LONDON – The School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) is considered one of the world’s foremost institutions for the study of the Middle East, Africa and Asia, and gives a broad platform to a diverse and eclectic list of speakers. Representatives from Syria, Iraq and Gaza have all shared their positions with SOAS’ curious students. And this Thursday, for the first time in a decade, an Israeli diplomat in Britain is going to join the illustrious roster of speakers.
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Or maybe not.
More than 150 academics from SOAS and other U.K. universities – together with 40 student societies at the central London university – have urgently written to SOAS Director Valerie Amos, asking that she step in to ensure Israeli Ambassador to the U.K. Mark Regev not be allowed to speak at the campus this week.
Invited by two student societies (SOAS Jewish society and the UN society) to share some thoughts on the “Middle East and Prospects for Peace” – neither a very original or, presumably, particularly controversial topic – Regev says he has every intention to go ahead with what his office calls a “routine” visit.
In the past year – like his predecessors in the post – Regev has made visits to university campuses and speaking with students across the country a priority. Among other places, he has spoken at Cambridge, Oxford, Manchester, Kings, UCL, Bristol and Birmingham.
“Looking forward to speaking with students at @SOAS this week. Open discussion crucial for understanding and peace,” the ambassador tweeted on Monday. There was no additional statement from the Israeli Embassy.
But in the letter sent to SOAS director Valerie Amos – first reported in British daily The Guardian – it is clear some are far less enamored by Regev’s visit.
“We fear that if this provocative event proceeds as planned, it will cause substantial distress and harm to many of our students and staff who are, have been or will be affected by the actions of what a recent UN report refers to as the Israeli ‘apartheid regime,’” reads the letter. “The event could further cause serious tension on campus and result in a charged atmosphere that will be detrimental to the wellbeing of all faculty, staff and students.”
SOAS students’ union – whose BDS policy was recently reaffirmed by 73 percent of participants, in a school-wide referendum – also got involved. It issued a statement objecting to the visit on various grounds, including “security” ones – taking a page out of Israel’s own book.
“We believe that this event causes [a] real health and safety risk. The presence on campus of armed security guards on the one hand, and the inability of students and staff – especially Palestinian students – to participate openly in the debate, because of the possible repercussions on their ability to enter Israel/Palestine, concern us especially,” they said in a statement. They describe Regev, a former spokesman for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, as someone who “won international renown through his justification for Israel’s war crimes in the Gaza Strip.”
Meanwhile, in an interesting twist, Yair Wallach, the chair of SOAS’ Centre for Jewish Studies, has come out against the visit.
“Regev’s talk is likely to be a controversial and fraught affair,” he wrote in an email to Avrahum Sanger, president of the SOAS Jewish Society. According to Sanger, Wallach suggested that the invitation be reconsidered.
In an interview with Haaretz, Wallach stressed that he was against the university barring Regev, or anyone else, from coming to speak - but that he nonetheless did not see much value in the talk itself.
“We have had huge number of Israeli speakers here and hosted many events that give a rich and nuanced perspective on Israel,” Wallach explained. “Regev is a diplomat. and his style is simplistic and polarizing. We are trying to go beyond that here - and that is why I was not in favor of the invitation."
But Sanger and other students behind the invititation have refused to back down. Sanger argues that allowing Regev to speak would prove the university was doing “what it’s embodied to do – providing a platform for free speech, debate and discussion.”
“If it’s ‘dangerous’ to invite people who we disagree with, what kind of debate and discussion do we aspire to?” Sanger asks, in an article penned Friday for Britain’s Jewish News Online.
Indeed, speakers in the past year have included the likes of author Thomas Suarez, who described the creation of Israel as a “racist” and “fascist” endeavor, and linked the “cult” of Zionism to the Nazis; British-Palestinian scholar Haitham al-Haddad, who has called Jews “descendants of apes and pigs” and also supports FGM; and British Salafi preacher Abdur Raheem Green, who reportedly said that “dying while fighting jihad is one of the surest ways to paradise.”
Sanger concludes: “One must ask oneself, especially when attending a centre for higher education, ‘Do I care about determining the truth through reasoned discussion and debate, or am I only able to tolerate discussions with those agreeable to my point of view?’”