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LSE criticised by students for bowing to pro-Israel 'lobby groups'

The London School of Economics (LSE) has been accused of bowing to external “lobby groups”, following the university’s public criticism of the student Palestine Society.

The controversy centres around an exhibition held by the Palestine Society in the SU building on October 22, intended to raise awareness about Israel’s repression of Palestinians living under military occupation, particularly in light of recent unrest.

On the day, exhibition organisers were confronted by supporters of Israel, including one who demanded that a Muslim student “denounce terrorism” on camera. Later, it was reported that the LSE Israel Society had complained to both the LSESU and the university authorities.

The LSESU investigation, however, found that the Palestine Society had “followed all…existing processes in setting up this exhibition” and that allegations the Palestine Society was “glorifying terrorism” were unfounded. LSESU did, however, conclude that in future, students should have a choice whether or not to view “distressing” images.

Yet a month later, in a statement published on November 30, LSE declared that the university was “deeply troubled” by the Palestine Society exhibition. Despite emphasising that “the law was not broken”, LSE said that “the apparent celebration, even if unintended, of violence and perpetrators of violence caused significant distress to students who identify with victims of that violence.”

When I queried the lack of specifics, an LSE spokesperson told me that the statement “reflects the concerns raised that the exhibition strongly appeared to be commemorating the deaths of individuals who were involved in violent attacks against civilians.”

Thus both the statement, and the spokesperson’s comments to me, were notable for the lack of evidence and use of qualifying language. Nonetheless, the statement was soon tweeted by the Israeli embassy’s spokesperson Yiftah Curiel – who was careful to remove the qualifiers (Curiel himself has form when it comes to smearing student human rights activists).

The university’s statement has been met with strong criticism from the Students’ Union, whose General Secretary, Nona Buckley-Irvine, said it was “deeply disappointing” that the university has “sought to engage with the political activity of a society beyond its legal responsibilities.”

According to Buckley-Irvine, “a slew of lobbyists” engaged with the university regarding the exhibition, pointing out that the LSESU is “not answerable to lobby groups, only to our members”, and that her “response will not change in light of external pressure.” She continued:

Unfortunately, it seems that the School’s continued fear of reputational damage means that they have responded to these lobby groups, and external pressure has resulted in this statement which is unbalanced and falls outside of their remit. This sets a worrying precedent for the School engaging with the political affairs of our Union and its societies.

The Palestine Society, meanwhile, released a statement expressing “disgust” at the university’s statement, echoing the LSESU claims that the university was “bowing to external pressures to maintain an image.” The Society said it was “utterly disturbing that such a statement was even drafted following an investigation and exoneration by the Students Union.”

The Palestine Society vowed that the university’s “hypocrisy” and attempts to single out the Palestine Society would “not stifle our right to free speech or free expression. Allow us to reassure you, your intimidation tactics will be fruitless, we are not easily intimated as you clearly are.”

Melanie Phillips aside, who exactly were these “lobby groups” who pressured the university? One group who took up the case was Student Rights, a project of ultra-conservative think tank Henry Jackson Society, which was originally founded specifically to counter growing Palestine solidarity activism on campuses. Its first director went on to work for Nigel Farage.

A key role though seems to have been played by the Board of Deputies of British Jews. On November 19, the Board announced that president Jonathan Arkush, together with representatives of the Union of Jewish Students (UJS) and LSE Israel Society, had met with LSE Pro-Director Paul Kelly and other senior officials “to raise strong concerns regarding recent activities of the Palestine Society.”

This week, the Board claimed that “following [this] meeting”, LSE wrote to say it was “deeply troubled” by the Palestine Society’s “celebration of violence”. If the letter was the same as the public statement, then the Board misquoted the text (which speaks only of an “apparent celebration”). Otherwise, LSE has produced two different statements; one for the Board, one for the public.

The Board of Deputies of British Jews has a long-established track record of advocating for Israel and attacking Palestine solidarity activism. Their recently-elected president, Jonathan Arkush, meanwhile, has a reputation for stifling even mild criticism of Israeli policies.

According to Arkush, claiming to be speaking in the name of British Jews, “we lobby unashamedly for Israel.” This ignores, of course, the activism of groups like Jews for Justice for Palestinians, Independent Jewish Voices, Jews for Boycotting Israeli Goods, and many other individuals.

When Benjamin Netanyahu visited Britain in September, Arkush described protesters as a “howling mob, some of them with their faces covered in keffiyot [sic], in true terrorist style.” A former senior official at the Board slammed Arkush for a “grovelling, sycophantic” speech to the Israeli premier.

Arkush has also urged the Board’s members to buy goods made in illegal Israeli settlements (“Buy them. Buy them. Empty the shelves”), while earlier this year, the Board pressured the University of Southampton to cancel an academic conference in the name of “balanced debate.”

In 2013, Arkush attacked Middlesex University’s students’ union for displaying a plaque in support of the Palestinians’ right to education – such sentiments were apparently “totally counter-productive” to “good relations between students” and would endanger “attempts to forge better links between Jews and non-Jews at the university.”

UJS, meanwhile, is similarly committed to defending Israel on campus, and undermining Palestinian students and their allies in their anti-apartheid activism. Campaign director Russell Langer welcomed the LSE statement as a “positive step”, correctly noting that “it is extremely unusual for a university to comment like this where the SU are concerned.”

In June, responding to the NUS National Executive Council’s endorsement of BDS, UJS made the alarming claim that “J-Socs have been banned because they’re incompatible with BDS policies.” However, this was later scrubbed from the record (without a correction), and replaced with the vaguer claim that “J-Socs are perceived to be incompatible with BDS policies.”

In an article by Israeli journalist Anshel Pfeffer, then-UJS campaigns director Maggie Suissa predicted that, following the NUS’s backing of BDS, “there will be moves to ban JSocs (Jewish Societies) from taking part in student events.”

Pfeffer continued: “student unions at a number of universities in Britain voted to ban their local Jewish Society because of their Israel-related activities, including Cardiff University last August and Middlesex University in 2012, but these votes were quickly overturned.”

Except this is not correct – at Cardiff, for example, the Jewish Society temporarily folded in summer 2014, according to a Students’ Union official, “due to a lack of students to carry it on.”

For LSE to issue a public reprimand of a student society’s activities, without any law being broken and outside of any formal investigation or disciplinary process, is highly unusual. Potential precedents bear no relation to the statement attacking the Palestine Society, who were exonerated by LSESU and who, as even the university conceded, had done nothing illegal.

It is clear from the weakness of the statement that the university itself knows that there is little substance to the complaints. The timing and wording makes it clear that its publication is a sop to pro-Israel lobby groups, a goal for which it is apparently worth smearing its own students.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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