UK: Muslim student accused of anti-Semitism wins case against politician

Conservative member of the House of Lords publicly defamed Melika Gorgianeh after she appeared on the TV quiz University Challenge.

University Challenge, a popular quiz show, has been beloved by Britons for decades [Courtesy: BBC]

A Muslim woman who received death threats after appearing on a popular British quiz show has won “substantial damages” and received a public apology from a Conservative politician who wrongly accused her of anti-Semitism, her lawyers said on Wednesday.

Melika Gorgianeh, a doctoral astrophysics student at Christ Church, Oxford University, appeared on University Challenge, a BBC show, in an episode that was aired on November 20.

It was filmed months earlier in March.

The team’s mascot was a stuffed toy, a blue octopus, and Gorgianeh was wearing a multicoloured jacket that was navy blue, orange, pink and green.

Jacqueline Foster, who holds the title of baroness as she’s a member of the House of Lords, took to X after the show was broadcast to claim Gorgianeh was wearing the colours of the Palestinian flag and was responsible for the mascot.

Neither observation was true. The colours of the Palestine flag are black, white, green and red. The mascot belonged to the team of four.

Foster described the octopus as one of the most “disgusting anti-Semitic symbols” and called for Gorgianeh to be “expelled” by her university and “arrested” by the police.

She also tagged top politicians, including Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, as well as the national communications regulator Ofcom, the BBC and the University of Oxford.

University Challenge student
Melika Gorgianeh, a fan of the University Challenge show she appeared on, said her mental health has suffered since the incident [Courtesy: Rahman Lowe Solicitors]

The story was picked up by many media outlets and seized upon on social media.

“Is This Cute Lil’ Guy an Antisemitic Hate Symbol?” asked Rolling Stone magazine in a headline, of the octopus.

David Atherton, a right-wing commentator and journalist, posted on X: “Do you think it is appropriate Melika Gorgianeh …  displayed a blue octopus, a blatant anti-Semitic trope, used by the Nazis to show how Jews’ tentacles were spread round the world? … Shame on Christ Church, shame on Oxford University.”

University Challenge is beloved by Britons. The show began in 1962 and sees university students compete to answer difficult questions by an unforgiving host. Teams are encouraged to bring along mascots.

Ultimately, Gorgianeh’s Christ Church college rose to the occasion and won the challenge, with 155 points against rivals from Emmanuel College at the University of Cambridge, who scored 130.

The episode was broadcast weeks into Israel’s war on Gaza at a time when community tensions in Britain were rising.

To date, more than 30,000 Palestinians, mostly women and children, have been killed in the Strip, which is governed by Hamas. Israel began its military campaign after Hamas attacked southern Israel on October 7, killing 1,139 people.

While Israel has said it wants to crush the Palestinian group, international human rights groups and several world leaders are concerned about the unprecedented toll on Palestinian civilians and the unfolding humanitarian disaster.

In late November, Gorgianeh complained to the commissioner of the House of Lords concerning Foster’s conduct, but it was not upheld.

“The false allegation of anti-Semitism has had a profound and deeply damaging impact on my life. I was a student appearing on my favourite TV quiz show. All of a sudden, lies told about me, and only me, led to me receiving death threats and to my mental health deteriorating,” said Gorgianeh.

“Baroness Foster’s posts, and the posts of others who are yet to be held to account, affected both myself and my family. I felt unsafe to even leave my house.  Nobody should ever have to feel how I felt or go through what I went through. Words have consequences. And now, through her apology, Baroness Fosters’ words begin to have the consequence of healing the very real damage that had been done to me.”

Foster posted a lengthy apology on X on Wednesday, saying she “made a grave mistake in making those posts and I should not have done so”.

Zillur Rahman, Gorgianeh’s solicitor, said that statements by a person in a position of power, authority and respect, carry “far greater weight and are liable to have a far greater impact than those made by less prominent figures”.

“Baroness Foster holds a DBE, and as a lifetime peer, she is quite literally a member of the ruling class of British society,” he said.

Rahman’s firm, Rahman Lowe, did not disclose the sum of the compensation awarded to Gorgianeh.

Source: Al Jazeera