Selected Cases of Interference with Free Expression, 2017

Free Speech on Israel
Palestine Solidarity Campaign

This dossier records some of the more prominent cases of restriction of freedom of speech or assembly related to criticisms of the state of Israel that occurred during 2017. In some cases the document produced in May 2016 by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) as a definition of antisemitism, and adopted by the UK government in December of that year, is explicitly cited in support of the action taken. In all cases the awareness of that government action has provided the pervasive atmosphere, chilling to free speech on Israel/Palestine, in which these decisions were taken.
The IHRA definition has been used to press for and achieve the cancellation of events denouncing Israel’s oppression of Palestinians and violations of human rights. The use of the IHRA definition in such instances is commonly framed around the following narrative: “These events typically apply double standards towards Israel that are not applied to other countries and effectively deny Israel any right to exist by treating it as an inherently racist endeavour. As such, they conflict with the IHRA definition.” (quote from spokesman for UK Lawyers for Israel – UKLFI).
In the UK, student events organised on campuses have been particularly targeted, following a letter sent by the Universities and Science Minister Jo Johnson to UK universities in February 2017 to outline the government’s concerns about antisemitism on campuses, especially around Israel Apartheid Week due to take place that month, and asking for the IHRA definition to be disseminated throughout the academic system.

Example 1: cancellation of Israel Apartheid Week at the University of Central Lancashire, February 2017

In February 2017, the University of Central Lancashire (UCLan) cancelled an event planned as part of “Israeli Apartheid Week” on the grounds that it “contravened” the IHRA definition of antisemitism recently endorsed by the UK government and was unlawful. The panel event, “Debunking misconceptions on Palestine and the importance of BDS”, was organised by the UCLan Friends of Palestine society. The administration said:
“[We] determined that the proposed event would not be lawful and therefore it will not proceed as planned.” Speaking to Jewish News, the university said: “We believe the proposed talk contravenes the new definition and furthermore breaches university protocols for such events, where we require assurances of a balanced view or a panel of speakers representing all interests.”
There are three particularly disturbing aspects of this decision by the UCLan authorities:
1. The event organisers only found out about the cancellation by reading about it on the Jewish Chronicle website. The university excluded students in the Friends of Palestine society from the decision-making process concerning the event, and there was no attempt to dialogue with organisers about the event once concerns had been raised.
2. The university quite clearly bowed to pressure from external, pro-Israel advocacy groups. The day before the cancellation was announced StandWithUs, North West Friends of Israel, and Sussex Friends of Israel began urging their supporters to bombard the university with complaints.
3. UCLan’s claimed that the event “contravenes” a government-endorsed definition of antisemitism, referring to a text formulated by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) and “formally adopted” by the UK government. That phrase is important – the definition does not constitute legislation, which means it is unclear what the university meant by saying the “proposed event would not be lawful.”

Example 2: University of Exeter banned students from staging a street theatre performance, February 2017

The university banned students from staging a street theatre performance called Mock Checkpoint, in which some participants were to dress up as Israeli soldiers while others performed the roles of Palestinians. The event, which had been approved by the students’ guild – the university’s student union – as part of an international week of talks and activities on campuses around the world, was banned for “safety and security reasons” less than 48 hours before it was due to take place. An appeal against the decision was refused. Although the IHRA definition was not explicitly mentioned, the cancellation happened only a few days after the letter from the government’s minister to UK universities regarding that matter. Organisers of the Israel Apartheid Week at Exeter claim the university is conflating antisemitism with Palestinian activism. “It doesn’t have anything to do with antisemitism,” said the spokesperson for Exeter’s Friends of Palestine Society. “We feel they were indirectly accusing us of antisemitism and discrimination and harassment through this event.”

Example 3: Talk on the occupation cancelled at UCL, February 2017

In February 2017, UCL cancelled a talk titled “Quad Under Occupation” on Palestine claiming that Friends of Palestine “did not follow procedure”. The talk invited attendees to “explore the practices which sow the seeds of racial tension in Israel”. The cancellation followed a complaint from the Academic Friends of Israel group which stated that the event would not respect the new government approved definition of antisemitism. Only after this complaint did Rex Knight, UCL Vice-Provost, announced that the event would be cancelled for not “go[ing] through the proper process”.

Example 4: University of Leeds threatened to cancel talk by Craig Murray during Israeli Apartheid Week, February 2017

During the last Israel Apartheid Week, one talk and a film show proceeded without problems at Leeds but two other events had more difficulty. 1. Just 24 hours before he was due to speak former ambassador Craig Murray was asked by the trustees of Leeds University Union to provide details of what he was going to say in his talk “Palestine/Israel: A Unitary Secular State or a Bantustan Solution”. With great reluctance Craig provided an outline in order to allow the lecture to proceed, despite seeing this a dispiriting step down a censorship path. 2. The student Palestine Solidarity Group was refused permission to mount a visual demonstration outside the Leeds Student Union Building, although they did put up a fairly inconspicuous banner display. They were also refused permission to have a stall inside the Students Union Building.

Example 5: Liverpool – Professor Michael Lavalette, required to agree to the IHRA definition for his talk to go ahead, February 2017

Professor Michael Lavalette of Liverpool Hope University was due to speak at a meeting at Liverpool University. At 3pm the day before his scheduled talk he was contacted by the student organisers to say that the university was requiring him to sign their ‘risk assessment’ for the event. The form of words was to be that he had read the Risk Assessment and specifically the clause within relating to the ‘[IHRA] definition’, and stating that he had read the definition and agreed with it. He emailed his response, to say that he had read the risk assessment; and that he was a life-long anti-racist (and had in fact organised a meeting on Stand Up To Racism the previous weekend). He did not acknowledge the definition. He heard nothing more and the meeting went ahead.
Source: Free Speech on Israel

Example 6: Manchester, March 2017

The University of Manchester allowed a series of talks marking IAW to go ahead, but that approval only came after several meetings and email exchanges and subject to a strict set of conditions.
“The university has heavily scrutinised every single detail of each event … the number of conditions the university has placed on us is unheard of,” reported the organisers, adding: “Other societies and groups do not face the same problems.” The conditions relate to the impartiality of event conveners and scrutiny of speakers.
The university vetoed the students’ choice of academic to chair an IAW event on BDS, citing concerns over her “neutrality”. Speakers also had to acknowledge the IHRA definition of antisemitism. The person ousted from chairing was Dr Lauren Banko, Research Associate in Israel-Palestine Studies in the Arabic and Middle Eastern Studies department of the University. She is author of The Invention of Palestinian Citizenship, 1918-1947.

Example 7: Manchester University censored the title of Holocaust survivor’s speech criticising Israel, March 2017

Manchester University censored the title of a Holocaust survivor’s criticism of Israel and insisted that her campus talk be recorded, after Israeli diplomats said its billing amounted to antisemitic hate speech. Marika Sherwood, a Jewish survivor of the Budapest ghetto, was due to give a talk in March 2017 about Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians, headlined: “You’re doing to the Palestinians what the Nazis did to me.” The Israeli diplomats visited Manchester on 22 February and met the university’s head of student experience, Tim Westlake. Later that day Michael Freeman, the embassy’s counsellor for civil society affairs, emailed Westlake and thanked him for discussing the “difficult issues that we face”, including the “offensively titled” Israeli Apartheid Week. Freeman claimed that the title of Sherwood’s talk breached the IHRA definition of antisemitism. The Sherwood event went ahead under a revised billing with the subtitle removed. She herself denied that the title of her talk could be characterised as antisemitic. “I was just speaking of my experience of what the Nazis were doing to me as a Jewish child,” she said. “I had to move away from where I was living, because Jews couldn’t live there. I couldn’t go to school”. “I can’t say I’m a Palestinian, but my experiences as a child are not dissimilar to what Palestinian children are experiencing now.” (The evidence of Israeli embassy involvement was not revealed until September 2017, through a Freedom of Information request.)

Example 8: expulsion of Moshe Machover from the Labour Party, October 2017

Retired Israeli philosophy professor Moshe Machover was expelled from the Labour party in October 2017. The official reason for his expulsion was not an accusation of antisemitism (this would have taken longer to prove), but rather for alleged association with organisations newly deemed undesirable (which he has denied). The letter from the Labour’s Head of Disputes informed Machover that an article he had written “appears to meet the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition of anti-Semitism.” The article, “Anti-Zionism does not equal anti-Semitism,” was published in a bulletin by the group Labour Party Marxists and handed out at the party’s conference in September 2017. Sam Matthews, the Labour official who wrote expelling Machover, did not specify which part of the article he claimed was antisemitic. The letter to Machover marks the first known time Labour Party officials have cited the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s document containing a “working definition” of antisemitism as a justification for “formal notice of investigation.” The controversial document has been promoted by Israel lobby groups, because it alleges that, for example, “claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavour” is an example of “antisemitism.” However Labour’s leadership has only endorsed a two-sentence definition of antisemitism, contained in the controversial document, which does not mention Israel. This letter appears to contradict that distinction.

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4 thoughts on “Selected Cases of Interference with Free Expression, 2017”

  1. good list but I suspect there are far more. For example there is no mention of the cancellation by Prevent of Tom Suarez’s meeting in Portsmouth. His meeting was disrupted at SOAS and I think there were other cancellations. There is no mention of the meeting that Jackie Walker and I did in Nottingham which had to change venue or the cancellation of a meeting for Jackie in Cambridge which again had to be shifted to another venue.

    This is a good idea and now we should keep details of each and everyone for a central database and also call out the fact that the Board of Deputies of British Jews is now at the forefront of trying to cancel meetings.

    1. The list is only of campus disruptions and cancellations as it is part of a submission to the parliamentary inquiry into freedom of speech in universities.

  2. Thank you for this extremely useful list. You will be amused (or enraged, depending on your mood at the moment) if I tell you that a few minutes after reading this post I saw in Hansard the following:
    Written Question by Baroness Tonge: To ask Her Majesty’s Government what action they are taking with their international partners to support and encourage free speech in Israel, following reports of intimidation and public order offences committed by far-right groups in that country.
    Written Answer by Lord Ahmad: The Government stands up for and strongly supports the right of freedom of expression. We welcome the repeated public commitments of the Israeli Government, including the President and Prime Minister, to uphold and protect Israel’s longstanding tradition of freedom of expression.
    Kind regards,

  3. Thank you for this important documentation.
    While I realize that this is a selected list, not a comprehensive one, I think Prof. Richard Falk certainly belongs on it. Two of his university talks were closed down by the usual libel and intimidation.
    My own experience in 2017 is I think typical: three talks of mine were closed down (two in the UK, one in the US), and two organisations self-censored out of fear (both UK).

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