On 27/4/2017, Mark Regev, the current Israeli Ambassador to London, came to speak at SOAS. Ever since the news of this event became public knowledge, several groups of students on SOAS have been actively trying to have the talk cancelled. SOAS academics also issued a public plea, the student union issued a statement, and eventually, when it became clear it would go ahead, student groups organised a public protest to coincide with the meeting. This event was promoted off campus as well, with external anti-Israel organisations such as the the Palestine Solidarity Campaign calling for support.
A large turn out was expected. Hundreds of people who wanted to silence opposing voices on campus would turn up. People who do not believe in a world where their ideologies and their political positions can be examined. Instead, they seek to close down the argument and silence opposition voices. Working to a drumbeat demanding that all critical thinking on central themes surrounding their own political preferences must be expelled from the university campus. This includes Mark Regev. What kind of university behaviour is that?
But the story of the visit by Mark Regev to SOAS, is far bigger than a few bigoted student activists. The day itself started with a sickening attempt at balance by the BBC.
The BBC gets it all wrong
As anticipation began to build on the day of the event, several news outlets approached the item in their own curious way. The Guardian ran a report focusing on the ‘provocative’ nature of the event. 97% of the article provides reasons why Regev should not speak, with the other 3% reminding anyone paying close attention, that a ‘free speech’ argument could also be involved. Even the anti-Israel Independent avoided the discussion entirely, perhaps because it couldn’t twist the narrative as much as the Guardian was apparently willing to.
The main pre-event news story came from the BBC when BBC2’s Victoria Derbyshire show ran a report about BDS on campus. As someone who understands the subject matter well, I would argue the report was deeply uncomfortable to watch. An attempt at balance that went horribly wrong. The report simply failed to identify any of the real problems with BDS. Instead it implied that BDS is a ‘just cause’, and the only real objection is that Jewish student are ‘hurt’ by it (a kind of unwanted side effect). It operates on the assumption that the fight against BDS is a ‘welfare dispute’
However, BDS is the problem. It is a deliberate ‘maximalist’ strategy that is designed to keep the sides from negotiation. Alongside Palestinians who prefer extremist demands, BDS attracts supporters with antisemitic tendencies. It is not a movement of peace, but rather a movement that seeks to set Israel apart by demonising it, just as antisemites have always set Jews apart by demonising them. There is no place for Israel in the BDS universe, just as there is no place for Jews in the antisemites universe.
Yes, the report creates sympathy for Jewish students, but think about the argument in reverse. You could just as easily argue that Mark Regev should not be allowed on campus because he too can be placed in a box labelled ‘welfare dispute’. It is a dangerous road to travel, so we should not bask in the sympathy it provides. You can view the footage here
The Mark Regev protest
During the day, anti-Israel protestors were already posting online photos of preparations against the Mark Regev visit at SOAS. Even though the protest was only due to begin at 17:30, by late morning, the quad area between the two main SOAS buildings was already full of Palestinian flags. A counter protest by pro-Israeli supporters arguing for ‘free-speech- had also been organised, with both sides due to stand in opposition within the same small area.
I arrived early, and crowds began to gather. In reality, for most, ‘gathering’ meant SOAS students leaving the lecture room inside, to join the growing number of people outside. But this is never just about students, many recognisable faces, from anti-Israel activists groups, were also filling the square.
I do not intend to give my own version of an event that already has be the subject of various personal accounts. There were few surprises. The video below has been put together by the Israel Advocacy Movement. It highlights some of the ignorance and hate so easily found amongst anti-Israel activists. ‘Gays for Palestine’, non-Jews pretending to be Jews, and vile antisemitic comments about the victims of the Holocaust. All gathering because Mark Regev came to SOAS.
But of course, these are just examples of the few that talk. This is a well-oiled and well coordinated protest machine, where external anti-Israel groups and student ‘mentors’, mingle with the crowd trying to make sure that the antisemites in the anti-Israel camp don’t talk on camera. We all know they are in the crowd, my own recent research suggested the figure could even be higher than 40%, so protest leaders handed out flyers instructing other protestors not to talk:
In the main, the protest passed relatively calmly. This means that although anti-Israel protestors damaged property by defacing Israeli flags, and although there was pushing, shoving and minor incidents of intimidation, there were no major outbreaks of violence.
Inverse definition of antisemitism
On the same day as the event, an essay by Stephen Sedley, a former appeal court judge was published in the London Review of Books (vol. 39 No. 9 · 4 May 2017). The essay dealt critically with the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition of antisemitism. Sedley is no impartial bystander, last year he spoke at an event hosted by the Oxford Ramallah Friendship Association.
The reason this section is included in this article is because Sedley’s essay is part of a disturbing attempt to legitimise elements of antisemitism. It is directly connected to the mind-set of the Mark Regev protest, and forms part of the response to claims of antisemitism leveled against anti-Zionist protestors.
Now I am neither a legal scholar, nor a former appeal court judge, but I shuddered at the dark political revisionism I believe I encountered as I read Sedley’s essay. To understand, you do not have to engage with more than the very first sentence:
“Shorn of philosophical and political refinements, anti-Semitism is hostility towards Jews as Jews.”
Using such a simplified definition is misplaced and dangerous. The entire discussion of mistaken ‘perception’ is cast aside. Jewish people, like all people, are just people. Surely then, hostility towards a person, is not about how they actually are in reality (as Jews), but rather, how the antisemite perceives them to be. Or to be precise, any definition of antisemitism must also include ‘hostility towards Jews as something that they are not’.
Jew hatred is not rational, it is not built on science fact, but rather the fantasy of those who adhere to antisemitic thought and propagate it. It is why I am uncomfortable with legal minds using definitions of antisemitism as a battlefield for political expediency.
But unless you can explain through some other reasoning, why so many hard core antisemites have aligned themselves with the anti-Zionist cause, then *you have* to accommodate for the morphing of antisemitism into some anti-Zionist dialogue. If not, if a Sedley does, you remove anti-Israel talk almost entirely from the equation, then you blatantly fail to protect Jews from those that hate them.
The Mark Regev event
Of course none of the activity I witnessed that day would have been happening if Mark Regev was not due to arrive on campus. The main event took place amidst high levels of security. As I was ushered into a room to await being directed to the venue, sniffer dogs, were being led around the building. Then another search as security guards went room to room making sure it was safe for Mark Regev to attend. Then other layers of security, another waiting room, more delays. It is here there is no denying the difference between the two sides. Official or unofficial, campus or not, Zionist events, just like Jewish events, always take place behind a wall of security. I’ve been to scores of anti-Israel events, I don’t ever think I have ever had to really prove my identity. Everybody knows which side needs protection.
Regev is a slick and skilled diplomat. He answered questions as a slick and skilled diplomat would. My only criticism of the answers he gave, was when he was dealing with the issue of settlement activity. The argument that a complete hiatus of building within a town is in effect as good as a death sentence for that town was not tabled. It surprised me because it is a more logical and more effective response that the one he gave. He took questions in batches of two or three though, so perhaps some of this got lost in the method.
In the end, there was a message of hope, as Regev described current efforts being made to bring the sides together. Like Netanyahu, Regev was detailing a wider peace initiative that accommodates the changing geopolitical situation in the region. One hour and ten minutes of questions and answers, and that was it. The event was done.
Undeserved, ignorant and cowardly criticism
Then upon my return home, I noticed one or two online threads criticising the activity of the Jewish supporters who had gone to support the Mark Regev event. People criticising those that chose to stand and oppose the hate and wave the Israeli flag.
Sussex Friends of Israel were there, so too the Zionist Federation. Jewish Human Rights watch, the Israel Advocacy Movement and Campaign for Truth also had a presence. And of course scores of independents such as Jonathan Hoffman, Mandy Blumenthal, Harry Markham, Andrew Kemp, Richard Galber, and many, many, others. These are all people who came to bravely face down a hatred that simply wishes to see Israel wiped off the map.
The criticism tended to suggest this battle, if one exists at all, is one for students only. I suggest that this approach is naive. I do not expect every person to stand alongside and applaud all those that went, but there should at least be an understanding these people are out there fighting a necessary fight. It must also be acknowledged that the students asked for the help of these groups on the night. They were invited.
Even if you dispute specific actions, or consider some activity self-harming, there is little arguing today that great progress has been made that is in no small part because of several years of long, hard and at times very lonely. activity. And then of course, there is the brave and fiery resolve of the Zionist students themselves. Facing hatred in the place they call their academic home.
To imagine for one moment that this is just a student v student fight, akin to student political protests of the 1980’s is to fail to understand the very harsh reality that exists on campus today. Well funded external groups are financing information dissemination campaigns that bring about a deterioration both in support for Israel and in the atmosphere on campus for Jewish students. It is a real live battle and they have taken the war to campus. Placing your head in the sand, pretending being nice will somehow convince radical Islamic groups to provide a safe space for Jewish students, is simply part of the same deluded thinking that has far too often seen our community place itself in peril.
Most of the exposure we have seen over the last two years, is because of those groups and those individuals who have taken this fight to those that seek to harm us. Just today, Majiid Nawaaz spent an entire hour pushing a line against the BDS activists. If there was nobody pressuring, would Majiid Nawaaz hold a show discussing it? Even if he did, would Yochy, Jonathan, Saul and Sharon be able to phone in with eye witness testimony bolstering the argument? Who would record the comment about holocaust victims being cowards?
News reports and tragedy
The real story of the day however, wasn’t the demonstration, nor even the event. Nor can it be found in the articles or the criticisms or the scores of videos that are now circulating. The real story of the day is the fact that the Mark Regev event was a story at all.
Our universities should be a place where Palestinian students are inspired to lead the way in finding innovative solutions to a long-term conflict. In building bridges instead of burning them. Instead, on British soil, these people gravitate towards intransigence inside hotbeds of extremism that promote a maximalist position.
The fact that faculty members on a UK campus actually led the campaign to deny Mark Regev a platform, provides the true disgraceful colour of academia today. Melanie Philips identifies it as ‘group-think’ in a recent article:
“group-think among faculty members who are indifferent towards, or even endorse, such views because the faculty itself promulgates a twisted and false account of Israeli society or Middle East history.”
I’d go further and call it group-think with rabies.
The story is going around that the chair for the event was an off-campus academic because the event hosts could not find an academic on SOAS, willing to fill the position. If true, this is a damning indictment of the entire SOAS community.
These people want freedom of speech, but only if you agree with them. They want democracy, only for as long as you vote on their side. You are free to hold an opinion, only for as long as it is the same as theirs. You must like what they like and hate what they hate. You are human and have equal rights only for as long as you do not oppose them.
For when you cross that divide, when you raise the flag of opposition, when you dare to question their narrative, you will be evicted from their club. They will dehumanise you. They will remove your right to respect, to hold an opinion and they will remove your right to free speech. Witness how offended they become, just because someone they do not agree with, arrives on the university campus.
How shameful it is that students in 2017 should behave with such a mob mentality, with such cowardice. How truly tragic that they do so mirroring the behaviour of faculty members of their campus.
So they gather together to try to deny a platform. To punish the Jewish state. Just like other ignorant self-righteous mobs we have seen throughout history. Give them burning torches and pitchforks, recognise them for what they are. Throughout the country, wherever these mobs gather, other students are hiding their identities and their politics in fear. We know that scores of Jewish students on campus are too frightened to admit they are Jewish.
Those that seek to deny us the right to speak, the right to be heard, the right to live freely, are always gathering together. The old excuses become replaced with new ones, but the underlying motives are always the same. We know where their road leads. A cycle of increasing repression, increasing intimidation and increasing violence. We have no choice but to stand against them. Enough is enough.
Look at what happens, when one man, one single diplomat, dared to walk on the ‘sacred ground’ at SOAS. Something, so regular, so inconsequential, makes the news at the Guardian, Daily Mail, Ha’aretz, Middle East Eye, and Spiked. It also received coverage on LBC and the BBC. All this, because an Israeli ambassador came to visit a Jewish group on a London campus. It would be funny if it didn’t hide such a dark undertone of sinister and threatening antisemitism.
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