The screening of a documentary at a UK university about the legacy of the Balfour Declaration in Palestine was cut short yesterday following coordinated "intimidating practices" by a pro-Israeli group thought to be members of a far right Jewish extremist organisation.
Disruption and "mob behaviour" by individuals later identified as members of the Jewish Defence League (JDL) – an organisation that is known to have close ties with far-right groups in the UK – forced the chair of the viewing to end yesterday's event early due to fears over student safety.
Organised by the Centre for Palestine Studies in SOAS, the screening of "From Balfour to Banksy: Visions and Divisions in Palestine" was eagerly awaited by students. Chaired by one of SOAS' own lecturers, Dr Dina Matar, the event quickly sold out. Organisers had hoped to engage the audience in a discussion with the Director, Martin Buckley, and Producer, Miranda Pinch.
The film itself was described by the organisers as being "about the legacy of the Balfour Declaration which look[s] at the present situation in Palestine and Israel as well as the history behind it and the possibilities for the future".
MEMO contacted the chair, the producer and spoke to a number of students about the incident, who all said that the disruption to the event appeared planned and orchestrated in advance. Matar told MEMO that one of the questioners began to shout at the panel and created a "very unpleasant atmosphere". The lecturer said she was worried that the pro-Israeli activist was "going to become violent".
Matar said she was surprised by the reaction, which appears to be a response to an observation by one of the persons interviewed in the movie who described Gaza as a "child concentration camp". She added that the event was meant to encourage debate and discussion within an academic setting. The documentary, according to the lecturer, "aimed to show the situation of Palestinians where they live. It showed the human side and the daily living conditions and the lived reality of the Palestinians."
In the video footage of the event sent to MEMO, the pro-Israeli activists can be seen screaming and shouting. The activist was later identified by organisers as Shadman Zaman, a medical doctor working in Blackpool Victoria Hospital. Members of the audience, intimidated by the aggressive tone of Zaman and the Israeli flag waving, can be seen leaving the event. One elderly woman appears visibly upset and stunned. A student confirmed to MEMO that a number of people had been brought to tears by the frightening ordeal.
MEMO was informed by a student who wished not be identified that "some of the attendees are connected to the JDL which is the Jewish division of the EDL [English Defence League] a far right group of thugs." The student confirmed that they "behaved … [like] … football hooligans".
The student explained that they were unaware that the JDL and EDL were "enmeshed" until it was pointed out to them by a friend, who recognised the individuals from anti-EDL marches they had taken part in.
After the event, Hoffman in a tweet accused the producer of the movie of anti-Semitism and of supressing free speech. In her response to the accusation, Pinch told MEMO: "Yes free speech was definitely suppressed, but not by us. The tactics of those who try to prevent any information about the plight of the Palestinians or any open discussion on the subject is indeed suppression of free speech. We, the producers of the film, were not even allowed to answer questions. We were just shouted at in an abusive manner while they manically waved Israeli flags. The impression given was that they had no valid questions or arguments and just wanted to prevent ours."
Against the more serious accusation of anti-Semitism, Pinch, who is a member of Jews for Justice for Palestinians, said: "There is nothing in my background to suggest I am anti-Israel as such. I have, however, been very critical of Israel's policies towards non-Jews and am very proud to have worked alongside Jewish human rights groups who feel the same."
"I have NEVER advocated the destruction/removal of Israel, however terrible its creation was for those who had the misfortune to live on that land and suffered and still suffer the consequences of Israel's dispossession and violence towards them," Pinch continued.
"I have ALWAYS made it clear that I stand for equality and human rights for all in that region and that includes Jews, Christians, Muslims and anyone else living there. I am a signatory of Jews for Justice and have many Jewish friends, both practising and non-practising. My view, as most of theirs, is that Israel does not represent the Jewish religion at all. The Old Testament exhorts the Jews again and again to care for the stranger in their midst and to love justice. Israeli policies bring Judaism into disrepute," said Pinch.