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James Gourlay, StudentRights.com.uk
March 24, 2011
The Israel-Palestine conflict for many years now has caused a great schism between the Jewish and Arab communities the world over. A microcosm of this conflict and its vile nature was open for all to see at SOAS on Sunday.
The SOAS Palestine Society organised an event called ‘Celebrate Palestine: Stories of the Resistance’. The website advertising the event makes it clear that the occasion was going to have a very belligerent tone as it set out to share “the history and stories of the Palestinian resistance to Israeli apartheid”. It held discussions on the call to “boycott, divest and sanction” Israel, stating that the aforementioned boycott is “encouraging dissent within racist Israeli society”. The event also showcased a film called; “The Land Speaks Arabic”; which is described as spotlighting the “ethnic cleansing of Palestine by the Zionist movement”.
The divisive content which the festival was purporting was far from the most disturbing feature of the day. Due to the belligerence of the event a group of pro-Israeli activists attended to protest against the ‘festivals’ attack on Israel. The protesters were, according to StandWithUs, “an organization dedicated to bringing peace to the Middle East by educating about Israel”, protesting against the statement that Israel is an apartheid country and calling for a peaceful “two-state solution between Israelis and Palestinians”. Despite the reportedly calm nature of the pro-Israel protest group they were attacked both verbally and physically. One anti-Israel activist deplorably stated that “the best thing the Jews have ever done was go into the gas chamber. It was the best thing to happen to Germany to have been cleaned of Jews. The same thing needs to happen in the Middle East”. Further to the disgusting nature of the verbal abuse a pro-Israel protestor was also violently assaulted. The victim was punched and bitten and as a result hospitalised. Further to the fact that the pro-Israel protestors were entirely the victims in this instance, they were, as Richard Millett states, also “removed” by the police.
The fact that such an event was allowed to occur at SOAS is shocking. The content of the ‘festival’ was akin to inciting hatred. The fact is SOAS should not have allowed these viewpoints to be aired without challenge, balance and fair structured discussion. By allowing such furious displays of intolerance, they have directly caused the clash between the pro-Israel and pro-Palestine groups. In the wider conflict dialogue is the only way forward, the constant exchange of ‘slaps to the face’ and petty but none the less deeply offensive insults being exchanged has only resulted in a deeper rift and the fact that this is prevalent in British universities as well shows that these institutions are neglecting the severity of the conflict between these groups.
The deplorable lack of duality at this event can be attributed to two flaws in the mentality at SOAS. Firstly, the fear of appearing to constrict freedom of speech leads them to give unrestricted freedom to one group, on this occasion the Palestinian Society while depriving the pro-Israeli groups of a voice thus this crucial value is not properly implemented. Secondly, it is clear SOAS do not fully grasp the damage that is incurred when events so scathing of other groups are allowed to occur. The relations between pro-Palestine and pro-Israel students have been done further damage and thus become all the less likely of repair due to a lack of forethought by the university.
This scenario as a whole occurs far too often in British universities and we at Student Rights implore universities to realise that what they are dealing with is not trivial and doesn’t just come down to ensuring free speech. The effect of what they are allowing resonates not just on their campuses but the world over and thus they have a responsibility to initiate and support a balanced and constructive debate.