King’s College London: where being pro-Israel is a risky business

The police were called to the Strand campus of King’s College London last night after an Israel Society event was protested by pro-Palestine student activists. Fire alarms were pulled and a window was smashed after student group KCL Action Palestine (KCLAP) attempted to disrupt the meeting, providing further proof, if it was ever needed, that anti-Israel student politics has taken an ugly and illiberal turn.

Ami Ayalon, politician and former head of the Israeli secret service, was giving a talk on Israeli security, as part of a tour organised by the group Yachad, which advocates the two-state solution in the Israel-Palestine conflict. In a statement, KCLAP called Ayalon a ‘war criminal’ and suggested his support for a two-state solution was only a cover for his desire for Israeli racial purity. The group said it was ‘unacceptable’ that KCL Israel Society had invited Ayalon. ‘To whitewash apartheid is not academic freedom’, it went on, ‘it is complicity with oppression’.

Footage from the event shows KCLAP banging on the windows of the room in which the talk was taking place, chanting ‘Free, Free Palestine’ and holding Palestinian flags and banners up against the glass. Meanwhile, footage taken inside the building shows Ayalon persisting with his talk, to a packed room of about 50 students, as chanting and fire alarms blare in the background.

There are some reports of chairs being thrown outside the meeting, and around 20 police officers were said to have appeared at Norfolk House after the three KCL security officers brought in to guard the event were overwhelmed. While one KCLAP activist seemed to suggest the group intended to enter the meeting only to ‘ask the questions that need to be asked’, the group’s denunciations of KCL Israel Society’s decision to hold the event at all seemed to suggest otherwise.

The whole debacle left attendees and organisers rattled. In a statement, Esther Endfield from the KCL Israel Society asked, ‘When did I become so unsafe in one of the global universities in the world that we can no longer hold an event without being scared for our safety?’. Though this might seem like hyperbole, the slew of disruptions at pro-Israel student meetings of late gives pro-Israel students plenty of reasons to be worried. As spiked’s Free Speech University Rankings has highlighted, anti-Israel censorship on campus has exploded in recent years. Thirteen students’ unions now back the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement and four have introduced full academic boycotts, meaning representatives of Israeli institutions are banned outright.

What’s worse, anti-Israel campus skirmishes have become more and more ugly – and have met little challenge from campus authorities. Just last year, a similar event at King’s was forcibly shut down by the students’ union’s own ‘Safe Space officer’, who squared off with the organiser and ejected people from the room. While merely wearing an offensive t-shirt can get you in trouble on a campus these days, such physical intimidation of pro-Israel students often seems to go unchallenged.

The rage against pro-Israel students, speakers and societies is, without question, the most flagrant political censorship taking place on campus today. While petty, hysterical and often hilarious restrictions on fancy dress and pole-dancing have stolen focus in recent years, pro-Israel students are being shut down because student politicos simply don’t like what they say. And, while policy after policy are passed at students’ union AGMs in the name of protecting ethnic minorities from offence, anti-Israel fury, so often bordering on out-and-out anti-Semitism, is tacitly ignored.

One student, reporting on last night’s events on his blog, noted that, for all SUs talk of Safe Spaces, there is ‘no Safe Space for an Israeli-Jew at British universities’. But as tempting as it must be for pro-Israel students to focus on this hypocrisy, taking shelter in the Safe Space will do them no favours. Though the adversity they face is no doubt intense, they need to stiffen their resolve, stand up for their right to speak their minds and refuse to be cowed. And, most crucially, all students who believe in free speech need to start showing them some solidarity.

Tom Slater is deputy editor at spiked and the coordinator of the Free Speech University Rankings.

Don’t miss spiked’s first-of-its-kind free-speech conference, The New Intolerance on Campus, at Conway Hall in London on 17 February.

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