How Zionists Are Destroying Free Speech In Universities

Microphone surrounded by crowd at Trafalgar Square.

If our universities can’t stand up to the Israel lobby and uphold free speech, how will the international community ever stand up to the state of Israel and uphold international law?

Hilary Aked

An academic conference, International Law and the State of Israel: Legitimacy, Responsibility and Exceptionalism, was due to start this Friday but the University of Southampton – citing spurious ‘health and safety’ concerns –cancelled it, following intense pressure from the pro-Israel lobby. Despite many academics writing to the university expressing their dismay and a petitionwhich garnered wide public support, an application at the High Court yesterday denied organisers a judicial review and the conference has now beenpostponed indefinitely. While an outrageous affront to freedom of speech, Southampton’s capitulation to external pressure is not hugely surprising. The Israel lobby has a long history of censorship, including in universities, which are no longer bastions of free speech.

In early March a UC Berkeley conference called Censoring Palestine at the University: Free Speech and Academic Freedom at a Crossroads was convened to discuss the apparent escalation in this repressive trend, in the US and beyond. It’s a phenomenon that has occurred in response to heightened criticism of Israel which in turn is a result of the moral outrage generated by three successive Gaza ‘wars’ in six years — wars, Richard Falk observed at Berkeley, better characterised as massacres, so one-sided was the slaughter.

This article seeks to answer two key questions: why is it that universities can be bullied into silence by pro-Israel groups? And why is it that Israel can’t stand to be criticised? In the process it offers a critique not only of Israel and Zionism but also of the neoliberal university.

Palestine/Israel on campus: why universities matter

Universities have long been a key site of concern for the pro-Israel lobby. The idea that the ‘leaders of tomorrow’ receive their education in environments hostile to Israel is compounded by the fear that attitudes acquired in this formative period often persist throughout life. On top of this, trends in the academy are seen as prescient of the future direction of society as a whole. And, just as throughout history progressive movements have emanated from campuses, universities are witnessing a surge Palestine solidarity activism.

Losing the argument at the grassroots, one relatively sophisticated response to this from Israel-advocates has been to facilitate the expansion of ‘Israel studies’. As a means to influence the ideological environment it is a long term strategy and it would be wrong to suggest every academic or student in the field is a mere shill. However, both Israeli think tank the Re’ut Institute and prominent Zionist Lord Weidenfeld have openly stated that supporting the expansion of Israel studies courses is, in their minds at least, one prong of a broader strategy to counter anti-Israel attitudes. Weidenfeld was one of the backers of Israel studies at Sussex University while the subject has been introduced at the universities of Manchester, Oxford and SOAS with the financial support of Trevor Pears, a major donor to the Tory party andConservative Friends of Israel. In fact a whole institute — the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation (ICSR) at King’s College London – a collaborative project between several universities including KCL and Israel’s Interdisciplinary Centre Herzliya was originally conceived as a project explicitly intended to challenge the academic boycott by funder Henry Sweetbaum, who had first offered the money to the LSE.

However, much cruder ways of promoting Zionist perspectives — and silencing pro-Palestinian ones — are also vigorously being pursued. In The Idea of Israel, Ilan Pappe has described this phenomenon in Israel itself, where groups like Im Tirzu, standard-bearer for the hard-right ‘neo-Zionism’ that increasingly dominates centres of power in the country, hound dissenting academics like him out of universities. Scholars who have defended Palestinian rights have faced persecution in many other countries too. South African anti-apartheid and gender justice activist Farid Esask was recently banned from speaking at several French universities about Palestinian rights, on the basis of false charges of anti-Semitism. For daring to back boycott as a legitimate tool to put pressure on Israel, Australian academic Jake Lynch faced a law suit waged by proxy by Shurat HaDin, an Israeli law firm known to have enjoyed a close relationship with Israeli intelligence.

In the United States Rabab Abdulhadi was the latest professor to be singled out for demonization by the AMCHA Initiative but long lists of scholars have found themselves on the blacklists of Campus Watch, a project of the Middle East Forum (MEF). Student Rights, a similar campus monitoring body in the UK, has both undermined student activism and drawn up a dossier criticising LSE academics who defend Palestinians’ rights. (Notably, Student Rights is afront for the Henry Jackson Society, a neoconservative think tank which hasreceived funding from the Abstraction Fund. It is thus tied in to the same funding networks as Campus Watch, since MEF also gets most of its money from Abstraction, and both are good examples of what Dr. Deborah Gordon has called ‘the dove-tailing of professional Islamophobia and efforts to counter the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement’). Given these McCarthyist witch-hunts, it is no surprise that Prof. Lisa Rofel, speaking at Berkeley, suggested that Palestine/Israel is today what critiquing capitalism was during the Cold War.

These are just a few recent examples. I’ve not mentioned high profile cases like those of Norman Finkelstein or Steven Salaita, or less well known but highly punitive cases in which student activists have been targeted, such as the Irvine 11. Lower level administrative harassment, from creating extra layers of bureaucracy to monitoring and over-policing, is a common experience of student activists, especially Muslim students advocating for Palestine (Imperial for instance, told FOSIS at the last minute that its recent Palestine conference could not be a public event, forcing them to change venue.) Increasingly, attacks are made online anonymously, via websites like HamasOnCampus.orgwhich seeks to demonises Students for Justice in Palestine in the U.S.

Mindful, however, that smears can sometimes backfire, some pro-Israel groups, such as The David Project, an organisation dedicated to promoting Israel on U.S. campuses, has begun stressing softer, normalising, techniques: its Latte Initiative, for example, emphasised building relationships with key ‘influencers’ on campus, as Ali Abunimah has noted. When these strategies fail, though, pro-Israel groups are very willing to turn to so-called ‘lawfare’ initiatives. In the U.S. there has been at least one lawsuit and four complaints under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act 1964, an attempt to criminalise activism for Palestinian human rights. In the U.K., Ronnie Fraser notoriously took the lecturers union, UCU, to an employment tribunal, alleging ‘harassment’. Even when unsuccessful, as all these cases have been, they may still engender future self-censorship by exercising a chilling effect.

The power structure shaping the boundaries of acceptable debate


Any discussion of ‘free speech’ and ‘censorship’ without reference to questions of power is meaningless. The critical feature of the Southampton case was the extraordinary pressure the university came on from above. This included interventions by four Conservative politicians: a letter from ex-treasury minister Mark Hoban MP to university vice chancellor Don Nutbeam, critical comments from Lord Leigh and Caroline Nokes MP and — most alarmingly — a statement from Communities Minister Eric Pickles. Besides the worrying precedent set for academic freedom by government interference in the affairs of an independent higher education institution, this illustrates the power structure shaping what can and cannot be said about Palestine/Israel. At the recent ‘We Believe in Israel’ conference both Michael Gove and Michael Dugher spoke, proudly declaring themselves Zionists. Numerous other frontbenchers from both main parties count themselves active supporters of Israel while a wider pool of elites can be relied upon to line up as allies of the pro-Israel lobby in times of crisis.

So when KCL students voted to back a boycott of Israel, the country’s supporters, notably members of StandWithUs – a transnational body which hasreceived funding from the Israeli government – were able to elicit a statement from London mayor Boris Johnson which they used to undermine the democratic will of the student body. In the US, political theorist Corey Robin noted the same phenomenon when a host of university presidents lined up to condemn the American Studies Association vote to boycott Israel, dubbing it ‘a very elite backlash’. In the UK, before becoming head of the Charity Commission, William Shawcross wrote regularly for the Jerusalem Post, which could have influenced the body’s willingness to advise student unions (which are registered charities) against taking ‘partisan’ positions on this global justice issue.

This is not to say that the Palestinians do not have high profile supporters, for there are indeed some; Baroness Jenny Tongue is one prominent example. However, the majority of the political class are reflexively Zionist while the Palestinians draw most of their support in parliament from backbenchers. It’s also clear that ordinary people overwhelming reject Israel’s belligerence, for — as the chair of pro-Israel lobby group BICOM noted with dismay — last summer around ten times as many letters to MPs were sent supporting the Palestinians than supporting Israel. Their voices, of course, count for less – which is whySpinwatch’s report on BICOM argued that the PR body has concentrated on shoring up elite consensus.

Precisely because concepts like freedom of speech cannot be separated from questions of power, it is crucial to understand the pro-Israel lobby in context. Pro-Israel groups like BICOM, the Board of Deputies (BOD) and the Jewish Leadership Council (JLC) enjoy access to elites that advocates of Palestinian rights cannot compete with. The same goes for resources: BICOM, for instance, is funded by billionaire Poju Zabludowicz. This all translates into considerable political influence at the top. (Questions about whether the less than democratic JLC can be said to represent the Jewish community and whether it or the BOD should using its power to lobby for Israel when many Jews do not support Israel’s policies remain unanswered).

One of the most astonishing facts about the Southampton case was astatement by the conference organisers which revealed that the university vice chancellor had not agreed to meet with them, while it was widely reported he had at least one meeting with external pro-Israel groups, including the BOD and JLC, who were calling for the conference to be shut down. (Ben White hasnoted the hypocrisy of this since the same groups cite ‘academic freedom’ to argue against boycotts, a neat illustration of the way concepts like free speech are deployed strategically rather than applied consistently). Perhaps we should not be surprised, given that Israeli government ministers have directly asked British government ministers to put pressure on universities over support for Palestinians on campus — a fact which might also explain the presence, at a separate meeting about the Southampton conference that included the BOD and four vice-chancellors from Universities UK, of Britain’s ambassador to Israel, Matthew Gould.

Neoliberalisation and the counter-extremism agenda

As well as the huge clout of pro-Israel lobby groups, the reason conference organisers were correct to recognise that the topic they proposed to discuss had been marginalised has much to do with the government and its agenda for universities — the twin pillars of neoliberalism and counter-extremism.

As state-funding is being withdrawn the increased power of external donors allows the likes of Weidenfeld and Pears to shape the syllabus by offering universities pots of money to fund Israel Studies. The threats by ‘at least two major patrons’ of Southampton University, reported to be ‘considering withdrawing their financial support’ because of the conference may well have made up the vice chancellor’s mind. After all, the same formula worked, outside of the university context, at the Tricycle theatre. Meanwhile, the huge emphasis on employability means the university was no doubt alarmed bylawyer Mark Lewis’s threat to look ‘unfavourably’ at CVs sent by Southampton graduates. More generally, the prospect of graduating with 50 grand debt after steady increases in fees likely also acts as a disincentive for students to be politically active – though many still are.

But if neoliberal environments, as universities are fast becoming, are already conducive to depoliticisation, this is especially so where they meet ‘anti-extremism’ discourses of the war on terror. The government’s Prevent policyincludes universities in a range of civil society arenas in which it says ‘extremism’ need to be combatted. The Counter-Terrorism and Security Act, which academics warned was a threat to free speech before it was passed in February 2015, made preventing the spread of extremism a statutory duty on universities. This came about in part because a clutch of right wing think tanks such as the Henry Jackson Society (HJS0, aided by the right wing press, have inculcated the idea — despite a distinct lack of compelling evidence — that universities are ‘hotbeds of extremism’. Douglas Murray of the HJS put that very phrase to work in the Daily Express writing about the Southampton conference — also, ludicrously, linking it to the case of Mohammed Emwazi aka ‘Jihadi John’ who merely by virtue of having been to Westminster university, has been seized up on evidence that universities are ‘breeding grounds for terrorists’. A Prevent officer was present at a meeting with Birkbeck university officials just before it pulled out of hosting a conference on Islamophobia in December last year, citing — like Southampton University — concerns about potential protests.

Given this enormous pressure on universities to restrict ‘extremist’ speech it is unsurprising that pro-Israel actors have increasingly tried to push pro-Palestinian speech into this category. They’re helped in this endeavour by the fact that the definition of extremism is extremely broad and vague. The chief constable of Greater Manchester Police has explicitly cited pro-Palestinian demonstrations as an example of police uncertainty about how to operationalise the term, which requires them to decide on the spot what is and what is not ‘extremist’. Indeed the word has travelled so far from any connection to violence that Israeli Ambassador Ron Prosor used it to refer to a peaceful protest against a speech by deputy Israeli ambassador Tayla Lador-Fresher at the University of Manchester in 2010. ‘Extremism is not just running through these places of education — it is galloping’, Prosor declared. This is not mere rhetoric but has consequences for how police apply the law. Greater Manchester Police – the same force whose head later admitted the concept of extremism was unclear – paid a visit to one of the young people involved in that demonstration, soon after the protest, and involuntarily placed him on theChannel programme, as Arun Kundnani documents in his book The Muslims are Coming!

Red lines, Zionist hegemony and ‘delegitimisation’

Supporters of Israel would rather not be seen as censorious. The fact that, at Southampton and elsewhere, they increasingly have to resort to these tactics, suggests a rupture. Despite the massive power imbalance and the structural factors mitigating against it, voices in defence of Palestinian rights are growing increasingly bold. If, as Douglas Murray suggested in the Express, these voices were only those of ‘fringe weirdos’, they could easily be ignored. However, what we are actually witnessing is a mood-shift in the mainstream: thus censorship, as Ben White has observed, is a sign of weakness and insecurity, a desperate attempt to stop a sea change in opinion, not just among serious scholars but also the wider public. The enormous groundswell of popular condemnation of Israel is finally creating fractures in elite support – even in our attenuated British democracy, in which foreign policy in particular is rarely up for debate.

Though Israel’s military might remains supreme — as we saw last summer when it killed more than 2,200 Palestinians in Gaza and destroyed or damaged around 96,000 homes – the ideological aspect of its hegemony is in unprecedented crisis. We are witnessing a slow but profound normative transformation. Because of the effects it has had on the Palestinians, Zionism as a political project has failed to win over hearts and minds. Israel has failed to even maintain the façade of a peace process, making the two state solution patently impossible and inevitably increasing calls for a one state solution, which would entail an end to the Zionist project. However, Colin Leys’ observation, applied to Thatcherism by Tom Mills, equally holds here: ‘for an ideology to be hegemonic, it is not necessary that it be loved. It is merely necessary that it have no serious rival.’ In other words, neutralising the opposition by silencing dissent may yet be enough to ensure Zionist hegemony or at least delay its demise. This insight helps us understand the impulse to censor and Yasmin Alibhai-Brown is right: ‘more of this will happen as public opinion shifts towards the Palestinians and their long struggle’.

It is also true, as Richard Falk has pointed out, that censorship is a symptom of the increasing difficulty of defending Israel substantively. If the question were ‘what about LGBT rights?’ or ‘why hasn’t Israel made any medical breakthroughs or technical innovations lately?’, the Israel lobby would have all the answers. But questions about why Israel controls the lives and movements of millions of Palestinians without giving them a vote and has done for nearly fifty years; why Israel has over twenty laws which discriminate against non-Jews; or why Israel continues to build settlements and roads for Jews only in occupied territory; these are harder to answer and pro-Israel forces seem to know that any answers they offer are unconvincing; their best bet is to try to stop the questions being asked. But this strategy is not sustainlable.

Anxiety — panic – about Israel’s international standing intensifies censorship even within pro-Israel circles. A senior member of the Board of Deputies recently stepped down from his post due to what Haaretz called a “ban” on criticising Israel. A few weeks ago the Zionist Federation held an event called “Crossing the line: is public criticism of Israel acceptable?” (No prizes for guessing their answer.) Jewish activists were physically removed from the ‘We Believe in Israel’ conference, testament to a truth Anthony Lerman learnt long ago, that Jewish critics of Israel are often treated most harshly. In 2010 Israeli think tank the Reut Institute, in an influential report, came up with a more sophisticated strategy than outright censorship, namely to ‘drive a wedge’between ‘critics’ and what they called ‘catalysts of delegitimisation’.

The invented concept of ‘delegitimisation’ was at once intended to distinguish mild criticism of certain Israeli policies, which Reut said should be allowed, on the understanding that it has PR benefits, from types or levels of criticism it wanted to ring-fence outside of ‘acceptable’ debate. The exact location of these red lines is elusive and particularly the more fanatical wing of the pro-Israel lobby will often simply used the term in an attempt to discredit any criticism of Israel, shrilly accusing everyone from Amnesty to the United Nations of ‘delegitimisation’. But where the University of Southampton conference over-stepped the line into ‘delegitimisation’ was by asking questions about the relationship between Israel’s self-definition as a Jewish state to legal, moral, egalitarian and democratic principles. In other words, it dared to interrogate Zionism. The ‘Fair Play Campaign Group’ (whose work is concerned with‘opposing anti-Zionist activity’) was quick to condemn it.

Luke Akehurst, manager of We Believe in Israel, has claimed he is ‘not in the business of telling people what to say’. Strange then, that elsewhere he has declared that when criticism ‘crosses red lines and becomes inappropriate’ it must be stopped. We can all agree that anti-Semitic speech is unacceptable, which is why it is illegal. But why should questioning Zionism be taboo? This implication was the thrust of much of the lobbying against the Southampton conference: a letter sent at the end of last year said the event appeared to ‘surpass the acceptable’; Richard Falk’s contribution was deemed likely to be ‘beyond the limits of reasonable discussion’. Less freedom of expression then, more compulsory Zionism.

Legitimacy, international law and intellectual integrity

While important, the discursive struggle overlooks the reality on the ground. Israel’s advocates focus on ‘winning the communication battle’ and ‘winning the battle of narrative’ and rarely stray beyond the level of discourse. But Israel’s ongoing colonisation and human rights abuses are all too real. One side of the ‘battle’ is seeking to uphold the very concrete rights of human beings in international law. The other is concerned with insisting upon the abstract ‘rights’ of a nation state: Israel’s ‘right to defend itself’ and ‘right to exist’. Not even the most ardent defenders of the union, in the last days leading up to the Scottish independence referendum, made the claim that the United Kingdom had a ‘right to exist’, regardless of the wishes of the people in it!

Supporters of Israel are trying to win it legitimacy using illegitimate means, of which censorship is only one strand. Instead, it should be acknowledged that states derive their legitimacy from the extent to which they uphold people’s rights – and lose it when they cease to do so. A Southampton-style conference ‘would not be permissible about another country’, claimed Mark Lewis, while Simon Johnson of the JLC asked ‘What other state…is subjected to such critique?’ The claims echo the ‘what-aboutery’ of many defences of Israel but can be answered by history and international law.

Is Israel unique in facing criticism or practicing censorship? No. Opponents of the Indonesian occupation of East Timor faced similar pressures in countries that were allied to Indonesia: ‘In May 1994, then Philippine President Fidel Ramos, bowing to pressure from Jakarta, tried to ban an international conference on East Timor in Manila and blacklisted Ramos-Horta [the Nobel peace Laureate who would later become president of East Timor]. Later that year, Ramos-Horta was made persona non grata in Thailand and banned from entering Bangkok in 1995 to teach at a diplomacy training program at prestigious Thammasat University’ (I am grateful to Professor Stephen Zunes for pointing to this example). Israel is not special. Power always wants to censor its critics.

The special significance of the Southampton conference was its attempt to restore the primacy of international law, and to judge Israel — and measure its legitimacy – by these universal standards, like any other state. But just as the pro-Israel lobby’s free-speech exceptionalism is eroding freedom of speech, Israel’s exceptionalism in its flouting of international law – (it’s impunity has gone on so long that the phrase ‘illegal under international law, but Israel disputes this’ has become a BBC institution) – is undermining the very laws themselves. The Southampton conference blurb observed that sometimes international law can be ‘the very instrument of rationalisation of violence and suffering.’ As if to prove this, Israeli law firm Shurat HaDin will soon hold a conference apparently geared towards re-writing the Geneva Convention, a novel way to bring Israel’s actions in line with international legal principles.

Though the phrase ‘speaking truth to power’ has been overused, the Southampton University case and the wider litmus test of Palestine/Israel, illustrates the real importance of freedom of speech. But if our centres of so-called intellectualism can’t stand up to the Israel lobby and uphold free speech, how will the international community ever stand up to the state of Israel and uphold international law?

Southampton university’s vice chancellor would do well to heed Edward Said’s words, on intellectual integrity and the question of Palestine: ‘Nothing in my mind is more reprehensible than those habits of mind in the intellectual that induce avoidance, that characteristic turning away from a difficult and principled position that you know to be the right one, but which you decide not to take. You do not want to appear too political, you want to keep a reputation of being balanced, moderate, objective. Your hope is to remain within the responsible mainstream. For an intellectual, these habits of mind are corrupting par excellence.’

Said noted that these behavioural traits are often encountered in connection with ‘one of the toughest of all contemporary issues, Palestine, where fear of speaking out about one of the greatest injustices in modern history has hobbled, blinkered, muzzled many who know the truth and are in a position to serve it’ but concluded that ‘despite the abuse and vilification that any outspoken supporter of Palestinian rights and self-determination earns for him or herself, the truth deserves to be spoken.’

This piece was reprinted by RINF Alternative News with permission or license.