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Rushing to support the 'ugly, extremist face of Israel' does not defend 'free speech'

Israeli Ambassador to the UK Tzipi Hotovely in Jerusalem on 11 January 2017 [MENAHEM KAHANA/AFP/Getty Images]
Israeli Ambassador to the UK Tzipi Hotovely in Jerusalem on 11 January 2017 [MENAHEM KAHANA/AFP/Getty Images]

Britain is mired in another row about freedom of speech following Tuesday's student protest against extreme right-wing Israeli Ambassador Tzipi Hotovely. To the dismay of Palestinian student groups, the 42-year-old was invited by the Debating Society at the London School of Economics (LSE) for what was billed as a public debate around "Perspectives on Israel-Palestine".

In the lead-up to the controversial debate, the LSE Student Union's Palestine Society released a strongly worded statement condemning the decision to give Hotovely a platform. They expressed concerns over her extremist views which, the students insisted, disqualified the anti-Palestinian ambassador from speaking at the LSE based on the university's own External Speaker's Policy and Code of Practice on Free Speech.

In their statement, the society pointed to the Israeli ambassador's "track record of anti-Palestinian racism and war crimes". They outlined examples of Hotovely's racist rhetoric, such as dismissing the 1948 Nakba (Catastrophe) as "an Arab lie" and advocating for the building of settlements, which are illegal under international law. It argued that the "LSE's duty of care towards its Palestinian and Muslim students" would be violated by giving a platform to Hotovely.

"There is no room for such bigoted and racist rhetoric on our LSE campus," said eighteen student groups in an open letter. "There is no room for the denial of Palestinian existence on our LSE campus. There is no room for colonial apologism [sic] on our LSE campus."

Concerns expressed by the Palestinian student groups echoed the general disquiet about Hotovely within sections of the British Jewish community. Since her appointment as ambassador to the UK last year, Hotovely has been in the headlines over her racist views. The daughter of immigrants from the then Soviet Republic of Georgia, she has been described as the "ugly, extremist face of Israel". She is said to be an unabashed Islamophobe and religious fundamentalist who not only denies the existence of the Palestinian people, but also supports the annexation of the entire West Bank as well as Jewish control of Al-Aqsa Mosque. Her views put her at odds with the international community, large sections the Jewish community and the British government itself.

READ: UK's Orthodox Jewish leaders denounce right-wing Israel ambassador's visit

Highlighting the deep wedge created by Hotovely among British Jews, nearly 1,500 signed a petition calling on the Boris Johnson government to reject her appointment as ambassador of Israel. "Hotovely has demonstrated a complete disregard for international law throughout her political career, and has an appalling record of racist and inflammatory behaviour," the Jewish signatories pointed out.

Liberal Jews in Britain also demanded the cancellation of an event with Hotovely. They insisted that in honouring her with an invitation "our community has therefore become that much more tolerant of racism." One of the chairs of Liberal Judaism resigned in protest. Hotovely's presence is so toxic that last month Jewish protesters stormed into one of her talks with banners saying "Racism isn't kosher" and "Stop hosting Hotovely".

In the most recent repudiation of the far-right ambassador, prominent leaders of the British Jewish community denounced a visit by Hotovely in an apparent refusal to recognise the occupation states' right to exist. Leaders of the community slammed her visit and said that she was not welcome in their area.

In inviting Hotovely, it seems that concerns around her extremist and racist views were brushed aside by the LSE Debating Society. Needless to say, such tolerance for racism and bigotry is unlikely to be extended to members of any other group.

The free speech row that followed the ambassador's visit to the LSE arose after a short video was posted online showing Hotovely making a swift exit after her talk to avoid protesters. She is seen holding flowers while surrounded by both British police and Israeli Embassy security guards as she made a dash for her official car. The footage triggered a torrent of anger against the protestors by the right-wing media, government ministers and opposition politicians, with the usual fact-free allegations of "anti-Semitism" and "attack on free speech" thrown in for good measure.

READ: UK ministers condemn protest against Israeli ambassador

"I am so sorry Ambassador Hotovely," tweeted Secretary of State for Education Nadhim Zahawi, who described her exit from the LSE as "deeply disturbing". His remark was typical of the way that the right-wing media and British politicians protect Israel and denigrate Palestinians. The impression given was that the Israeli official had been denied her right to free speech and hounded out of the LSE building.

Zahawi's remarks and the 40-second video had the desired effect. At one point #Kristallnacht, a reference to the brutal anti-Jewish pogrom in Nazi Germany, began trending on twitter. Anti-Palestinian newspaper the Jewish Chronicle published a sensational article with a headline declaring the protestors to be "a Jew hunting mob [sic]". Rubbish punctuation aside, this was not only untrue, but also inflammatory, no doubt deliberately so.

Labour's Shadow Foreign Secretary, Lisa Nandy, fuelled the hysteria. "The appalling treatment of Israeli Ambassador @TzipiHotovely is completely unacceptable," she tweeted. "There is no excuse for this kind of behaviour. Freedom of speech is a fundamental right and any attempt to silence or intimidate those we disagree with should never be tolerated."

Nandy's defence of Hotovely was slammed by many of her followers on Twitter. They asked if it is Labour policy to support "apartheid" and if she believed that the students also had the right to free speech. "Protest against apartheid is entirely legitimate," said one. "That a Labour politician should oppose it is deeply weird, though currently unexpected."

It was also pointed out that contrary to the fact-free narrative that was being spread by the right-wing media and politicians like Nandy, Hotovely had actually spoken in the debate. The event went ahead in full without interruptions and the ambassador left as scheduled. Her freedom of speech was not impeded. She was, however, booed as she left the university building, but was not in any danger. Contradicting the hysteria of the pro-Israel narrative, the Metropolitan Police confirmed that there were no incidents of note and that no one was arrested at the protest.

An account of the evening by the LSE for Palestine group concurred with the police view. A statement by the group emphasised that Hotovely did not "flee" the event, nor was she denied a platform, contrary to what earlier, unsubstantiated reports on Twitter had stated. Instead, the statement revealed that she was "welcomed with open arms".

It is clear that the protestors used their voices in their protest, and were not violent. A few hours before the event, LSE for Palestine published a post on its Instagram page establishing which chants would be acceptable, making it clear that the intention was to show their dismay at the extremist Israeli ambassador being given a platform.

The LSE Debating Society spoke to the Electronic Intifada but failed to mention any threat to Hotovely. "We respect and affirm the right of people to protest at our events but condemn all forms of threats and aggression," vice President Abhijith Subramanian is reported as saying. Asked repeatedly to clarify what "threats and aggression" had been seen, Subramanian did not answer.

The rush to defend Hotovely's right to free speech is all the more ironic because the biggest threat to this democratic ideal on campuses and within society at large comes from pro-Israel groups that want to put a stop to valid criticism of Israel through a highly controversial definition of anti-Semitism that conflates legitimate criticism of the occupation state with racism towards Jews. Israel is a state which, let's not forget, has taken an extremely authoritarian turn by denying Palestinians their right to free speech in all kinds of ways, from criminalising human rights groups to jailing peaceful protestors.

When such measures fail, the Israeli army and illegal settlers are on hand to shoot, maim and kill Palestinians with sickening regularity. Has anyone ever heard Tzipi Hotovely condemn such attacks? No? I thought not.

READ: Protests as LSE hosts Nakba denying Israel envoy

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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