Battle for free speech over Gaza rages in Britain's universities

Jewish students 'keep their heads down' and pro-Palestinian activists fear criticism of Israel is being stifled

Pro-Palestine student demonstrators march in London. Getty Images
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It was standing room only in the lecture hall by the time the speakers began their talks on the Israel-Palestine conflict.

The event at University College London, called Palestine: A Teach-in, was aimed at raising awareness about the lives and experiences of Palestinians, as well as the current situation in Gaza as Israel battles Hamas following the October 7 attack.

As they made their way up the stairs to the Gustave Tuck Lecture Theatre, many might have missed the plaque commemorating the naming of the venue after Jewish Historical Society's former president.

Events like these, advertised on social media, have been held at universities across Europe amid a febrile atmosphere that has seen accusations of anti-Semitism levelled by Jewish students and academics, as well as claims that criticism of Israel is being shut down.

Over the next roughly hour and a half, the audience from the melting pot of London heard from an anthropologist talking about the difficulties Palestinians face travelling around the West Bank and a doctor who described the conditions in Gaza’s hospitals.

Hanadi Samhan, who described herself as a third-generation Palestinian who grew up in a refugee camp in Lebanon, said she would speak without notes and instead “from the heart” about her yearning for a homeland to call her own.

Mazen, a Palestinian student who asked for his surname not to be used, told The National he was pleased to see so many people turning up for the event.

“It’s important that people are aware what’s happening in Gaza right now,” he said.

Along with his Turkish friend and many others in the audience, he was wearing a keffiyeh, the scarf that has become a symbol of the Palestinian cause.

The event began with warning to the audience not to make racist comments, reflecting the fear that the passion aroused by the Israel-Gaza conflict has caused many Jewish students to feel campuses have become “hotbeds of anti-Semitism”, in the words of campaigners.

'Fear and suspicion'

Accusations that Israel is committing genocide are regularly heard on campuses, which a Jewish academic told The National is particularly resonant given the term's roots in defining the Holocaust.

Jewish students have reported anti-Semitic messages posted in a WhatsApp group, their accommodation being targeted and academic staff posting messages justifying the October 7 Hamas attack in which 1,200 Israelis were killed and 240 taken hostage.

Meanwhile, academics researching the Middle East have voiced their concern that criticism of Israel’s actions in Gaza, which the Palestinian Health Ministry says have killed 11,400 people, has been shut down by claims of anti-Semitism.

The British Society for Middle Eastern Studies (Brismes), which was founded in 1973 and has around 500 members from across the world, has pushed back against Michelle Donelan, the UK's Secretary of State for Science, in a dispute about social media comments made by two academics.

Ms Donelan wrote to UKRI, a body which oversees science research, to express her “disgust and outrage” at its appointment of the pair to a group on equality, diversity and inclusion.

One of them posted a link to a newspaper article about the government cracking down on support for Hamas with the words “this is disturbing” while the other shared a post on X that condemned violence on both sides but referred to Israel’s “genocide and apartheid”.

Brismes called on UKRI to resist government interference, writing to the body to say the minister's comments contributed to a “climate of fear and suspicion within UK higher education”.

Lewis Turner, a member of the Brismes academic freedom committee and lecturer in international politics at Newcastle University, accused the UK government of “increasing restrictions”.

Mr Turner said the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition of anti-Semitism had been used to shut down criticism of Israel. Earlier this year a Brismes report said the IHRA definition conflates criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism.

“What we've seen in many instances is that definition has been used to stifle legitimate and legal speech about Palestine, for example about Israeli settler colonialism,” he told The National.

“We’ve also seen comments such as that from the former Home Secretary Suella Braverman about whether the Palestinian flag could be construed as support for terrorism, and these interventions really affect students who are campaigning on campuses.

“What we’re hearing as Brismes is that some people are being specifically targeted and being disciplined and investigated by universities. But there are other people who are fearful about speaking out.

“There are people who are worried about their courses on Palestine, what they're meant to teach and that anything could be manipulated or misportrayed.

“All this is adding up to a very difficult climate for trying to talk about both current events and also, more broadly, Israel and Palestinian human rights.”

Mr Turner was reluctant to reveal specific cases but cited the cancellation of a talk at Liverpool Hope University by Israeli historian Avi Shlaim, a fierce critic of his country, as an example of criticism being silenced.

When it came to the use of the term “genocide”, he said the case has been made by legal scholars as well as by Israeli historian Raz Segal so it was “not unduly inflammatory”.

“But that doesn’t mean it’s beyond debate,” he said.

In the background lies the Prevent anti-terrorism programme which requires universities to report any concerns that students have come under the influence of extremist views, which was brought in partly in response to terrorist acts committed by former students.

Prevent was introduced during a period in the 2000s when academics accused the government of using concerns about radicalisation to pressurise universities to stifle free speech and create an atmosphere of fear.

One student, who was studying terrorism, was arrested after downloading an Al Qaeda training manual. The incident ended with a police apology and £20,000 in compensation.

Mr Turner said the situation now was comparable to the 2000s though “my guess is that, if anything, it’s worse” because “nowadays there’s social media and so many of the complaints are based on social media activity”.

Currently, a group of students at SOAS, University of London are demanding the reinstatement of members of the Palestine Society who were suspended after taking part in a rally.

The university says the students were suspended for holding the protest on the steps of the main building, in contravention of health and safety rules.

Fire alarms were also set off and there were acts of vandalism, according to SOAS, which the Palestine Society denies.

Pro-Palestinian protests by students have also been taking place in Europe, most recently in Barcelona, where demonstrators help up pictures of dead children.

There have been restrictions on such events in France and Germany, while Austria and Hungary have banned them completely.

In Sweden there have widespread calls from students for universities to cut ties with Israeli institutions, a move that was forcefully rejected by the country’s education minister Mats Persson.

In Ireland, there has been rift among academics after a group of university staff wrote to a paper distancing themselves from a letter calling for a boycott of Israeli universities.

Anti-Semitic acts have been reported on campuses across France, and Jewish students have talked about a growing atmosphere of hostility.

In the UK, Campaign Against Antisemitism told The National there has been a “proliferation” of such incidents in universities.

The CAS said “students, student societies and academics on campuses across the country are sending vile messages to Jewish students or their societies, or are posting or liking posts that appear to express support or sympathy for Hamas and its terrorist attack on innocent Israeli civilians”.

“We are going case by case and making appropriate reports to the police, regulatory authorities or universities.

'Hot bed of anti-Semitism'

“British campuses were already hotbeds of anti- Semitism. We cannot allow them to become places where terrorism is glorified or excused and Jewish students are intimidated or abused.

“It speaks volumes about the state of affairs that there must be concern for the safety of vigils by Jewish students for innocents murdered abroad. What have we come to?”

In this atmosphere, David Hirsh, a sociologist who works at Goldsmiths, University of London, told The National that fellow Jews on campuses are “keeping their heads down”.

“There are people who celebrate what happened on October 7, but most people just trivialise it in comparison to whatever they think is more important, and there are some people who deny it,” he said.

“A lot of Jews who had been drifting away from concern about anti-Semitism have snapped right back.”

Mr Hirsh said complaints about anti-Semitic statements are often met by accusations that those raising the issue are trying to close down criticism of Israel.

“There are people signing statements all over the place saying Israel is committing genocide, and they will believe that Jews who raise the issue of anti-Semitism are doing that to be an accessory to Israeli genocide.

“There's very little space for rational discussion about anti-Semitism. If someone does limit themselves to a rational discussion of evidence then we’re so relieved.”

He said the accusation of genocide was levelled to make the comparison between the Holocaust, which is “embedded in the memory of Jews”, and the actions of Israel.

Mr Hirsh said the problem of anti-Semitism is not universal, but many people simply don’t take part in debates “because it will cause them trouble” while some people in authority defend that “kind of thinking under the principle of academic freedom”.

“I think Jews on campus, almost overwhelmingly keeping their heads down and their mouths shut, and they're just enduring what they know other people are thinking about them. And they're not doing anything.”

Updated: November 17, 2023, 2:05 PM