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Cambridge university apologies for removing Palestinian chair of BDS event

Image of protesters supporting the BDS movement outside Downing Street during Benjamin Netanyahu's visit to the UK on September 9 2016
Protesters supporting the BDS movement outside Downing Street during Benjamin Netanyahu's visit to the UK on September 9 2016 [File photo]

The University of Cambridge has apologised to a Palestinian academic who officials removed as chairperson from a November 2017 event on the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement.

As reported by Al Jazeera, Ruba Salih from the School of African and Oriental Studies (SOAS) in London was “stopped from moderating the event organised by pro-Palestinian activists and replaced by the university’s own choice, apparently over concerns about her neutrality”.

The demand caused anger amongst activists with an open letter condemning the university’s interference signed by dozens of academics including renowned MIT Professor Noam Chomsky.

Now, the university has conceded that it made a mistake, stating that the decision to replace Salih as chairperson portrayed the SOAS scholar “in a manner that does not befit a respected academic with more than 15 years’ experience of chairing meetings in a balanced and scholarly way”.

“We therefore would like to apologise to Dr Salih for removing her as a chair, and we recognise that there was no evidence to support the view that she would not ensure a democratic debate, allowing all views to be expressed”, the statement continued.

Read: Cardiff University students protest visit of Israel Ambassador Mark Regev

Salih told Al Jazeera that she welcomed the apology, saying it “was very important for me because I’m a respected academic who has been teaching and chairing panels for 15 years”.

“This is important recognition that no matter what your origin or research interests are, you are an academic capable of allowing a plurality of viewpoints,” she added.

According to the Al Jazeera report, “the university took the decision after a meeting of its Prevent Referral Group, which was called 24 hours before the event on BDS was due to take place.”

Salih said the “counter-extremism” Prevent programme presented a risk to academic freedom on campuses. “There is a pressure on universities to curtail academic freedom when it comes to Palestinian centric issues…to allow certain types of debate and not others”.

Cambridge initially justified the move to bar Salih as a consequence of the student organisers’ request for a security presence at the event, fearing disruption from pro-Israeli activists.

However, in exclusive emails seen by MEMO, it was clearly stated that the chair was removed due to “the subject of the meeting” and “the opposition to the meeting proceeding”. The latter was 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 speaker.

Cambridge in not the only UK university to have barred the activity of pro-Palestinian groups on campus. 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.

Last February, the University of Central Lancashire also cancelled an event organised by students as part of Israeli Apartheid Week, citing a contentious definition of anti-Semitism.

Read: UK university removes Israel brand following BDS campaign

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