OPINION: Chaos and contradictions as free speech falls apart

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OPINION: Chaos and contradictions as free speech falls apart

'I’m all for campaigning for a cause about which you feel strongly, but if you don’t know why you’re there, go home!' writes Gemma Frenchman

Israeli professor Shai Davidai outside of Columbia University, April 22, 2024. (Luke Tress)
Israeli professor Shai Davidai outside of Columbia University, April 22, 2024. (Luke Tress)

It’s hard to believe that it is 206 days since October 7th when this hideous war began. Most days, I feel overwhelmed with sadness and terror for so very many people; for the 133 hostages who are still held in despicable conditions in Gaza and for their families; for the released hostages trying to overcome the trauma of their experiences; for the victims of that day and their families; and for all the casualties of war including hundreds of IDF soldiers and thousands of innocent civilians. 

I have written about many aspects of that day, the response, the war and what it’s like to be a British Jew in London at the moment (still unsettling and frightening). Now, though, I am utterly incredulous at what is happening at US (and more recently some UK) universities.

For better or worse, citizens and residents of Western democratic countries have a right to protest. We are so very lucky to have total freedom of speech and expression. We live in places that allow us to be who we wish to be, to dress and behave according to our own beliefs, religions, ideals and whims and are able to stand up for and speak up for whatever we believe in. Whether it is through a university society, organised marches, online forums or social groups, each of us is able to find a cause we believe in and join in. How fortunate we are.

However, it takes just a cursory glance at the events that have unfolded on the streets of central London in the last six months and on 50 US university campuses in the past fortnight to start to understand the danger of this freedom.

Sadly the freedom of expression we are lucky to have does not come with an obligation to educate ourselves on the issues about which we wish to support or protest. One can just jump on a bandwagon of belonging and go along for the ride, as it were, and numbers breed numbers, even in ignorance. So what ensues is larger and larger groups of people seemingly campaigning for a cause that they sometimes know nothing about. And this is dangerous.

Protesting students at Columbia, NYC, Harvard, Austin, Illinois and 45 others claim vehemently to stand for peace, particularly in Gaza, and yet paradoxically we see them chanting – bellowing – violent mantras that clearly and specifically call for the murder of Israelis and Jews. Some of these slogans have included ‘Burn Tel Aviv to the ground’ and ‘May it be October 7th 10,000 times.’

A leader of the Columbia ‘encampment’ where Jewish professors, Jewish students and the media have been denied entry, sometimes forcibly, has openly stated that ‘Zionists shouldn’t exist.’ Where do we go from here? Looking at my two teenagers at the dinner table, I can tell you that I wouldn’t feel good about them going off to a US university right now. I know people with kids at some of these colleges who haven’t left their rooms for more than a week having seen what happened to some of their Jewish peers and to amazing spokesperson and Professor at Columbia, Shai Davidai. What kind of an existence is that?

Columbia University student protesters camped on campus to call for divestment from Israel, April 28, 2024. (Philissa Cramer)

The student protestors claim to stand so staunchly against Israel, who they believe to be a genocidal state, that they are demanding that their educational institutions divest all interests in or linked to Israel. As an aside do they know that almost every product they wear or use has a link to Israel, from Apple devices to Google and Nike. How many of them have ditched their beloved iPhones since the war started?

They claim to believe that Israel is a white supremacist oppressor and coloniser. I don’t doubt that some do believe these statements are true. I doubt that the majority does. In fact, I doubt that the majority knows the history of the region, even over the recent past seventeen years since Israel left Gazan citizens to elect their own government, leading to Hamas taking control.

Do these students screaming for a ceasefire and peace, ironically alongside their screams for destruction and violence towards Jews and Israel, know that Hamas has rejected five ceasefire negotiations, all of which would have seen the following; Israel stop fighting the war they did not start or want in Gaza; the release of several thousand Palestinian prisoners; and importantly, freedom for the 133 hostages still held in Gaza, now for more than 200 days?

Pic: Gemma Frenchman

Do they know that the ceasefire is entirely in Hamas’ control? Do they know that it suits Hamas perfectly well to reject these deals so Israel continues the war to destroy a globally-proscribed terrorist organisation because the PR is better that way?

Of course they don’t all know these facts. I’m sure most of us have now seen the cringeworthy media interviews with the frontline protestors at Columbia who admitted to camera crews that they do not know what they are protesting for or why they are there.

One such gem showed a student saying she came down from NYU because she heard the police were going into the encampment and that the students there needed help, but she wasn’t sure for what!

Another two said they thought they were there to stop Israel doing something, but they didn’t know what and that they wished they were more educated! The mind boggles. What do their parents think about spending $100,000 on their children’s education only for them to be skipping lectures to protesting an issue they don’t understand, let alone chanting antisemitic rhetoric and creating human chains to block Jewish students and professors from entering the so-called liberation zone?

Khymani James, a leader of the anti-Israeli protests at Columbia University, seen in a January 2024 video in which he said ‘Zionists don’t deserve to live’ (Video screenshot)

In an astounding declaration last week, Hamas openly supported the US campus protests and encampments, praising and thanking the students for their actions. Who wouldn’t want to be thanked by a terrorist organisation? It says it all, really.

Perhaps a screening of Sheryl Sandberg’s new documentary ‘Screams Before Silence’ on these campuses is in order. 55 minutes of October 7th sexual violence testimonies should shock some sense into these woke students.

I’m all for protesting and campaigning for a cause about which you feel strongly, but if you don’t know why you’re there, go home, or even better, go back to your lecture theatre!

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