Zionists ban free speech - universities collaborate

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Manchester University FRFI Society demonstrating in solidarity with Palestinian political prisoners. Pic: Andrew McCoy

Using the pretext of the government’s Prevent strategy, universities across Britain are suppressing support for the Palestinian people on student campuses. This became evident during the annual ‘Israeli Apartheid Week’, which takes place during March in universities across the world. Such censorship has received vociferous support from Zionist organisations emboldened by slanderous media labelling of opponents of the Israeli colonial-settler state as anti-Semites.

Anxious to comply with a letter from Universities Minister Jo Johnson titled ‘Tackling anti-Semitism on campus’, which called on them to subject Israeli Apartheid Week events to special scrutiny, several universities cancelled or obstructed student Palestine solidarity activities:

  • The University of Central Lancashire banned a talk by the Friends of Palestine Society, telling its organisers that it contravened the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s (IHRA) definitions of anti-Semitism which include ‘claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavour’.
  • The University of Exeter stopped an Israeli checkpoint event arranged on campus, claiming it could be seen as ‘discriminatory and considered harassment against certain students’.
  • At University College London, management forbade a planned street theatre event on the ground that risk assessment forms had not been filled in on time.
  • At King’s College London, there was a heavy presence of university security officials at an event and speakers were given a lengthy ‘security briefing’.
  • Student organisers at Leeds were told by their student union that they were not allowed to show any documentary produced by Al Jazeera or any that featured ‘emotive music’.
  • The director of the University of Sussex told students that ‘we will not tolerate intimidation of anyone for their religious or political opinions about the politics of the Middle East’ and claimed that ‘the language’ surrounding Israeli Apartheid Week was ‘deeply upsetting’.

At the University of Manchester, the Boycott Divestment Sanctions (BDS) society held a ‘Meet the Freedom Fighters’ event on 1 March. The University allowed the meeting to go ahead only after:

  • imposing conditions on the organisers which included vetoing the society’s choice of chair for the event;
  • demanding that the speakers agree to the British government’s endorsement of the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism;
  • adding security requirements which required attendees to show their student ID and to have a ticket to the event.

The BDS society had invited Aja Monet, an organiser with US campaigning group Dream Defenders, and Farid Esak, who is a South African anti-apartheid activist and an academic at the University of Johannesburg, to speak. Both opposed British and US support for the repressive Israeli state. Aja Monet spoke about the state racism and violence directed against black people in the US. Dream Defenders connects anti-racism activism in the US with anti-apartheid activism in Palestine. During her talk, she emphasised the need for solidarity with Palestine from people in imperialist countries. Farid Esak described his family’s direct experience of racism and violence in apartheid South Africa, a state supported completely by British imperialism. He spoke passionately about the need to side with the oppressed, referring especially to the situation of women. Throughout he explicitly connected apartheid in South Africa with Israel and its occupation of Palestine.

North West Friends of Israel (NWFoI), an aggressive Zionist group, sent supporters with the sole intention of shutting down any discussion. They constantly interrupted the speakers, their interjections becoming more overtly racist – calling Farid Esak ‘Mr Africa’ and telling overseas students to ‘learn English’. Their disruption gave the university chair an excuse to close the meeting down before any questions could be asked of the speakers.

NWFoI members have similar politics to the pro-Zionist English Defence League; it was set up in 2014 to prevent weekly protests outside the Kedem store in Manchester centre. Kedem sells cosmetic products stolen from the Dead Sea. NWFoI supporters and committee members include those who were involved in attacking the weekly pickets of M&S that FRFI organised in Manchester during the Second Intifada and the 2006 onslaught on Lebanon. They would direct vile racist and misogynist abuse at pro-Palestinian demonstrators, and engineer physical confrontations to get the police to end the pickets.

NWFoI organises meetings and debates with Labour Party MPs and councillors, promoting a Q&A session with Labour MPs John Mann and Ivan Lewis on their web page. John Mann is a right-wing MP who is also Chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group against Anti-Semitism and has publicly endorsed NWFoI. Manchester councillor Jon Pritchard has also spoken on their platform supporting their reactionary definition of opposition to Israeli occupation and mass murder as being somehow ‘anti-Semitic’, a position consistent with the Labour council which has several times condemned pro-Palestinian activists as ‘anti-Semites’.

Manchester University has commercial ties with Technion University in Israel which is a leading weapons development centre for the Israeli military. It has extended its anti-Palestinian stance by pressurising the university’s Catholic Chaplaincy into cancelling a room booked by the FRFI Students Society for a showing of the film Leila Khaled – Hijacker to mark Palestine Land Day on 30 March. The university has also begun disciplinary measures against two students who hung a ‘Stop Arming Israel’ banner from a university building during Israeli Apartheid Week. Both the FRFI and BDS societies will be organising against this blatant censorship and escalating attack on the democratic rights of Palestine solidarity activists on campus.

Bob Shepherd and Nathan Williams


Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! 256 April/May 2017