Are British universities silencing critics of Israel?

Pro-Palestinian activists have had events cancelled and faced other restrictions during Israeli Apartheid Week.

University of Manchester Pro-Palestinian activists
Pro-Palestinian activists fear they are being silenced for criticising Israel [Shafik Mandhai/Al Jazeera]

Manchester, England – On a gloomy afternoon outside the University of Manchester Students’ Union, pro-Palestinian activists took turns to man a small stall collecting signatures in support of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement, or BDS.

Huda Ammori enthusiastically helped students asking how to get more involved in pro-Palestinian activism, as her colleagues considered the best way to move a mock two-metre high Israeli separation wall behind them.

“They want us gone by half three,” Ammori told Al Jazeera, explaining the agreement she had made with the union to vacate the area before it became too busy.

A local of the nearby town of Bolton, Ammori, a British citizen of Palestinian and Iraqi heritage, has spent the week drumming up support for Israeli Apartheid Week (IAW). 

Other societies and groups do not face the same problems

Huda Ammori, student and pro-Palestinian activist

The event is held at universities across the world to shine a light on Israel’s treatment of Palestinians in the occupied territories and within the state itself.

The University of Manchester has allowed the series of talks marking the event to go ahead, but that approval has only come after several meetings and email exchanges with Ammori, and is subject to a strict set of conditions.

“The university has heavily scrutinised every single detail of each event … the number of conditions the university has placed on us is unheard of,” Ammori said, adding: “Other societies and groups do not face the same problems.”

The conditions, listed in emails seen by Al Jazeera, relate to the impartiality of event conveners and scrutiny of speakers.

The university vetoed Ammori’s choice of academic to chair an IAW event on BDS, citing concerns over her “neutrality”.

Speakers also had to acknowledge the British government-endorsed definition of anti-Semitism.

Pro-Palestinian activists take issue with the definition, which has been adopted by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, because they say it attempts to stymie criticism of Israel by conflating it with anti-Semitism.

Ammori said that she accepted the terms reluctantly, eager to ensure the events went ahead without a hiccup.

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The student said Palestinian rights activists had experienced increased difficulties in organising events in recent years and that the university had previously withheld approval for two talks that were due to take place in February this year and October 2016.

University of Manchester historian Lauren Banko, the academic whose chairing of the event on BDS was blocked by university officials, told Al Jazeera their behaviour was a threat to free debate on campus.

The university is creating a very worrying precedent when it declares an academic who happens to be a historian of pre-1948 Palestine as not 'suitable' for the role of chairing a student-organised event on Palestine and the Israeli occupation

Lauren Banko, historian, University of Manchester

“The university is creating a very worrying precedent when it declares an academic who happens to be a historian of pre-1948 Palestine as not ‘suitable’ for the role of chairing a student-organised event on Palestine and the Israeli occupation,” she said.

Banko, who is a specialist in Israeli and Palestinian studies, said the university should not involve itself in such matters, nor should it police the views its students and academics have of Israel.

“It is for the university to assure safe conduct at student-organised events, but not to enter into discussions of how neutral the personal politics of their students or staff may or may not be.”

University response

The university rejects the suggestion that these were deliberate attempts to censor the activists and blames administrative problems for the October and February events not going ahead.

A spokesperson said the university requires 14 days notice to approve a talk and “for the event scheduled in February, the application was received the day before it was due to happen”.

The university also passed on a joint statement by the Students’ Union and the BDS campaign, in which both accepted the February event was postponed because of “human error in the process”.

With regard to the October event, the spokesperson said paperwork had been submitted late and did not reach the university in time for approval.

Ammori was sceptical of the reasoning and said it was a “strange coincidence that only pro-Palestinian events are affected by these [administrative] problems”.

The university’s spokesperson did not address the reasons why Banko had been prevented from chairing the event, only remarking that a senior member of staff had been chosen as an independent chair.

READ MORE: Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions: What is BDS?

On the issue of pro-Palestinian students having the right to protest against Israel without censure, the university said that it “recognises that freedom of speech and expression within the law has fundamental importance for universities as places of education“, adding: “Events held on campus are reviewed under the Code of Practice on Freedom of Speech if they concern potentially controversial topics and whenever they involve external speakers.”

The University of Manchester Students’ Union, which is the largest in the UK and operates independently of the university itself, passed a motion to officially endorse the BDS movement in December.

The University of Manchester said it was not trying to censor pro-Palestinian activists [Shafik Mandhai/Al Jazeera]The University of Manchester said it was not trying to censor pro-Palestinian activists [Shafik Mandhai/Al Jazeera]

Other incidents

While most British universities hosted IAW events without incident, Ammori’s experiences were far from isolated.

An investigation by the London-based outlet Middle East Eye found common themes developing in the affected universities that included heavy scrutiny of scheduled speakers, warnings that pro-Palestinian activists might be breaking the law, and the cancellation of events.

READ MORE: The BDS struggle in US academia

At the University of Central Lancashire (UCLAN) in the northern city of Preston, officials cancelled a talk by the Palestinian rights activist and author, Ben White.

In its statement to Al Jazeera, UCLAN said that the event was cancelled because organisers had failed to give enough notice.

“The university has in place robust procedures to ensure that events that give a platform to external speakers are properly managed,” the statement read.

“In this instance, the student society event, ‘Debunking Misconceptions on Palestine and the Importance of BDS’, was not referred to the process in a timely way and therefore could not go ahead.”

However, the reasoning given by the university in that statement seems to contradict an earlier statement sent by the university to pro-Israel activists, who posted it on Facebook on February 22.

The text suggests the cancellation was less about timing and more about the event’s content. It reads: “We take seriously our responsibility to provide a safe and welcoming environment for all. As such, we have in place procedures to ensure that free, open and lawful debate is promoted and in this instance, our assessment has concluded that the proposed event cannot proceed as planned.”

White rejected the claim that the cancellation was due to administrative issues based on other statements the university had made.

If the problem was procedural, why did the university authorities not engage with the students - and why did they initially give other reasons?

Ben White, author

“There is nothing here with regards to a procedural problem,” he told Al Jazeera.

“[The university’s] public statement issued later that day, explicitly referenced two reasons for the event being cancelled: a lack of ‘balance’, and a supposed violation of a definition of anti-Semitism endorsed by the UK government, which is not a law.”

White said that the students who organised the event only found out that it had been cancelled after the media started reporting on it and were not told by the university itself.

“If the problem was procedural, why did the university authorities not engage with the students – and why did they initially give other reasons?” he asked, before highlighting two potential reasons why Palestinian activists were being targeted.

The first is the British government’s Prevent counter-extremism strategy, which requires universities to scrutinise behaviour it defines as “contentious”, including pro-Palestinian activism.

The second source of pressure on universities, according to White, was campaigning by pro-Israel groups.

“Perhaps the most important factor here are efforts by the Israeli government and its friends to attack and undermine a growing Palestine solidarity movement,” White said, adding that the first people to find out about the cancellation of his talk were the pro-Israeli activists who had complained about it.

He said the attempts to repress IAW were a sign that pro-Israel activists were losing the argument on the treatment of Palestinians and the occupation of their land.

“When you crack down on freedom of expression and legitimate political activism, you do so because you’re losing, or have lost, the debate.”

‘Deeply problematic’

Back in Manchester, Ammori said she was exhausted trying to balance the demands of activism with a heavy study schedule.

She asserted that as a Palestinian, she was unable to accept attempts to silence her criticisms of Israel.

“To be labelled anti-Semitic for condemning the apartheid system Israel endorses is ridiculous,” she said.

“To know that every day my people face oppression, and then to face attempts to silence my voice is deeply problematic.”

The University of Manchester Students' Union passed a motion backing BDS in December [Shafik Mandhai/Al Jazeera]The University of Manchester Students’ Union passed a motion backing BDS in December [Shafik Mandhai/Al Jazeera]
Source: Al Jazeera


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