Opinion |

It's Not Only pro-Palestinian Students Who Use Intimidation to Silence Free Speech

The behavior of pro-Palestinian students who disrupted a talk by Ami Ayalon at a London university was inexcusable. But too many British Jews also support shutting down free speech – of voices critical of Israel.

Hannah Weisfeld
Hannah Weisfeld
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A screenshot of anti-Israel protesters at Kings College London.
A screenshot of anti-Israel protesters at Kings College London.Credit: YouTube
Hannah Weisfeld
Hannah Weisfeld

The mayhem and disruption that took place at Kings College London this week, during a talk by Ami Ayalon, the former head of the Shin Bet, has been described in Haaretz in detail.

Hosted jointly by Yachad and the Kings College and London School of Economics Israel societies, Ayalon was speaking to a packed crowd, but outside the room a group of students, led by Kings College London Action Palestine, protested his presence by setting off fire alarms, stampeding against the door, pushing students in the process, throwing chairs and breaking a window in an attempt to end the event by force.

The police were called and around fifteen policemen were deployed to protect the event from approximately twenty protesting students. Eventually, the event was cut short, as the disturbance became too great.

There can be no defense of the behavior of the Kings College London Action Palestine students. They have a right to protest: that's the benefit of living in a democracy. But denying someone else’s right to free speech, and denying people the right to listen by employing intimidation tactics is inexcusable.

However, this doesn't mean that there is ‘no safe space’ on campuses for Israelis to be heard. There were more people in the room listening to Ayalon (many of whom were not Jewish or necessarily "pro-Israel" students), than were outside the room. And many more were turned away because there was not enough room for them. What this event did prove is that a small group of people have the ability to define the terms of the debate.

By the following morning, the story was all over the media, the UK's Universities Minister had intervened to condemn the events, and the university promised a full and thorough investigation. Meanwhile, Ayalon was already on a train to Manchester, to speak at an event in a local synagogue.

His trip to Manchester is not irrelevant to this story. It would seem an obvious audience for a leading Israeli figure to speak to a full synagogue in a suburb of the second largest Jewish community in the U.K. But a significant number of people within the Manchester Jewish community tried to stop Ayalon from being heard.

Within the closed Facebook groups of a number of Manchester-based Zionist and pro-Israel organizations, debates were taking place about how the "wolf in sheep’s clothing" - as Ayalon was described - was being given a platform through the "anti-Israel" organization Yachad, and people were encouraged to complain to the synagogue to try and force them to cancel it. Despite the intense pressure the synagogue executive and rabbi came under, in the end, commitment to free speech won out.

No chairs were thrown in Manchester, and no protests were held outside and the event was able to go ahead. But had those bombarding the synagogue with email and letters of complaint got their way, the impact of their behavior would have been exactly the same as that of the protesting students in London. The tactics and rationale might have been different but ultimately they share a common aim: to silence the voices of those with whom they do not agree.

We face a significant problem today, and it is one shared by Israel as well. The space in which legitimate debate can take place and questions can be asked about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and all it entails is shrinking at an alarming rate. The demonization of civil society and human rights organizations in Israel who dare to shine a light on the occupation, with members of the Israeli cabinet as the chief cheerleaders of this exercise, is one example.

This behavior is emulated by members of the Jewish community here in the U.K. who, seeing the behavior of the Israeli government, believe that shutting down voices that disagree with the policies of the Israeli government is now the model of how to be a truly committed supporter of Israel.

On the other side, the same shutting down of the space for debate comes in the form of student rabbles behaving in an unforgivably violent and aggressive manner trying to prevent the voice of an Israeli being heard on a university campus in the U.K.

Their collective behavior, regardless of what side of the political spectrum they sit on, or whose "side" they purport to support, is indicative of is a total lack of respect for, or commitment to, democracy, and the responsibilities that it entails.

In Israel it stems from a failure to understand that a developed democracy allows checks and balances on the behavior of government and the right to express a critical opinion is legitimate and not confined to elections that occur once every few years.

And in the U.K., it stems from a lack of acceptance that living in a liberal democracy entails the right of perspectives you do not share to be heard.

Those of us who do believe in the right to free speech and democratic principles may not all share the same opinions. But we certainly have a common cause in ensuring that neither the debate here in the U.K., or the reality on the ground in the region, comes to be defined by those who see democratic principles as dispensable in the fight to have their world view reign supreme.

Hannah Weisfeld is a founder and the director of Yachad, the pro-Israel pro-peace movement in the U.K. Follow her on Twitter: @HannahWeisfeld

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