The representative body of British Jewry said it’s “appalled” by a protest staged at King’s College London (KCL) on Monday against a lecture by a former Israeli minister, during which audience members “were barracked and intimidated in a completely unacceptable way.”
The Board of Deputies of British Jews condemned some 50 protesters who targeted individuals entering and exiting a talk with Dan Meridor — a former deputy prime minister and minister of intelligence in the Israeli government — with loud chants of “shame” and “criminal,” according to video footage.
“It was very aggressive,” recounted Tamara Berens, president of King’s College London’s Israel Society, which helped bring Meridor to campus. “The event was severely disrupted due to the amount of noise they were making throughout.”
“Even with double doors, we could still hear them screaming,” she told The Algemeiner. “Sometimes they weren’t even saying words, they would just scream at the top of their lungs.”
“I felt very unsafe throughout the event and especially when we had to leave and enter the room,” Berens said.
She indicated that KCL’s security officials had previously assured event organizers that members of the public would not be allowed to protest inside the building.
“They let us down by betraying their promise and allowing people to enter,” Berens explained. “There were protestors present who had previously seriously intimidated students at other events, at [University College London] for example.”
These concerns were shared by the Board, whose president said on Tuesday that failures on behalf of KCL’s event management “allowed these scenes to take place.”
“The deficiencies came in not ensuring that the demonstrators were adequately separated from those attending the event,” Simon Round, a spokesperson for the Board, told The Algemeiner. He indicated that the group hopes to speak with KCL’s principal on Wednesday or Thursday.
The Union of Jewish Students (UJS) — which represents some 8,500 students in the UK and Ireland — also expressed deep disappointment that attendees “were intimidated and harassed” by protestors who “sought to drown out the speaker.”
“Debate and discussion are vital aspects of university life, as is the right to protest,” the group said in a statement on Tuesday. “However, intimidating those who try to hear a variety of views with chants of ‘Shame’ is not conducive to informed and respectful dialogue, which should be front and centre of university life.”
UJS pointed to protesters’ use of the chant, “From the River to the Sea, Palestine Will be Free,” which refers to the establishment of a Palestinian state in the territory from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea, in place of Israel.
The group said that “this open demand for Israel’s destruction must have no place on any campus.”
Like Berens and the Board, UJS noted that university security personnel had told organizers that demonstrators would not be allowed inside the building where the event was set to take place.
“Sadly, this did not happen and the shameful scenes of attempted intimidation then ensued,” the group asserted. “We are now in contact with students and campus security at Kings College London, seeking constructive actions regarding both this event and the future.”
The Pinsker Centre for Zionist Education, which plans campus events on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and co-hosted Meridor, said on Monday that it did not oppose students’ “democratic right” to peacefully protest, but noted that “the sacred right to freedom of speech is also extended to visiting Israeli lecturers, including Mr Meridor.”
The Centre — founded following a violent protest against the former head of Israel’s Shin Bet security agency at KCL in 2016 — said those “responsible for tonight’s protest cannot possibly lay claim to the right of free speech while simultaneously calling to deny that right to others.”
“The calls to singularly boycott only visiting Israeli lecturers remain both discriminatory and in fundamental violation of the concept of freedom of expression,” it argued.
A spokesperson for KCL said that the university reviews campus events before they take place, and places “additional conditions in place” on those that may pose potential risks.
“These conditions include recording the speeches to ensure that the events take place within the law, an independent event chair, additional security in place and having senior representatives of the university and the Students’ Union in attendance,” the university said.
“We are proud of our diverse community and are absolutely committed to academic freedom and free, peaceful and respectful dialogue where people have conflicting views.”
In its submission to a recent parliamentary probe on UK universities, the Board warned that “Free speech is being curtailed in the name of pro-Palestinian activism by shutting down through violence speakers who originate from Israel.”
Over the course of the same inquiry, the advocacy group UK Lawyers for Israel (UKLI) argued in written testimony that campus events organized by Jewish or pro-Israel clubs “have been deliberately closed down by violent riots organised by Palestinian societies on a number of occasions in recent years.”
To lessen the risk of such interruptions, administrators and student unions have imposed certain restrictions on events with pro-Israel speakers, UKLI asserted. These range from limiting public advertising and permitting entry only to ticket holders with a valid ID, to requiring the presence of security personnel, which Jewish and pro-Israel societies are sometimes asked to pay for.
“Thus the current position tends to be that meetings with Israel-supporting speakers can go ahead at British universities, but often only under onerous conditions which make it unlikely that they will be attended by students who are not already sympathetic to Israel,” UKLI wrote. “By contrast, there are rarely any similar restrictions on anti-Israel speakers, who often deliver highly misleading propaganda, inflaming hostility towards Israel and those who support it.”
Dan Meridor, left, onstage at a highly protested event at King's College London, February 13, 2018. (Courtesy Pinsker Centre)
LONDON — Former Israeli deputy prime minister Dan Meridor faced a difficult beginning to his whistle-stop trip to the United Kingdom this week, where he spoke to students on university campuses.
In a visit organized by a new campus organization, the UK-based Pinsker Centre, Meridor faced a hostile, shrieking crowd of about 60 students at King’s College, London. On succeeding nights, the former politician had two calm and peaceful meetings in Durham and Oxford.
The Pinsker Centre, formed after Jewish students faced violent disruption
at the King’s College campus in 2016, says its mission is “to preserve freedom of speech on British university campuses and allow a non-hostile platform for discussion on Israel.”
It joins forces with existing campus organizations such as the local student Israel society. King’s is part of London University and the week’s first event was jointly promoted by Pinsker, King’s Israel Society and City University’s Israel Society.
The hostility at King’s was spurred by the fact that the King’s College Action Palestine Society (KCLAP) advertised the Meridor event on Facebook, encouraging people to come and protest.
Stringent rules as to who could or could not enter the Great Hall of King’s central London campus were laid down by the King’s College authorities. It was a ticket-only event, but in the end many of those opposed to Meridor bought tickets but chose instead to stand outside the Great Hall, keeping up a screaming, baying protest designed at disrupting the speech.
Students who wanted to enter the Great Hall to listen to Meridor had to run a gauntlet of a yelling crowd, shouting “War criminal” and “Shame,” shouts they maintained throughout the 90-minute meeting.
The demonstrators displayed homemade red and green posters bearing the same words — and one audience member is said to have walked out of the event and torn apart one of the posters, something now being investigated by King’s College.
Prof. Menachem Klein of Bar-Ilan University, presently a visiting research fellow at King’s, was designated by the university authorities to chair the meeting where security staff surrounded the audience.
A protestor at King’s College, London holds a sign accusing Dan Meridor of responsibility for the nine people killed aboard the Mavi Marmara flotilla in June 2010. Large demonstrations protested Meridor’s visit to the university on February 13, 2018. (Courtesy Pinsker Centre)
Anyone who wanted to take pictures of the protesters before the event had an extra hurdle: Some complained and forced the security staff to make people — including this reporter — delete the pictures. But as people left the event, many of the protesters themselves stood taking photographs of the audience.
In a long statement released after the meeting, the KCLAP protesters wrote: “We’d like to call out King’s College for not addressing how Palestinian students on campus feel as a result of their institution’s complicity in upholding an unjust system of illegal military occupation, settler-colonialism and apartheid.”
Meridor himself was sanguine about the protests. He told The Times of Israel before the meeting that he believed in dialogue and hoped that it might be possible for those who were critical of Israel to come inside and have “a civilized discussion.”
This ultimately did not prove possible and after the meeting concluded, King’s Israel Society president Tamara Berens announced that the police had been called and that anyone who did not feel comfortable facing the protesters should wait inside the hall until the police arrived. Although King’s College insisted that the police had not been called, a call was made by the Israeli Embassy in response to a request from students inside the Great Hall.
In the end, most of the audience chose to walk through the protestors. One disgruntled King’s College student not connected to the event told The Times of Israel that, “all they [the protesters] want to do is yell and intimidate, and I can’t stand it.”
In a statement, the Pinsker Centre organizers said, “However much one may disagree with such conduct, we cannot stress this enough: In a free society, it is the students’ democratic right to peacefully assemble, voice protest and exercise their right to express their opinion.
“However, in our free society, the sacred right to freedom of speech is also extended to visiting Israeli lecturers, including Mr. Meridor,” the statement said.
Throughout Dan Meridor’s speech at King’s College, London on February 13, 2018, anti-Israel protestors shouted in an attempt to disrupt the proceedings. (Courtesy Pinsker Centre)
“They came onto campus this evening with one aim: to intimidate us and shut down our event,” said King’s Israel Society president Berens. She accused the protestors of coordinating their shouting “to scream throughout the talk, without even a minute to allow us to listen to the speaker in peace.”
Berens said the protestors exhibited “shameful behavior” and did not respect the right of Israelis to free speech.
“The shame is on those who would rather take away our platform to speak than engage with us openly. It is disgraceful that in 2018, Jewish university students should be made to feel afraid or ashamed to walk freely on campus,” she said.
A King’s College spokesman said the institutions has procedures in place to check the appropriateness of events and speakers hosted on campus. “If our review process highlights any potential risks, we put additional conditions in place before permitting the event to proceed.”
Dan Meridor speaks at King’s College, London, February 13, 2018. (Courtesy Pinsker Centre)
The spokesman underlined the “unique challenge” faced by academic institutions to create “open and uncensored debate… without fear of intimidation and within the framework of the law.
“We are proud of our diverse community and are absolutely committed to academic freedom and free, peaceful and respectful dialogue where people have conflicting views,” added the spokesman.
But Jonathan Arkush, the outgoing president of the Board of Deputies, the representative body of UK Jewry, said the Board will soon be complaining directly to the King’s College head because of the “intimidation” felt by Jewish students.
A second complaint is likely to be made by the Union of Jewish Students. The union claimed that university security officials had assured organizers that demonstrators would be kept outside the building. “Sadly, this did not happen and the shameful scenes of attempted intimidation then ensued. We are now in contact with students and campus security at King’s College, London, seeking constructive actions regarding both this event and the future,” said the student union.
A checkered history in Durham
In view of the scenes at King’s College, which drew widespread national and global criticism from Jewish groups, there was understandable anxiety about Meridor’s subsequent appearances at Durham and Oxford.
Durham, in particular, has a checkered history on the Israel-Palestine conflict. The Durham-Palestine Educational Trust offers two scholarships a year for a master’s degree at the university, one of whose conditions of acceptance is that the candidate must be “an active ambassador for Palestinians” during their stay in Durham.
Protestors ‘welcoming’ attendees at Dan Meridor’s address at King’s College, London, February 13, 2018. (Courtesy Pinsker Centre)
But the Durham event passed peacefully, with no disruption.
More worries were expressed about the Oxford event after 20 separate student groups, spearheaded by the Oxford Students Palestine Society and including the Oxford Jewish Students for Justice in Palestine, took to Facebook to denounce Meridor’s forthcoming visit and calling on the sponsoring societies to withdraw the invitation.
But Jonathan Hunter, chair of the Pinsker Centre, reported that there had been no trouble.
“The rain deterred people,” he said. “Only those on the guest list were allowed in the building and the college insisted on private security — which it paid for itself — which is unprecedented and something which should be emulated by other universities.”
Opening the King’s College event, Klein made it clear that he and Meridor came from opposite sides of the political fence, and yet he introduced his guest as “a disappearing type of Israeli politician,” joking that Meridor had never yet been the subject of an investigation by the Israeli police.
In a wide-ranging analysis of the situation in the Middle East, Meridor may have surprised some of his audience as he appeared to regret the “nationalist” line taken by the current Israeli government at the expense of the “liberal” approach which he said was “part of the DNA of the Likud party.”
Making a strong case for the pursuit of the two-state solution, Meridor said he deplored a situation in which “religion adds rigidity” when people came to vote. And, he admitted, speaking of relations with America, that he did not “feel at home” with the evangelist movement which has expressed support for Israel.
In what might be a veiled message to his former government colleagues, Meridor concluded, “Liberal values are under attack all over the world. But our test as Israelis is how we treat minorities.”