Freedom of speech at SOAS: thoughts from the scholars

As an institution, SOAS has built a strong reputation as a place which promotes uncensored opinion and freedom of debate.  In the face of the government’s programme on Prevent, which seeks to place limits on freedom of speech, SOAS has vigorously defended the right of controversial speakers to speak on campus despite some public criticism.

Recently, an invitation by student societies to the Israeli Ambassador, Mark Regev, to speak at SOAS has prompted impassioned opinion on all sides of the issue – academics and student societies signed a letter expressing their concern about the visit and others have written in defence of the event – of whether or not to allow a polarising figure to address the student population.

To explore these issues further, we invited a number of academics to from a range of perspectives to discuss freedom of speech in this context. Here is what some of the academics say:

Dr Yair Wallach, Lecturer in Israeli Studies:

“I believe this talk should go ahead, although I was not in favour of the invitation… the intellectual value of an address by an official state spokesperson is questionable.”

“Israeli ambassador Mark Regev will be speaking at SOAS today. I believe this talk should go ahead, although I was not in favour of the invitation. Our role as a university is not to restage the media’s soundbites, but to offer space for original, informed and critical reflection. Ambassador Regev is not a scholar or a public intellectual. He is a PR speaker representing the viewpoint of his government, a familiar face from UK TV channels, known for his polarising style. The spectacle of an official Israeli emissary visiting SOAS, with all the heightened security measures, attracts attention and controversy, but the intellectual value of an address by an official state spokesperson is questionable. This is why I saw little merit in the event. I declined to chair the talk, and advised the organisers to reconsider it.

“In our Hebrew and Israeli Studies programme at SOAS, we aim to move beyond the heated, over-familiar, and frustratingly performative debate on Israel and Palestine. We are the only place in the country where students can take not only a Hebrew degree, but also a joint honours course in modern Hebrew and Arabic, splitting their year abroad between an Arab university and the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. SOAS hosts a large number of talks on Israel by prominent scholars and artists. The European Association for Israeli Studies conference, held at SOAS in September 2016, featured conservative legal scholar Ruth Gavizon, celebrated novelist Dorit Rabinian, and dozens of other scholars. In SOAS Centre for Jewish Studies’ 2016 lecture series, Crossroads Israel, leading academics examined Israel’s Asian and African intersections, discussing East African music in South Tel Aviv, and connections between Zionism and South Asian nationalism. Professor Sammy Smooha, eminent sociologist and visiting professor at SOAS, spoke in a special Holocaust memorial event on genocide remembrance in Israel and Rwanda. This year’s annual Middle East departmental lecture was given by award-winning director Asher Tlalim, on the history of Israeli cinema. Many other relevant events are organised by the Centre for Palestine Studies and other departments in SOAS. This non-exhaustive list gives some idea about the richness and critical depth we seek to provide. We want to open up the discussion, not repeat well-worn and simplistic official narratives.

“The student organisers decided to go ahead with the invitation of Mr. Regev. Many staff members and students argued that the ambassador’s talk should not have been allowed, especially given severe Israeli violations of academic freedom in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. However, I believe there is no room for censorship of students’ events as long as SOAS procedures are met. In today’s climate of political retrenchment, social media echo chambers, and government clampdown on free speech as part of “Prevent” policy, universities should not support bans on students’ activities on campus. Universities should be the place for debate – not only for ambassadors, but primarily for marginalised voices and alternative and challenging ideas. Ambassador Regev has wide access to the media and hardly requires our platform. Yet banning his appearance in a student event would not only be wrong, it would also reinforce the increasing trend in the UK to ban controversial talks and conferences, such as the 2015 Southampton Conference on Israel/Palestine. It is first and foremost dissenting voices who stand lose from such development.”

 

Dr Dina Matar, Senior Lecturer in Arab Media and Political Communication, Centre for Media Studies, School of Arts:

“The argument that extending an invitation to Israeli Ambassador Mark Regev to speak at SOAS is about freedom of debate or speech is unsustainable and lacks proper contextualization.”

“The argument that extending an invitation to Israeli Ambassador Mark Regev to speak at SOAS is about freedom of debate or speech is unsustainable and lacks proper contextualization.  While freedom of debate or speech is an unquestionable basic human right that the SOAS community, in particular, upholds, Regev and other representatives of the Israeli state do not need an academic platform to make more claims and legitimize their practices. Unlike many Palestinians, even those with no official position, they are automatically accorded the right to speak ‘freely’ at diverse platforms in the UK and elsewhere. Regev, well known for his media savvy persona and his ability to manufacture and disseminate ‘fake news’ in defence of Israeli settlements and expansion plans, its repression of the Palestinians and its indiscriminate attacks against Gaza and elsewhere, does not need the argument around ‘freedom of speech’ to legitimize and normalize long-standing and continuous repressive practices against the Palestinians and which include denying them their right to freedom of speech for almost 70 years. Finally, Regev does not talk for himself, but is the official representative of a state that has not only denied freedom of speech to many Palestinians, but that has also used repressive tactics and practices to prevent them from making any claims in many public platforms. As such, any discussion around freedom of speech and around who has the right to speak and where cannot be made without making reference to structural contexts, including unequal power relations and oppressive systems of control. The public needs to be reminded of these contexts particularly when Regev visits and as he talks.”

 

Professor Stefan Sperl, Head of Department, Department of the Languages and Cultures of the Near and Middle East:

“I believe that an academic institution should maintain channels of communication open with all sides of a conflict, notwithstanding any differences of views.”

“I strongly feel that the visit by the Israeli Ambassador should be allowed to go ahead, and this for two reasons. Firstly, and as a matter of principle, I believe that an academic institution should maintain channels of communication open with all sides of a conflict, notwithstanding any differences of views.

“Preventing the Ambassador’s visit is likely to harm Palestinian interests by jeopardising our valuable programme with An-Najah National University in Nablus (which has made it possible for some 60 SOAS students to spend an academic year studying Arabic in Palestine) and by making it even more difficult for SOAS staff and students to gain access to the Occupied Territories. It will therefore simply add to the isolation of Palestinian academia.”

 

Professor Gilbert Achcar, Professor of Development Studies and International Relations:

“the rally on Thursday evening at SOAS … is a parallel event to protest against the oppressive policies that Mark Regev represents [and] is an incomparably more legitimate exercise of the “freedom of speech””

“Israel’s Ambassador Mark Regev certainly enjoys much more “freedom of speech” in the UK than most of us: it is much easier for him to get his opinion through the mass media in this country than for any of our academics, not to mention our students.

“Does this give him a “right” to speak at an academic institution?

“We need first a clear criterion that prevents any “double standard”. Here is a minimal criterion: for an official state representative to have a right to “freedom of speech” at SOAS, s/he must represent a state that offers us likewise “freedom of speech” on its territory.

“So where does Mark Regev stand from this angle?

“Does the state he represents grant the SOAS community “freedom of speech”? Anyone wondering about this should ask our colleague Adam Hanieh: he has been banned from entering the state of Israel and therefore the occupied West Bank (which was his actual destination) for nothing but his political opinions. Likewise ask the many students who were denied entry under similar conditions. Didn’t the Israeli state officially decide to ban any supporter of BDS (a non-violent form of protest par excellence) from entering its territory? This new law has recently been used to ban Kamel Hawwash, Professor of Civil Engineering at the University of Birmingham, from entering Israel. And keep in mind that close to 75% voted in favour of BDS at the referendum that was organised at SOAS two years ago.

“Why then should we grant the official representative of the Israeli state a “freedom of speech” on our campus? Isn’t it clear enough that the Israeli embassy in the UK is trying intensively to curtail the “freedom of speech” of university students and staff and “prevent” them from expressing criticism of the Israeli government and solidarity with the Palestinians?

“This said, the organisers of the rally on Thursday evening at SOAS did not conceive it as aimed at preventing the Mark Regev event from being held since the SOAS directorate has decided to allow it, but as a parallel event to protest against the oppressive policies that Mark Regev represents and express solidarity with the victims of these policies. This is an incomparably more legitimate exercise of the “freedom of speech” of students and staff than the deliberately provocative invitation by a tiny minority of students of the representative of the Israeli state to speak on our campus.”

 

Professor Alison Scott Baumann, Professor of Society and Belief and Simon Perfect, Teaching Fellow, Department of Religions and Philosophies:

“If this speaker is given a platform at SOAS and given a hearing, politely and calmly, we can move on to the next step …. If this talk is cancelled because of safety risks, the speaker will have been denied a voice, which is what happens constantly to Palestinians. Let us hear him.”

The below extract is taken from the article: ‘Freedom of speech: what does it mean?’ – read the full article here.

“This poses legal and ethical dilemmas for the university management. On the legal side, they are required to uphold freedom of speech within the law as far as is reasonably practicable. But under charity law, they must also protect the university’s reputation – in this case a lose-lose situation, because either upholding or rejecting the request for this speaker will inevitably damage the university’s reputation in the eyes of different sections of the public. This creates tension between acting in accordance with the views of the (presumed) majority of students and staff (rejecting the speaker request) and protecting the rights of the minority of supportive students to participate fully in university life and have their interests represented.

“Where do we go from here? There should be a balanced approach if we are to ensure fairness. This can only be achieved by running a series of events, after he has spoken at SOAS, to make the facts accessible, despite the fact that the website Safe Campus Communities recently listed ‘contentious’ topics:  “Vocal support for Palestine”, “Opposition to Israeli settlements in Gaza”, “Criticism of wars in the Middle East” “Rise of terrorism as a result of foreign policy” and “Opposition to Prevent”. Safe Campus Communities is the name of the website set up by Universities UK to provide sector guidance on Prevent, the counter-terror package. The website contains assertions that freedom of speech around such topics must be allowed, protected and exercised. However, the topic list indicates risks in being interested in such matters and the ignorance of these topics does not inspire confidence (there are no Israeli settlements in Gaza). Asking universities to be wary of discussion of settlements goes against the legal protection of free speech.

“If this speaker is given a platform at SOAS and given a hearing, politely and calmly, we can move on to the next step, which is to say ‘we have heard you and now we will continue to arrange to hear other viewpoints.’ If those subsequent arrangements are cancelled, then we will have no balanced position on this issue. If this talk is cancelled because of safety risks, the speaker will have been denied a voice, which is what happens constantly to Palestinians. Let us hear him.”

(1) http://www.safecampuscommunities.ac.uk/ Exchanging knowledge. Helping prevent violent extremism and radicalisation

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