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Cambridge University officials threatened to cancel BDS event on ‘health and safety’ grounds

Image of a BDS march on 16 August 2014 [Alex Chis/Flickr]
BDS march on 16 August 2014 [Alex Chis/Flickr]

University of Cambridge officials told students that a panel event on the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign would be cancelled on “health and safety” grounds if they did not accept the replacement of the event’s chair, it has been revealed.

The BDS event went ahead last Wednesday, but only after the planned chair, SOAS academic Ruba Salih, had been replaced by the university’s Director of Communications, Paul Mylrea.

An open letter condemning the university’s “interference” with the student-organised event has been signed by renowned MIT Professor Noam Chomsky, as well as dozens of other academics from the University of Oxford, SOAS, LSE, Birmingham, Leeds, and Warwick, among others.

SOAS academic Ruba Salih. [Power2Youth/YouTube]

SOAS academic Ruba Salih. [Power2Youth/YouTube]

Over the last few days, university spokespersons have responded to media interest in the story by claiming that “following calls from the organisers for extra safety measures, a neutral chair was provided to ensure that all sides were represented”.

Emails seen by MEMO, however, show that this is only a partial version of events.

On 2 November, the week before the event, student organisers wrote to university officials about logistics, including a request for some security staff in case of disruption. Pro-Israel activists have a track record of attending and disrupting events on UK campuses.

Read: US: Trump’s pledge to Israel secured his election victory

However, it was only on 8 November, the morning of the event, that university staff responded by demanding that the chair be replaced, citing not only the students’ request for a security presence, but also “the subject of the meeting” and “the opposition to the meeting proceeding”.

The latter is most likely a reference to a coordinated email campaign by Israel advocacy group StandWithUs, who urged its activists to demand the cancellation of the event on the basis of smears against the scheduled speakers (a cached version of the email campaign is here).

These two factors – the meeting’s “subject” and “opposition” to it going ahead at all – have not been mentioned by university spokespersons when explaining the imposition of a new chair.

In addition, the university email, sent hours before the start of the event, warned the students that failure to comply with the new arrangements would risk the panel being cancelled altogether on “health and safety” grounds.

According to the open letter of protest, Cambridge’s actions means that the university “risks being seen to side with those who seek to silence the voices of the marginalised, and raises questions about the extent of its commitment to free speech”.

Event organiser Ed McNally said:

The outpouring of high-profile support for our open letter, as well as concern from Cambridge academics, has been pleasing.

“We will be encouraging the University to review its practices and refrain from behaving in such a manner again”.

In September, it was revealed that the University of Manchester “censored the title of a Holocaust survivor’s criticism of Israel and insisted that her campus talk be recorded”, following a meeting by university officials with Israeli ambassador to the UK Mark Regev.

In February, the University of Central Lancashire cancelled an event organised by students as part of Israeli Apartheid Week, citing a contentious definition of antisemitism.

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