is justified to bully you. What kind of feeling does such an environment give me if not sad hopelessness?”

Sam Adari, KCL’s Israel Society President, spoke of a similar experience of the “singling out of this one country above all others”.

He said: “As an Israeli student, I feel victimised and threatened by the large body of students on campus” who support a boycott of Israeli goods and ideas, complaining of the “double standard” in their not boycotting “North Korea, Syria, or Saudi Arabia”. He feels this “aggressive and bigoted behaviour” is responsible for the “demonising” of students.

This experience is not just limited to Israeli students either. In February 2014, Hannah Brady, soon-to-be President of the Union of Jewish Students (UJS), responded to Israeli Apartheid Week.

She claimed it has “become a week during which Jewish and Zionist students are easily singled out, attacked and intimidated for choosing not to agree with the rhetoric and methods of Israel Apartheid Week supporters”.

The reality, therefore, for Israeli and Jewish students within this environment is not one of freedom of expression, but instead one in which one party has repeatedly been allowed to shout the other down, whilst the other is prevented from expressing its views through fear of hostility and personal attacks.

What’s more, this does not seem to have received the appropriate attention from the institutions in which it is occurring – or from those who have been focusing on freedom of speech on campuses in the past few weeks.

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