Anti-Israel abuse at UK universities impacting on free speech, report claims

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Anti-Israel abuse at UK universities impacting on free speech, report claims

New report by Higher Education Policy Institute thinktank claims uni debates have been cancelled over fears of a repeat of the scenes that greeted Israeli ambassador to the UK when she took part in debate at the LSE

Lee Harpin is the Jewish News's political editor

Tzipi Hotovely being bundled into a car and driven away from LSE event as protesters swarm car 2021 Screenshot Twitter)
Tzipi Hotovely being bundled into a car and driven away from LSE event as protesters swarm car 2021 Screenshot Twitter)

Abuse directed at the organisers of a debate held at the London School of Economics (LSE) with the Israeli ambassador to the UK has left the institution reluctant to host future speaker events, a report has found.

The new report by the think tank the Higher Education Policy Institute (Hepi) says of the November 2021 debate with Tzipi Hotovely: “At the LSE, the ‘stress’ involved with hosting the Israeli ambassador split the committee, around half of whom resigned.

It made LSE reluctant to host future speaker events and reduced turnout to other events they ran.”

Hepi claim to have found a  culture of “quiet no-platforming” and a climate of fear ehich is now constraining free speech at universities.

Two events at Queen University Belfast – one on Israel, again featuring the ambassador, the other discussing abortion –  were met with protests outside.

A president at the Oxford Union refused to hold a panel discussion on Israel and the Palestinians.

The just published report says students are scared to invite speakers regarded by some as controversial due to potential abuse, the lack of support from student unions and because of the cost of security.

It is claimed Liam Neeson, Harry Enfield, Tony Blair and Tony Abbott, the former Australian prime minister, are among names that student societies decided not to invite because of probable backlash.

It suggests unions or societies at Manchester, Oxford, St Andrews, Imperial College London and Cardiff had all shied away from inviting certain speakers.

The report said: “Protests and comments are legitimate and legal expressions of free speech; clearly targeted harassment is not. This backlash culture creates a climate of fear among student organisers who resultingly avoid difficult events.”

Researchers found that 19 universities, or 14 per cent, had official debating or politics societies that held at least one speaker event in 2021-22.

Of 502 speakers invited nationwide, 195 spoke at Cambridge and 183 at Oxford, compared with 124 across all other institutions.

The third-placed institution, Durham, invited 37.

An organiser at Imperial said they decided to avoid “political” events entirely after hearing about the incident at the LSE and that incident was also cited as a reason for caution by a Bristol society.

Manchester’s student union was described in the report as having been obstructionist and bureaucratic, turning down events and charging for room hire. UCL and Sussex students described their student unions as bureaucratic.

Josh Freeman, the author of the report, said: “Keen, thoughtful and motivated students are willing to debate tough issues on today’s campuses yet these students are shying away from difficult topics and controversial speakers because they fear a backlash.”







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