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The right to protest is as precious as freedom of speech

November 17, 2021 at 11:52 am

Scores of students came out to protest against the LSE Debate Society hosting Israeli Ambassador to the UK, Tzipi Hotovely, on campus in London on 9 November 2021 [@LSEforPalestine/Twitter]

Student protests on campus are nothing new and trying to deny controversial speakers a platform is not a recent invention. Protestors have, over the years, argued that some speakers pose a threat simply by being allowed to spout their unpalatable opinions.

Speaking as someone who has been denied a platform, and been on the receiving end of abuse and aggressive behaviour for my support for Palestine and its people, especially from pro-Israel students, in my opinion, it is wrong to ban speakers. Nevertheless, I see no reason why students or other groups should not be allowed to protest peacefully to make their views known before, during and after meetings with speakers whose opinions they disagree with. This form of activism on university campuses is a sign of healthy debate and free speech.

Students should not be treated like delicate hothouse flowers — what we call snowflakes these days — to be protected from all things unpleasant. The whole point of going to university, surely, is to learn and share knowledge, thoughts and ideas; importantly, to be taught to listen to all sides of an issue before reaching conclusions.

Being exposed to new and possibly challenging views is all part of the educational experience; without it, how can real academic freedom exist? In the past, I have protested against invitations given to controversial speakers, sometimes successfully, other times less so. The point is that we were allowed to protest, whether events went ahead or not.

It was entirely predictable that when students at the London School of Economics (LSE) invited controversial Israeli Ambassador Tzipi Hotovely to speak on campus there would be opposition. After all, Hotovely is well known for promoting all that is wicked about the apartheid state of Israel and, in terms of being offensive towards religious and racial groups, she’s up there with the worst extremists ever to have spoken on public platforms anywhere.

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As my fellow MEMO columnist Asa Winstanley wrote in a recent article: “[Hotovely] is a far-right religious extremist who claims that God gave the ‘Land of Israel’ (historical Palestine) to the Jews, and to the Jews alone. ‘The land is ours… all of it is ours. We did not come here to apologise for that.’”

Indeed, she is the living proof that a one-dimensional education and ideological upbringing churns out extremist thinkers. There must be educational establishments in Israel which follow the Golda Meir line that Palestinians are either non-existent or raging anti-Semites; Palestinian history is simply not mentioned in textbooks.

The ambassador has expressed similar sentiments, so it would have been interesting to hear her speak in the LSE Student Union’s debate on Middle East peace titled “Perspectives on Israel and Palestine”. Sane people generally condemn Holocaust deniers — and I can’t imagine the LSE ever giving the podium to such an individual — and yet the Israeli ambassador in London was given a platform despite being a Nakba denier. She describes the well-documented catastrophe of the ethnic cleansing of 800,000 Palestinians in 1948 as a “popular Arab lie”. It’s worth noting that the term ethnic cleansing was first applied in this context by an Israeli historian.

The Likud parliamentarian has churned out endless insults over the years after being recruited and mentored by the equally odious Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s longest-serving Prime Minister. She is much loved and admired by the far right in the Zionist state, including the 600,000 illegal settlers in the occupied West Bank, and her extremist ideology resonates with far-right groups around the world. In my opinion, Hotovely has the potential to be a very dangerous person in terms of inciting hatred and trashing human rights, and is almost certainly a poster girl for Zionist extremists and white supremacists in Britain.

She is also a divisive figure within Jewish circles. When she’s not targeting Palestinians for abuse, she reserves some of her worst bile for Jews living outside the Zionist state, especially those who have integrated or hold views that clash with hers. Courtesy of Winstanley’s research, we also know that she will even invoke anti-Semitic tropes about Jews, as this 2019 video during the Likud election campaign reveals.

READ: Protests as LSE hosts Nakba denying Israel envoy

“Jewish supporters of Palestinian rights in Hotovely’s video were attacked in grossly anti-Semitic terms,” wrote Winstanley. “They were depicted as being paid agents of a Jewish conspiracy against Israel who, when punched out by Hotovely (depicted as a superhero), scream: ‘Oy vey! My German Euros!”

It was thus inevitable that pro-Palestine, pro-justice protestors turned up in force outside the LSE event where Hotovely was given a free rein to express her racist, anti-Palestinian views. Although organised by the LSE Debating Society, there was no debate. No opposing views were on offer, allowing the ambassador to speak without being challenged.

After the event, she was ushered out by Israeli security guards while police officers formed a thin blue line between them and the protestors. The latter were very vocal, as you can imagine, in the presence of a far-right racist who had rocked up to speak before an unquestioning audience filled with like-minded supporters of Israel and, who knows, even racist extremists like herself.

The ambassador’s exit took less than 30 seconds but it was followed by an astonishing narrative, with Home Secretary Priti Patel accusing the protestors of intimidation. The right-wing media jumped on the bandwagon, as did other government ministers and their shadows in the opposition, led by Zionist Labour leader Keir Starmer and his foreign affairs sidekick Lisa Nandy. At least one observer has described their comments in support of the right-wing ambassador of the apartheid state of Israel as “fact free”.

All of these pro-Israel cheerleaders seemed to overlook the fact that this is the age of the smartphone. Had they bothered to check social media before speaking they would have heard nothing more than jeers, boos and a chorus of “Shame on you!” from the protestors outside the LSE. There were no punches thrown, no injuries or violence and no arrests. Check here for yourself. Despite this evidence, somewhat unbelievably the LSE is now conducting a formal investigation.

The anti-Palestinian Jewish Chronicle ran a comment piece that is at odds with the evidence, claiming that, “Hotovely, was forced out of the LSE by violent racists on the hunt for a Jew to attack.” This was an outrageous slur against people exercising their right to protest against the official representative of an apartheid state. However, if the libel payouts for sloppy, vindictive smear campaigns against pro-Palestine individuals and even charities that provide humanitarian aid to Palestinians are anything to go by, then there is a strong case to say that the community newspaper has a long-distance relationship with the truth.

The “violent racists on the hunt for a Jew to attack” claim has to be a new low for the Jewish Chronicle. Little wonder, then, that on Thursday at the LSE library at midday, staff, students and their supporters are planning a solidarity rally. This should not only serve as a reminder to the university that it has a duty of care for all students to “have the unquestionable right to express their political views and organise demonstrations on our campus”, but it should also serve notice to the media that we all have a duty to report responsibly without whipping up hate and fear. The right to protest in a democracy like ours is just as precious as the right to freedom of speech.

Tzipi Hotovely had her time at the podium without interruption; those who disagree with her odious views had every right to express their opposition afterwards. The protest was no anti-Semitic “hunt for a Jew to attack”; it was a pro-Palestine, pro-justice demonstration against someone who denies the people of Palestine their legitimate rights. Why would anyone want to attack the protestors for that?

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