LONDON — Former Israeli deputy prime minister Dan Meridor faced a difficult beginning to his whistle-stop trip to the United Kingdom this week, where he spoke to students on university campuses.
In a visit organized by a new campus organization, the UK-based Pinsker Centre, Meridor faced a hostile, shrieking crowd of about 60 students at King’s College, London. On succeeding nights, the former politician had two calm and peaceful meetings in Durham and Oxford.
The Pinsker Centre, formed after Jewish students faced violent disruption at the King’s College campus in 2016, says its mission is “to preserve freedom of speech on British university campuses and allow a non-hostile platform for discussion on Israel.”
It joins forces with existing campus organizations such as the local student Israel society. King’s is part of London University and the week’s first event was jointly promoted by Pinsker, King’s Israel Society and City University’s Israel Society.
The hostility at King’s was spurred by the fact that the King’s College Action Palestine Society (KCLAP) advertised the Meridor event on Facebook, encouraging people to come and protest.
Stringent rules as to who could or could not enter the Great Hall of King’s central London campus were laid down by the King’s College authorities. It was a ticket-only event, but in the end many of those opposed to Meridor bought tickets but chose instead to stand outside the Great Hall, keeping up a screaming, baying protest designed at disrupting the speech.
Students who wanted to enter the Great Hall to listen to Meridor had to run a gauntlet of a yelling crowd, shouting “War criminal” and “Shame,” shouts they maintained throughout the 90-minute meeting.
The demonstrators displayed homemade red and green posters bearing the same words — and one audience member is said to have walked out of the event and torn apart one of the posters, something now being investigated by King’s College.
Prof. Menachem Klein of Bar-Ilan University, presently a visiting research fellow at King’s, was designated by the university authorities to chair the meeting where security staff surrounded the audience.
Anyone who wanted to take pictures of the protesters before the event had an extra hurdle: Some complained and forced the security staff to make people — including this reporter — delete the pictures. But as people left the event, many of the protesters themselves stood taking photographs of the audience.
In a long statement released after the meeting, the KCLAP protesters wrote: “We’d like to call out King’s College for not addressing how Palestinian students on campus feel as a result of their institution’s complicity in upholding an unjust system of illegal military occupation, settler-colonialism and apartheid.”
Meridor himself was sanguine about the protests. He told The Times of Israel before the meeting that he believed in dialogue and hoped that it might be possible for those who were critical of Israel to come inside and have “a civilized discussion.”
This ultimately did not prove possible and after the meeting concluded, King’s Israel Society president Tamara Berens announced that the police had been called and that anyone who did not feel comfortable facing the protesters should wait inside the hall until the police arrived. Although King’s College insisted that the police had not been called, a call was made by the Israeli Embassy in response to a request from students inside the Great Hall.
In the end, most of the audience chose to walk through the protestors. One disgruntled King’s College student not connected to the event told The Times of Israel that, “all they [the protesters] want to do is yell and intimidate, and I can’t stand it.”
In a statement, the Pinsker Centre organizers said, “However much one may disagree with such conduct, we cannot stress this enough: In a free society, it is the students’ democratic right to peacefully assemble, voice protest and exercise their right to express their opinion.
“However, in our free society, the sacred right to freedom of speech is also extended to visiting Israeli lecturers, including Mr. Meridor,” the statement said.
“They came onto campus this evening with one aim: to intimidate us and shut down our event,” said King’s Israel Society president Berens. She accused the protestors of coordinating their shouting “to scream throughout the talk, without even a minute to allow us to listen to the speaker in peace.”
Berens said the protestors exhibited “shameful behavior” and did not respect the right of Israelis to free speech.
“The shame is on those who would rather take away our platform to speak than engage with us openly. It is disgraceful that in 2018, Jewish university students should be made to feel afraid or ashamed to walk freely on campus,” she said.
A King’s College spokesman said the institutions has procedures in place to check the appropriateness of events and speakers hosted on campus. “If our review process highlights any potential risks, we put additional conditions in place before permitting the event to proceed.”
The spokesman underlined the “unique challenge” faced by academic institutions to create “open and uncensored debate… without fear of intimidation and within the framework of the law.
“We are proud of our diverse community and are absolutely committed to academic freedom and free, peaceful and respectful dialogue where people have conflicting views,” added the spokesman.
But Jonathan Arkush, the outgoing president of the Board of Deputies, the representative body of UK Jewry, said the Board will soon be complaining directly to the King’s College head because of the “intimidation” felt by Jewish students.
A second complaint is likely to be made by the Union of Jewish Students. The union claimed that university security officials had assured organizers that demonstrators would be kept outside the building. “Sadly, this did not happen and the shameful scenes of attempted intimidation then ensued. We are now in contact with students and campus security at King’s College, London, seeking constructive actions regarding both this event and the future,” said the student union.
A checkered history in Durham
In view of the scenes at King’s College, which drew widespread national and global criticism from Jewish groups, there was understandable anxiety about Meridor’s subsequent appearances at Durham and Oxford.
Durham, in particular, has a checkered history on the Israel-Palestine conflict. The Durham-Palestine Educational Trust offers two scholarships a year for a master’s degree at the university, one of whose conditions of acceptance is that the candidate must be “an active ambassador for Palestinians” during their stay in Durham.
But the Durham event passed peacefully, with no disruption.
More worries were expressed about the Oxford event after 20 separate student groups, spearheaded by the Oxford Students Palestine Society and including the Oxford Jewish Students for Justice in Palestine, took to Facebook to denounce Meridor’s forthcoming visit and calling on the sponsoring societies to withdraw the invitation.
But Jonathan Hunter, chair of the Pinsker Centre, reported that there had been no trouble.
“The rain deterred people,” he said. “Only those on the guest list were allowed in the building and the college insisted on private security — which it paid for itself — which is unprecedented and something which should be emulated by other universities.”
Opening the King’s College event, Klein made it clear that he and Meridor came from opposite sides of the political fence, and yet he introduced his guest as “a disappearing type of Israeli politician,” joking that Meridor had never yet been the subject of an investigation by the Israeli police.
In a wide-ranging analysis of the situation in the Middle East, Meridor may have surprised some of his audience as he appeared to regret the “nationalist” line taken by the current Israeli government at the expense of the “liberal” approach which he said was “part of the DNA of the Likud party.”
Making a strong case for the pursuit of the two-state solution, Meridor said he deplored a situation in which “religion adds rigidity” when people came to vote. And, he admitted, speaking of relations with America, that he did not “feel at home” with the evangelist movement which has expressed support for Israel.
In what might be a veiled message to his former government colleagues, Meridor concluded, “Liberal values are under attack all over the world. But our test as Israelis is how we treat minorities.”