The Press Has Exaggerated anti-Israel Protests in Manchester

Alarmist reporting of an attack on Israel's deputy ambassador eclipsed growing dialogue between Jewish and pro-Palestinian students.

Late last month, Action Palestine protesters tried to attack the Israel's deputy ambassador as she arrived at Manchester University in England to give a talk to students – an event widely reported in the Jewish and Israeli press.

Pro-Palestinian students protest at Manchester University in the U.K., March 4, 2009

Violent action like this is unacceptable and I am sure it does anything but contribute to a peaceful solution to the conflict. However, I want to put the events in context.

Britain’s Jewish Chronicle, as well as all of the big Israeli newspapers, reported the attempted attack in an alarmist tone, making no further investigation. Factually, the coverage was accurate. But it neglected to mention that before the incident, the talk went ahead peacefully. As a Jewish student in Manchester, I feel that tensions are lessening, not growing.

Manchester University has for many years been a centre for pro-Palestinian activism. The Students’ Union is twinned with Al Najah University in Nablus, and has passed many motions in support of the Palestinian cause. Last year, during the Gaza War, after a month-long occupation of a university building, the union voted for a boycott Israel.

Tensions peaked in February with the news that Talya Lador-Fresher, Israel's deputy ambassador, was to address the union. Action Palestine immediately organized a demonstration against the visit, claiming that because of the boycott vote, no Israeli spokesperson had the right to speak in the union. Amid a series of protests and counter-protests, the talk was cancelled.

Frustrated by the hostility, a group of like-minded students from both sides came together to create the Manchester Israel Palestine Forum, which I chair. Our aim is to promote dialogue and education on the Israeli Palestinian conflict.

In March, we held our first student forum,  themed "Gaza: what next?" After a short movie and a shared hummus break, students gave presentations on the history of Gaza, before asking the 100-strong audience to join the debate. True, not many changed their minds. But we felt that peaceful dialogue was an achievement in itself.

We have gone on to invite speakers to similar events, and when the deputy ambassador finally arrived for a rescheduled visit on April 28, the discussion was calm and constructive – despite what went on outside the building. Security was strict; although some activists shouted at the beginning and protested silently throughout the speech, we felt the speaker was able to get her point across, to the benefit of everyone there.

After her speech, a minority of Action Palestine activists, most of whom had been barred from the hall, surrounded the building in an apparent effort to attack the diplomat. After a ridiculous game of hide and seek with university security, they managed little more than to obstruct her car for a few seconds.

In today’s society, what is often important is not what really happens but how it is depicted in the media. The press had not a word to say about all the positive events on campus that have restored confidence in the value of debate. Instead, they chose to emphasize violence, making the Manchester campus appear hostile and racist. Perhaps the Jewish and Israeli media have an interest in portraying Palestinian activists as aggressive, to reinforce a feeling that 'the whole world is against us' - rather than reporting dialogue and good will.

Jewish students here were shocked at how a marginal event gained so much publicity. In an effort to put things in perspective, I wrote personally to all newspapers that reported it - but got no response.

Activism is important in campus life. Yet I fail to see how a needless attack by some members of Action Palestine could contribute to the liberation of Palestinian territory. What I am sure of, however, is that the incident - and the way it was reported - lent weight to those voices in Israel that oppose any dialogue with the Palestinians, and to an exaggerated perception of British Universities as anti-Semitic.