LONDON – British politician George Galloway, who stormed out of a university debate Wednesday night after discovering that his opponent was Israeli, had a previous run-in with the student nearly six years ago, The Times of Israel can reveal.
Eylon Aslan-Levy, the target of Galloway’s opprobrium at the Wednesday debate, told the Times of Israel that Galloway was a guest at his high school, University College School, in 2007.
Aslan-Levy, a dual national who was born and educated in London and who would have been 16 at the time, says he challenged the MP on a previous statement that there should be no engagement with anyone connected to the state of Israel.
Galloway, he said, denied he had ever said such a thing, calling him a “L.I.A.R. – liar.”
The “unpleasant” exchange, he said, was “at the back of my mind” when he responded to an email asking for volunteers to debate Galloway, the only parliament member of the Respect party, as part of a new debating club that pitted University of Oxford students against public figures. The motion was that “Israel should immediately leave the West Bank.”
In the event, Galloway gave a 10-minute speech, then walked out a minute and a half into Aslan-Levy’s reply after learning that he was Israeli.
“He proved the point,” said Aslan-Levy, a third year philosophy, politics and economics student. “It’s not just Israeli institutions but citizens [he wants to boycott]. I’m British, I’ve lived here my whole life, but I’m a dual citizen. It’s clearly enough.”
The incident, a video of which immediately ping-ponged across the web, was the culmination of a tough few days for Israelis on British university campuses.
Earlier in the week, Israel’s deputy ambassador, Alon Roth-Snir, had to abandon a talk at the University of Essex following disruptions by students. An attempt to deliver his lecture to a smaller group had to be abandoned as well, and he was escorted out of the building.
Earlier this month, the Board of Deputies, Anglo-Jewry’s main representative organization, requested – but was not granted – an urgent meeting with Middlesex University after the Free Palestine Society hosted a debate on boycott, divestment and sanctions which the Board claimed was an example of “hate speech.”
Israeli ambassador to Britain Daniel Taub visited at least three universities this week. At the University of Ulster, in northern Ireland, he was greeted by demonstrators and had to be protected by heavy security, while in Queens University in Belfast, Taub’s audience was limited 12 staff members. At a third university, in northern England, his identity was kept secret from the audience until minutes before he spoke in order to prevent protests.
An Israeli embassy spokesman condemned the incidents, particularly at Essex, as a betrayal of everything universities should stand for.
“These confused and violent students make a mockery of the very foundations of freedom of speech, a pillar of the academic world,” the spokesman said. “Their actions shame Essex University and British academia, and damage a long tradition of positive academic exchange. Such behavior should be strongly condemned by all those who cherish democratic values.”
The spokesman emphasized that the embassy had “no plans” to change the diplomatic staff’s heavy speaking schedule at British universities, which consists of 50-70 visits during the academic year.
“The opposite is true. There are many students, including from the other side, who genuinely want to hear what Israel has to say,” they claimed – a statement that appears to be borne out by the fact that the non-disruptive students who tried to hear Roth-Snir out at Essex in another room, after the main lecture was cancelled, included several members of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign.
In what some might consider unfortunate timing, however, the British ambassador to Israel, Matthew Gould, was quoted Thursday downplaying the anti-Israel and anti-Semitic activity on campus. During an interview on his “ambitious strategy to persuade Israeli students to study in the UK,” Gould told the Times Higher Education magazine that “an image has taken hold of British universities that they are anti-Israeli, anti-Semitic, that they are not safe for Israeli students.” He blamed the unrealistic, “cartoonish” perceptions of UK universities on an “accumulation of small stories” in the Israeli media.
Despite the events of this week, Gould, who received an honorary doctorate from Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in December, stood by the comments. He told The Times of Israel that the UK government condemns intimidation on university campuses and that the university authorities have a clear legal obligation to ensure that students can express and debate their opinions without fear of intimidation.
“We should be wary of extrapolating from a few incidents to make generalizations about all of the UK’s 115 universities,” he said. “We will continue our best to encourage collaboration between UK and Israeli universities, and to encourage Israeli students to study in the UK.”
Many British Jews agree. According to Jonathan Arkush, vice-president of the Board of Deputies, the reason why the Middlesex University BDS debate achieved such notoriety recently was that “we haven’t had something like it for months and months.”
He said that few people take George Galloway seriously and that neither should the community, and that for the most part, Israelis and Jews are safe on campus, particularly since many universities since 2009 have implemented special guidelines for dealing with potentially controversial speakers.
The School for Oriental and African Studies, commonly known by its acronym SOAS, for example, which has a reputation for anti-Israel activity, “has a department of Israeli studies. Every day, lectures go on full of Israelis without a problem.”
He noted that Ambassador Taub had been “to universities up and down this country” and generally had an “excellent reception”.
“If you pay attention to what goes on in American campuses, it’s no different to Britain. Three years ago, [Israeli ambassador] Michael Oren got shouted down at the University of California.”
According to a 2011 study by the Union of Jewish Students and the Institute for Jewish Policy Research, 8 percent of Jewish students on British campuses said they were “very worried” about anti-Israel sentiment on campus and 30 percent said they were “fairly worried.”
Alex Green, president of the Union of Jewish Students, said this was “relatively few” in a Jewish student population which cared very much about Israel.
“Last term we ran a Jewish Awareness Week, which showed that the majority of British students are open to learning about the many aspects of Jewish student identity on campus, including Israel,” he added.
One Israeli official, in an informal discussion, said that the real problem was not the behavior of a small number of disruptive students but that of the universities, who seemed to be giving in to extremist groups by changing the rules of the game for Israeli visitors, for example by lowering the profile of their visits or canceling them altogether.
“They want peace and quiet, so they are willing to sacrifice a principle people used to die for – freedom of speech,” the official said, adding that if universities cannot guarantee free debate, “they might as well close down.”
Ironically, one individual who many elements in British society do want to see removed from public debate is George Galloway. The National Union of Students has refused to host him since he made controversial comments about rape last year, and doubtless there are some in the Jewish community who would also like the incendiary Bradford West MP to be placed out of bounds.
Aslan-Levy, for his part, has no regrets about taking him on.
“I strongly believe that controversial public figures should be invited to speak, precisely so that they can be challenged,” he said. “Instead of being in denial about dangerous bigotry we should confront it head-on. That’s what I wanted to do in the debate, my only disappointment is that he took off before I could do so.”
Perhaps Philip Gardner, a student at King’s College London, will have more luck next Wednesday, when he is scheduled to debate Galloway on whether “the primary cause of the continuation of the Arab-Israeli conflict is Islamic extremism.” As he is neither Israeli nor Jewish, Galloway might even stick around.