A UK university has been accused by students of bowing to Israeli pressure and censoring free speech following revelations of a meeting between university officials and the Israeli ambassador days before an event during Israel Apartheid Week.
Email correspondence obtained through a freedom of information request, seen by MEMO, reveal details of a meeting between the Israeli Ambassador Mark Regev and senior staff at the University of Manchester (UoM) prior to an event during Israel Apartheid Week last March.
The documents were obtained from UoM after the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) – the body regulating data protection in the UK – found UoM to be in breach of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) by not disclosing information requested by a student activist over its relations with controversial Israeli institutions.
Manchester University student, Huda Ammori, lodged the complaint against UoM after an unsuccessful bid to obtain details about the nature of the university’s relation with Israeli organisations. In August, the ICO stepped in and instructed UoM to provide a response to the request within 35 days, in accordance with its obligations under the FOIA.
In one of the correspondence obtained by Ammori, the Israeli embassy thanked Dr Tim Westlake, director of student experience at UoM, for “hosting” the Israeli ambassador and “discussing openly some of the difficult issues that [we] face”. The embassy also discussed ways to “increase take up of the Erasmus Programme”, which is a European Union student exchange programme.
The email correspondence includes details of the meeting between UoM and the Israeli embassy, in particular, their concerns over two events organised by the university’s Action Palestine and BDS societies, during Israeli Apartheid Week. In its email the embassy said: “These are just two events of many that they are running in their so called and offensively titled ‘Israeli Apartheid Week’.”
Israeli embassy staff accused the speakers, including Holocaust survivor and historian Marika Sherwood, of anti-Semitism. They said that the speakers had “cross[ed] the line into hate speech” and that their talk was not “legitimate criticism” of Israel. The officials were especially keen to stress their disapproval of the talk by Sherwood, which was going to compare her experience as a child surviving Nazi brutality and the injustices committed by the Israelis against the Palestinians.
In her response to the accusations, Sherwood told MEMO:
I am not an anti-Semitic Jew! I am an anti-Israeli Jew! The two are not the same. And yes, to me the way Israelis behave towards the Palestinians, whose land/property they have claimed/confiscated/overtaken is as the Nazis behaved towards me and my fellow Jews in Hungary WWII.
“We cant all go back to where our ancestors lived thousands, even hundreds, of years ago,” Sherwood reasoned. “Can you imagine all the Brits who settled in the Americas, in Australia, NZ, South Africa, coming back to claim the UK?”
Organisers, unaware that senior UoM officials had met with the Israeli embassy days before the event, were pressured to meet a number of demands before the university granted permission to hold the event: Academics chosen to chair the meetings were replaced by university appointees, publicity was limited to students and staff, the organisers were told talks would be recorded and the title of Sherwood’s talk had to be changed because “of its unduly provocative nature”.
MEMO contacted UoM over the allegation that they censored free speech, their reasons for putting pressure on the students and if it was in the habit of senior staff to host foreign embassy delegations to discuss internal university matters.
In response, UoM spokesperson said: “Events held on campus are reviewed under the University’s Code of Practice on Freedom of Speech if they concern potentially controversial topics and whenever they involve external speakers. This includes events organised through and in the University of Manchester Students’ Union. In deciding whether or not an event should go ahead, the University pays due regard to all relevant legislation, including the Equality Act 2010.”
“However, such legislation does not act to prohibit completely the expression of controversial views. In this case the University allowed the events to proceed in line with the requirements of the Act and our commitment to principles of freedom of speech and expression.”
While the university refuses to admit any outside coercion, the Israeli embassy has previously been found to have exerted undue influence on British institutions. Earlier this year an Al Jazeera documentary made the sensational revelation concerning a senior Israeli diplomat, Shai Masot, who was captured on video conspiring to “take down” certain UK government ministers such as Sir Alan Duncan for speaking out against Israeli policy and sympathising with the plight of the Palestinians.
The scoop also revealed that the Israeli embassy was providing covert assistance to supposedly independent groups within the Labour party; jobs at the embassy were being offered to groom young Labour activists; and how concerned the embassy was with removing not just Foreign Office Minister Sir Alan Duncan, but also Crispin Blunt MP, the chair of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee (both of whom are Conservative MPs), as well as Jeremy Corbyn MP, the leader of the Labour party.