EARLIER this month the Scottish media reported an alleged assault on a teenage stall worker at a Glasgow shopping centre, who was said to have had a burning chemical poured on her. She was believed to have been targeted by pro-Palestinian activists for selling cosmetics from an Israeli company. The alleged attack was preceded by “non-violent” groups targeting the stall.
Two weeks ago the students of the Europe Society at Glasgow University invited me to address them on relations between Israel and Europe. A room was booked and around 60 students attended, but they were soon disappointed, for as the meeting began two people stood up and began shouting out a prepared statement attacking Israel as a “genocidal” country engaged in “extermination”. As they began to physically approach me, university security asked that we evacuate the room, for fear that the situation may become unsafe, and because they were not authorised to remove the disrupters “by force”. I asked if another location could be found, and a few minutes later we found ourselves the guests of the university’s chaplain, holding our dialogue in his office, cramming around his desk.
We discussed the complexity of the Israeli-European relationship, its high points of thriving Jewish liberal culture, and low points of destruction and hatred which culminated in the Holocaust. We discussed the extremist ends of the spectrum fuelled by stereotypes – of Europeans viewing all Israelis as evil oppressors, and Israelis viewing Europeans as anti-Semites – and we agreed that in order to avoid these patently false caricatures, our relationship must be filled with meaningful content – cultural, scientific and academic – which is the most effective way for societies to influence and learn from one another.
Yet the irony was inescapable: here we were in a UK university, in the chaplain’s office of all places, having been “evacuated” there after academic hooligans decided that freedom of speech did not apply to us, as university security stood by helpless. The associations this situation raised in my mind were numerous, and most are best not mentioned.
To make matters worse, the following day I was scheduled to meet with the Jewish Society of the university, but security again recommended that I avoid returning to the campus, and I ended up meeting with the students at the local synagogue, a beautiful old building on Garnethill. This second meeting was not interrupted but left me no less concerned, with one student explaining she did not feel comfortable revealing her Jewish identity on campus, and another who had been made to feel unwelcome at one of the student societies because she didn’t hold anti-Israeli views.
I left Glasgow with a nagging feeling that freedom of speech, a cornerstone of academic discourse and British tradition, may somehow not be applicable to Israel on UK campuses. The end result was not intended by the university or the students, but by choosing not to take action against a small number of deliberate disrupters, the university made a choice to bow to intimidation and to prevent the encounter from taking place.
A UK campus, detached from the violence of the Middle East, should be an ideal setting for engagement, and for setting an example for what dialogue can achieve. We’ve seen this recently on other campuses when, following protests at Ambassador Taub’s visits to Cambridge and Oxford, students writing in the local university press expressed their frustration at being forced by extremist activists to choose between being “pro-Israeli” or “pro-Palestinian”, when in fact what they wanted was to engage and understand both sides of the conflict.
Universities need to listen to their students and take a firm stand against extremists who trample freedom of speech, using violent messages that demonise Israel. The political leadership must also send out a clear message that incitement is unacceptable. UK academia should inspire change and dialogue, rather than offer a local version of Middle East violence. «
• Yiftah Curiel is a spokesman for the Embassy of Israel in London