Crushing Free Speech in Essex
How Were Protesters Able to Deny an Israeli Diplomat His Freedom of Speech?
- UPDATED BELOW (February 27)
- A few weeks ago, Omar Barghouti and Judith Butler -- the former a leader of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) Movement, the latter a cheerleader therefor -- spoke at Brooklyn College in an appearance co-sponsored by the institution's political science department. The talk, which sought to promote the effort to punish and isolate Israel until it accepts its own elimination, was hailed as a triumph of free speech.
- "As an institution of higher education," wrote college president Karen Gould, "it is incumbent upon us to uphold the tenets of academic freedom and allow our students and faculty to engage in dialogue and debate on topics they may choose, even those with which members of our campus and broader community may vehemently disagree... We [...] uphold their right to speak, and the rights of our students and faculty to attend, listen, and fully debate."
- In the days and weeks leading up to the event, anti-Israel activists of all stripes railed against efforts to have the event cancelled, hailing the talk as a vivid example of free expression. Ali Abunimah, editor of the hate site Electronic Intifada, encouraged his readers to sign on to a petition expressing "support for free speech" and denouncing "Zionist bullying." Alex Kane, a writer for anti-Israel site Mondoweiss, later gushed about Barghouti and Butler's talk, calling it "a fantastic event and a real big victory for free speech." Participants in the event reported a heavy police presence, meant to ensure that the event could proceed without a hitch. And so it did (if you disregard multiple accounts of pro-Israel students being ejected from the event -- which is a subject for another time).
Meanwhile, Across the Pond...
- But support for free speech, it seems, only extends so far.
- On Wednesday, Alon Roth-Snir, Deputy Ambassador of Israel to the United Kingdom, was scheduled to give a talk at the University of Essex in Colchester. In the period leading up the event, anti-Israel activists on campus had strongly denounced the decision to permit Roth-Snir's appearance, even starting a blog to collect statements on the matter, of which there were three in total. All three statements slammed what they referred to as the Department of Government's "invitation" to Roth-Snir. A Facebook event hosted by the University of Essex Students' Union called for a protest against the visit:
- And protest they did.
- According to multiple accounts from the event, as Roth-Snir began speaking -- before he could say anything more controversial than hello and thank you -- he was interrupted by dozens of protesters, necessitating his evacuation by security guards. An attempt to hold a smaller event in a nearby space was similarly disrupted and Roth-Snir was forced to leave under police guard.
- Here is the Jewish Chronicle's account of what transpired:
Alon Roth-Snir was speaking at Essex University in Colchester on Wednesday when 40 students disrupted the meeting. [...] After attempts to calm the situation failed, university officials split the students into two groups and took Mr Roth-Snir to a smaller room to continue his discussions with those not involved in the protests. But the disruption from the main lecture theatre was so substantial that security officers decided to evacuate the deputy ambassador.
- And here is Electronic Intifada's decidedly more gleeful account:
One member of staff present in the room told me that Roth-Snir had just started saying hello and thank you when he was interrupted by a student protesting: “we are not here to be brainwashed." The staff member told me students were “passionate and very measured.” A Palestinian member of the Palestine solidarity society told me that the room was “90 percent pro-Palestine.” Students read from a prepared statement, calling Roth-Snir a war criminal. Other students chimed in, all the while explaining why they were opposed to the presence of a representative of a human rights abuser like Israel on campus. Bolton says that police were called and Roth-Snir was “rushed away” by security guards. A further attempt to give his talk on “The state and terrorism” to an even smaller group of students also had to be abandoned after 10 minutes. The deputy ambassador reportedly invited the smaller group to the embassy, but few wanted to give their names. He then had to leave campus in his embassy car.
- Anti-Israel activist Uri Horesh, who is apparently a graduate student at the university, was kind enough to provide a video of a protest that took place at the university:
- (Note: "From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free" would seem to be a rather blatant call for Israel's destruction. But more on that in a bit.)
The University's Account of What Happened
- After multiple requests for comment, the university issued the following statement via Twitter:
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