When introducing Israeli Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Danny Ayalon at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) at a recent lecture, Professor Michael Cox said the school invites such guests to critically engage and debate the perspectives of the speaker. And as a university in a democratic society, he said, the LSE must uphold the principles of free speech, tolerance, and pluralism.
However, the school’s administration and student newspaper, the LSE Beaver, have collectively provided an environment that validates extreme, hateful views of Israel while failing to provide a competing perspective. This has provoked not a thoughtful debate on the Arab-Israeli conflict but instead a race to the bottom — of who can slur Israel the most.
The LSE hosts hundreds of speakers every year from all political leanings and dispositions, but recently its record is questionable with regard to censorship. Last winter it uninvited conservative author Douglas Murray from chairing a debate on the grounds of security concerns, while in 2006 the school hosted members of al-Muhajiroun (who were later banned under the British Terrorism Act of 2006). And according to the Telegraph, in 1995 the school’s Freshers’ Fair featured extremist groups promoting an Islamic state in Britain.
But in this debate the school has not stifled freedom of expression. After all, it did not submit to the demands of professors who wrote to the Beaver saying they were “shocked” and “appalled” by the mere invitation of the deputy foreign minister to campus. The letter, signed by over two dozen LSE academics, scorns the university for giving “extraordinary prominence” to Mr. Ayalon by alerting members of the university community to the event via email. Another professor went so far as to call for an investigation to uncover who invited Mr. Ayalon. Fortunately, the school’s commitment to free speech is greater than that of some of its distinguished professors.
But whatever prominence had been granted to Ayalon by hosting him surely was outweighed by the despicable actions of anti-Israel protesters during the minister’s (attempted) one-hour lecture and the tacit approval of these disruptions by the chair.
Introduced amidst a chorus of boos, Ayalon had scarcely delivered his eighth sentence when various students began shouting obscenities at him and delivering impromptu sermons on their view of Israel. Called a “racist,” “baby killer,” or “fascist” before he had even commenced his lecture, he was drained out by hostile, ad hominem attacks and struggled to utter consecutive sentences for the duration of the event. The event, entitled “The Situation in the Middle East: The View from the Middle East,” turned into a showcase for angry students to vent their displeasure with Israel through vulgar and repulsive remarks.
While Professor Cox attempted to limit the hostility of the crowd, he did not impart a neutral voice into the debate. He somewhat grudgingly welcomed Mr. Ayalon to the stage and admitted openly to disagreeing with him, thereby encouraging the protesters. Mr. Cox exuded a rather cold demeanor relative to his treatment of United States Director of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano a few days later. Ms. Napolitano was bestowed with a gift from Mr. Cox, who said he was “delighted” to present her.
In stark contrast, Mr. Cox asked students to “boo if you want to boo” at the conclusion of Mr. Ayalon’s speech.
When it came to the Q&A session following the “lecture” portion, Cox fueled further ugliness by granting the microphone to the student who was singularly responsible for interrupting the deputy foreign minister more than any of the other three hundred individuals in the hall.
The student had nothing more constructive to offer than incredulity that Mr. Ayalon conceived of Israel as a Jewish state. He shouted: “Where was your father born?” He argued (wrongly, as Mr. Ayalon pointed out directly afterwards) that Jews are a minority in Israel and had never inhabited the land prior to 1947.
The refusal to acknowledge the legitimacy of Israel’s right to exist has of course been a common thread in the history of this conflict. Just days after the birth of Israel — or al-Nakba (“the Catastrophe”) as it is known in the Arab world — Israel’s neighbors lined up to eliminate it. To this day, Hamas calls for it to be “obliterated” in its charter. How unconstructive for the chair to reward someone who had shouted obscenities and slurs for forty minutes to further expound this kind of abhorrent worldview.
While audience members labeled him a “racist” from the start, in fact Mr. Ayalon’s rhetoric represented views substantially closer to the center of Israeli politics than of his own party. He pledged that Israel would make “painful concessions,” and preached moderation and negotiation as the keys to conflict resolution. He underrepresented the problem posed by continued Israeli settlements, but encountered little willingness on the part of the opposition to debate such issues. An advisor to the Israeli Knesset remarked to me that Mr. Ayalon would never utter such statements to an audience in Israel.
The LSE Beaver made its editorial view on the topic quite apparent in its news story (“Outrage at ‘racist’ Israeli Deputy FM”), which contained no evidence to corroborate the claim of racism. The paper mentioned that hecklers interrupted Mr. Ayalon’s lecture, but devoted more space to the case of Mira Hammad.
Ms. Hammad, who repeatedly yelled “Racist!” at Mr. Ayalon, was allegedly told to “f*** off” by a professor sitting next to her. At plenty of other venues, Ms. Ammad would have been shown the door, along with the rest of her hooligans. To the Beaver, she is simply standing up against racism.
The paper also failed to recount that one audience member was encountered with a shout of “Jew!” when she tried to hush the protesters.
That the Beaver was able to turn Ms. Hammad into a victim of “intimidation and aggression” is a true testament to the double standard at work whenever the topic of Israel is broached. Since Mr. Ayalon had no legitimate right to speak, it is the protesters, not Mr. Ayalon, who are the true victims.
The Beaver also published several articles related to Israel leading up to this event. On October 6, it ran a story about the sad situation of Othman Sakallah, a Palestinian who was due to enroll at the LSE for this academic year but is currently in Gaza. Individuals quoted in this article as well as subsequent opinion pieces repeatedly blamed the “oppressive Israeli government” as solely responsible for the plight of Sakallah. The causes of the Gaza War are complicated, and stem originally from Hamas choosing to build up its terrorist capacity rather than build a state after Israel, under Ariel Sharon, withdrew from every last inch of Gaza in 2005. No piece in the Beaver explored any possible ambiguity as to the root causes of this conflict. Likewise, the appearance of Mr. Ayalon on campus did not spark a debate on his views. Instead, the debate was over whether the school should provide a platform for a “racist.”
The ability to hear first-hand from high-level, elected government officials is a privilege, but such events serve no good purpose when the atmosphere bears more resemblance to a sporting match than an exchange of ideas. Had anti-Israel protesters brought with them real arguments instead of empty slogans and obscenities, LSE students may have been persuaded one way or another. The only take-away from this event was that one side of the debate wants no dialogue with anyone but themselves.