Anti-Israel academics: the world’s least convincing free-speech warriors

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics

Another week, another act of political censorship at a British university. This time the victim of the insidious campus culture of clamping down on anything provocative is an anti-Israel conference that was due to take place at Southampton University next month. Designed to question the ‘legitimacy in international law of the Jewish state of Israel’ – that is, the right of Israel to exist – the conference provoked disquiet among Israel supporters. A petition slamming the conference as one-sided and prejudiced, started by the Zionist Federation, garnered 6,500 signatures. The Jewish Board of Deputies and various MPs, including communities secretary Eric Pickles, opposed the conference. And so Southampton Uni has now reportedly told the organisers that it cannot go ahead, and it did so in what is now the favoured sly lingo of every campus censor who wants to shut down allegedly shocking things – it said the conference raised ‘health and safety’ concerns. Once, things were silenced to protect our moral sensitivities; now, stuff is censored to protect our health and safety.

The pulling of the conference, under what the organisers describe as ‘political pressure’, is really bad, yet another blow against the principle of academic freedom and the need for open, robust and challenging debate in the academy. Even if the conference was one-sided and prejudiced, so what? Academics and students must be free to discuss all issues in whatever way they see fit. There is no doubt that many so-called radical university attendees and teachers these days display an alarming double standard in relation to Israel, demonising it in a way they do to no other state on Earth and openly dreaming that it will one day disappear, on the grounds that it is an ‘illegitimate’ entity. That is an unattractive political outlook, no doubt. But the way you challenge ideas you don’t like is by allowing them to be expressed in order that you can better knock them down through argument, articles, discussion, debate. Suppressing the expression of an idea does no one any favours, since it silences one side’s outlook and it robs the opposing side, the ill-advisedly censorious side, of the chance to put counter-arguments, to tussle in a public forum with those it thinks are wrong.

However – and this is a very big however – the conference organisers and their sympathisers in the media, the academy and on Twitter must be the least convincing defenders of academic freedom in living memory. These anti-Israel thinkers and campaigners are currently crying ‘Censorship!’ as loudly as they can, depicting themselves as a persecuted minority silenced by powerful political actors (You Know Who). A professor of law at Southampton, and a co-organiser of the conference, said ‘the controversial nature of the conference is precisely where [the principle of] freedom of speech leads – that’s where the commitment to freedom of speech is tested’. He’s right about that; but he’s wrong if he thinks we’re going to buy the idea that today’s shrill and many opponents of Israel are glorious defenders of free speech or controversial discussion. On the contrary, the anti-Israel lobby is possibly the most censorious mob on British campuses today, practising, week in, week out, the very same censoriousness it now cries about being victimised by.

Whether they are No Platforming Zionist speakers and representatives of the Israeli government, or demanding an academic boycott against any professor or thinker or book that comes from Israel, or agitating for the removal from Britain of Israeli dance troupes or theatre groups or filmmakers – as if they were all diseased with contagious Zionism – anti-Israel campaigners have become dab hands at shutting down debate, at silencing those they (irrationally) hate. Their everyday currency is censorship. In recent months, Israel societies on campus have had to cancel events following loud and censorious disruptions and have even faced demands that they be shut down on the basis that they make their campuses into Unsafe Spaces – which means they hold views that small numbers of student-union bureaucrats consider foul. Indeed, in the Guardian article that sympathises with the silenced Southampton discussants it is casually mentioned that the organisers of the conference have ‘voiced support for an academic boycott [of Israel]’. So these self-styled warriors for academic freedom back the highly illiberal and discriminatory tactic of never exchanging thoughts or ideas with Israeli thinkers and instead banning them from British campuses. You couldn’t make it up.

So not only do modern-day Israel-bashers harbour an alarming double standard in relation to Israel; they also have a double standard on freedom of speech, seeing it as something they should enjoy but which supporters of Israel should not. Which of course is not freedom of speech at all. If you call for Israeli speakers or academics or events to be shut down but demand that your own events be protected from censure, you are fighting for privileged speech; you’re actually promoting a bigoted worldview that explicitly treats people differently, saying that some people’s views (mine) are worthy of broadcast but other people’s (theirs) are not. Here’s an idea: how about all sides stop calling for censorship and instead have the cojones to challenge their opponents in the public realm, with words and ideas rather than bans and boycotts?

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked.

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Topics Politics


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