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UK academics condemn university’s ‘deference’ to Israeli embassy

Students belonging to the University of Manchester take part in a BDS campaign
Students belonging to the University of Manchester take part in a BDS campaign

Forty-three academics from the University of Manchester (UoM) have signed an open letter condemning senior figures at the university for suppressing free speech in “deference” to the Israeli Ambassador, Mark Regev.

In the letter addressed to the President of the University, Professor Nancy Rothwell, the academics protested against senior staff at the UoM who held a meeting with the Israeli embassy prior to an event organised by the university’s student Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign earlier this year.

Recounting the incident from this year’s Israeli Apartheid Week, the letter states that “while the event went ahead, the speech of a Jewish Holocaust survivor was arrogantly censored and labelled ‘anti-semitic’.” The academics confirmed details of the university’s unwarranted restrictions on free speech saying “the right to superintend the meeting by university academic staff was usurped by institutional appointees, restrictions were placed on advertising the event, and the whole thing was filmed in what amounted to an implicit threat of further action should the institution’s definition of what constitutes reasonable arguments be breached”.

Israeli Apartheid Week UK poster

Israeli Apartheid Week UK poster

Expressing his concerns, senior lecturer at the university and one of the signatories to the letter, Dr Nicholas Thoburn said in a written statement to MEMO: “The letter signed by 43 colleagues to the President of the University identifies developments of real concern for those who would seek to hold governments to account in reasoned, critical debate.”

Email exchanges between the university and the Israeli embassy obtained through freedom of information request, seen by MEMO, revealed details of the meeting with Regev hosted by senior UoM staff.

Narrating the details of what appeared be an example of undue influence exerted by the Israeli embassy, the academics complained:

As if such serious infringements of the right to freedom of speech on campus were not bad enough, it is now revealed by a student Freedom of Information request, which had to be enforced by the Information Commissioner’s Office, that the university’s actions were taken after representations from, and in deference to, the very regime whose lamentable human rights record was being condemned at the event.

“We are appalled that the university took instruction from the current Ambassador to Israel, Mark Regev,” they protested, adding, “who, in his former capacity as spokesperson to the Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, justified to the world successive military assaults on Gaza that resulted in the indiscriminate killing of men, women and children in attacks on hospitals, homes and places of work using both high-precision weaponry, which suggests the deliberate targeting of civilians, and imprecise and indiscriminate materiel, including white phosphorous bombs, as reports by organisations such as Amnesty International attest.”

In his statement to MEMO, Thoburn said his colleagues were disgusted by the upcoming celebration to mark the centenary of the Balfour Declaration, which promised the Zionist movement Palestine as a homeland.

Read: Israeli embassy accused of pressuring UK university to censor free speech

“We don’t know whether university officials will have a direct presence when the Balfour celebrations take place on campus, but many colleagues are appalled that the university has allowed itself to be associated in any way with this commemoration of the moment Britain, in its imperial chauvinism, knowingly gave the green light to the ethnic cleansing of Palestine.”

The letter cited late Labour MP Sir Gerald Kaufman, who condemned Israeli actions in the strongest terms, saying: “My grandmother did not die [by a Nazi gun] to provide cover for Israeli soldiers murdering Palestinian grandmothers in Gaza.”

Kaufmann also said that “the present Israeli government ruthlessly and cynically exploits the continuing guilt among Gentiles over the slaughter of Jews in the Holocaust as justification for their murder of Palestinians.”

In their complaint to UoM the academics surmise that Sir Gerald was “drawing attention to tactics of the Israeli State in deflecting criticism of its grotesquely unequal war on and ethnic cleansing of Palestinians, tactics with which the university’s actions appear complicit.”

They called on the university to issue an apology to the students and to “make clear that it defends the principles of free speech and assembly against attempts to inhibit them by foreign states and other powerful external parties.”

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  • Matt McLaughlin

    Double-standard! Stop it now.