Pro-Palestinian activists are wrong to shut down debates by pro-Israelis

4:18 pm - March 1st 2013

by Matt Hill    

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Last night pro-Palestinian activists tried to disrupt a lecture by Israel’s deputy ambassador to the UK, Alan Roth-Snir, at the University of York. According to a student newspaper, protestors from the University of York Palestinian Solidarity Society tried to break in to the hall where Roth-Snir was speaking, but were prevented by police.

And last month a talk by Roth-Snir at the University of Essex had to be cancelled, after protestors pushed their way into the lecture hall and drowned him out with chanting.

The incidents seem to be part of a coordinated attempt to prevent Israeli officials from speaking at university campuses in the UK. Protestors have been egged on by anti-Zionist activists like Ben White on Twitter.

Ironically, the protestors have justified their actions on the grounds of free speech, with one saying: ‘The university has argued that this is a case for freedom of speech. What we are concerned about is the freedom of speech and other human rights of the Palestinian people.’

For those in need of a recap, ‘free speech’ is supposed to apply to all kinds of views, not just those you agree with.

Free speech also covers the right to protest, of course. Which is why demonstrators are within their rights to protest a university’s decision to invite Israel’s deputy ambassador to speak, or its failure to invite a representative of the Palestinians. They are also within their rights to protest Israel’s policies in the West Bank, its obstruction of the peace process, or anything else they oppose.

But it’s time for supporters of the Palestinians to take a principled stand against attempts to silence advocates of Israel.

When pro-Israeli groups in the US tried to stop a talk by pro-Palestinian writer Judith Butler from taking place at Brooklyn College last month, their efforts sparked justified outrage. And significantly, some of the strongest condemnations of attempts to censor the talk came from those who stated their opposition to Butler’s views while supporting her right to be heard.

There’s a growing trend, on both sides of the Israel-Palestine debate, to try and silence the other side by presenting its views as not merely wrong but illegitimate.

So here’s a radical idea for those of us who support Palestinian liberation. When we encounter views we oppose, how about countering them with reasoned debate rather than shouting them down?

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About the author
Matt is an occasional contributor to Liberal Conspiracy. He blogs more regularly at The Muddled East
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Reader comments

I agree. However – and I confess I didn’t follow all the ins and outs – I thought the main issue with the Butler event was the fact it had been sponsored by a department of the university, implying that department was associating itself with that position which seemed at odd with a spirit of free academic enquiry.

That would be a reason to think hosting the talk was a bad idea, not a reason to try and stop it from happening by trying to pressure donors into imposing financial penalties on the college if the talk went ahead. See Eric Alterman on this, who teaches at Brooklyn College, opposes BDS, but supported the department’s right to host the event:

3. Dislecksick

Don’t talk rubbish, veiled anti-semitism is a key vote winner with the islamic vote….and we need that to keep the Tories out.

Truth speaks

“What we are concerned about is the freedom of speech and other human rights of the Palestinian people”

Should they not take that up with Hamas? Or Fatah?

You can’t debate with a concrete wall or a missile strike – you need to disabuse yourself of the notion that Israel is a political institution that is interested in debate.

You are right, T Coles, look at the disgraceful way an Israeli shuts down the debate:

With a concrete wall of opinions and missile strikes of facts.

Very wrong, Israelis have the same right to have their say

T Coles,

If you don’t believe in free speech for nasty people who support nasty things, you don’t believe in free speech.

9. So Much for Subtlety

So here’s a radical idea for those of us who support Palestinian liberation. When we encounter views we oppose, how about countering them with reasoned debate rather than shouting them down?

Welcome to the conservative side of politics. It can only be a matter of time before you realise the problem is deeper than you think. Don’t worry, millions of people have made the same trip as they have got older. It is nothing to be ashamed of.

5. T Coles

You can’t debate with a concrete wall or a missile strike – you need to disabuse yourself of the notion that Israel is a political institution that is interested in debate.

Nor can you debate with a pogrom, a airline bomb or a suicide bomber.

However Israel, as a political institution, allows debate in its media, in its public spaces and in its Parliament. Which is more than you can say for the Palestinian side. Not that you care I expect.

I’ve always supported free speech. And there’s nothing conservative about it.

I agree with Matt Hill, but let’s not pretend that there can really be any worthwhile debate about Israel/Palestine. The extremist supporters on either side (in the West) are as bad as each other.
On one side are the pro-Palestinian activists, who are quite dreadful, and equally as bad are the pro-Israeli activists who scream down any dissenting voices with charges of anti-semitism.
If you’re from outside the region and you take an interest in I/P (they say) – it’s probably because you hate Jews.

That is certainly a very widely held view with people who leave comments on the Harry’s Place website for example. An interest in I/P needs particular justification (it’s argued) or else the presumption is that your intrest is driven by anti-semitism.

Why be interested in that small region of the world the argument goes, and not have the same degree of concern about Sudan or Upper Volta?
It’s because in Israel/Palestine there are Jews there, and you probably hate all Jews.
Comments like that go largely unchallenged by others on the site as it seems to be a commonly held view.

If you think you can ”debate” with that level of intransigence, good luck. I have tried and failed.

So the Israelis have a right to speak? Do the Nazis? Al-Qaida? The Taliban? Sadly, the Israelis have managed to persuade far too many people that they deserve support despite their many well-publicised crimes. Freedom of speech should only apply to those with a reasonable point of view. The Israelis are colonisers, exploiters and murderers, like the Nazis.

Freedom of speech should only apply to those with a reasonable point of view.

Could the moderators delete “John” @ 12? By his own criteria he shouldn’t be allowed freedom of speech, after comparing Israel to the Nazis, the Taliban and Al Qaeda.

Wonders of wonders, an article on LC which actually understands the real concept of freedom of speech.

@ damon 11 –

I agree with your general point about the poverty of debate on Israel-Palestine (and I have written a bunch of articles at Harry’s Place, so I’ve experienced the reaction you’re talking about).

But I’m slightly less pessimistic than you are about the possibility of having a reasonable discussion on the issue. Not everyone is an unyielding partisan of one side or the other. Have a look at the OpenZion blog for a space where quite a wide range of differing views is aired and debated, for the most part, respectfully.

And perhaps I’m naive, but I continue to believe in the value of trying to thrash these issues out. Even the most polarised discussion can help the two sides at least understand each other’s prejudices and biases. I feel I’ve learnt quite a lot about the paranoias and blinspots of the pro-Israel crowd by banging my head against the Harry’s Place wall. And those discussions have forced me to reevaluate or broaden my own views more than once.

@ John 12,

I’m going to ignore the vicious and spine-chilling stupidity of your claim that only reasonable people deserve free speech, and answer your substantive point: should Nazis and the like also be accorded free speech?

Sorry if this shocks people, but I take free speech seriously, so the answer is yes. Nazis have precisely the same right to free speech as I do – subject to the usual limitations on free speech. So no hate speech. No incitement to violence. As soon as your hypothetical Nazi crosses those lines, her right to free speech ends.

In other words, Nazis can exercise free speech – but it’s difficult to imagine them doing so while remaining in any sense a Nazi, because incitement is basically fundamental to the whole Nazi world view.

There is a second issue, which is that even though freedom of speech applies to everyone – even Nazis – that doesn’t mean we are obligated to provide them with a platform. I would be incredibly surprised to see a British university giving a platform to a Nazi, and I would support a protest against that decision. Any such protest would probably have a strong chance of mobilising public opinion against the university in question.

And of course, if pro-Palestinians believe giving a platform to Israeli officials falls into the same category, they have a right to protest too. Whether you could win public support for an analogy between Israel and the Nazis is doubtful though.

John re Comment 12:

“Freedom of speech should only apply to those with a reasonable point of view. ”

In other words freedom of speech should only apply to those you approve of.

Ever heard about a slippery slope?

Giving Nazis the right to free speech is just a theoretical option as the Nazi Brown Shirt paramilitaries in Germany in the 1930s used to beat up opposition speakers and jews.

In Britain, the Public Order Act of 1936 banned the wearing of political uniforms because the British Union of Fascists demonstrated an intention to emulate the Brown Shirts. For a description of a public meeting, on 16 March 1936, addressed by Oswald Mosley, leader of the BUF, try this entry from George Orwell’s research diary for the book that became: The Road to Wigan Pier:

“Last night to hear Mosley speak at the Public Hall [in Barnsley], which is in structure a theatre. It was quite full – about 700 people I should say. About 100 Blackshirts on duty, with two or three exceptions weedy looking specimens, and girls selling Action etc. Mosley spoke for an hour and a half and to my dismay seemed to have the meeting mainly with him. He was booed at the start but loudly clapped at the end. Several men who tried to interject with questions were thrown out . . . one with quite unnecessary violence. . . . M. is a very good speaker. His speech was the usual clap-trap – Empire free trade, down with the Jew and the foreigner, higher wages and shorter hours all round etc. After the preliminary booing the (mainly) working class audience was easily bamboozled by M speaking as it were from a Socialist angle, condemning the treachery of successive governments towards the workers. The blame for everything was put upon mysterious international gangs of Jews who were said to be financing, among other things the British Labour Party and the Soviet. . . . M. kept extolling Italy and Germany but when questioned about concentration camps etc always replied ‘We have no foreign models; what happens in Germany need not happen here.’ . . . ”
George Orwell: The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters, Vol. 1 An Age Like This 1920-1940 (Penguin Books) p.230.

No one sane supposes there is an inalienable right to shout, “Fire !” in a crowded theatre.

The “pro-Palestinians” aren’t interested in a debate.

SMFS @9: is that a veiled reference to RAW there? 🙂

To the general thread discussing freedom of speech: I concur entirely with Matt Hill that anyone, even people I really don’t like, can speak freely. I made a speech to the Southampton SU in 1995 in which I made that point, during the debate on whether the Union should permit a platform to the BNP the following week.

What I disagree with is that anyone, even those I like, has a right to be listened to. I don’t think they do.

In this case, afaict from this combined with the other thread on the issue further up LibCon, the Israeli lobby are being systematically permitted an unopposed, shielded platform from which they will be heard, at a series of different universities in a short space of time. I cannot help but connect this to the recent push at the UN to get Palestine recognised by as many other nations as possible. That imbalance doesn’t seem right. And yes, George Galloway is still a sententious ass.

To Matt:

I would be incredibly surprised to see a British university giving a platform to a Nazi

Really? They’ve been provided with such a platform at several in the past, if you count the BNP (which I do). They were, however, vocally opposed, and tended to lose very badly, which is what I’d expect.

Biscuit @19:

Nonsense. Some of them might be disinterested in debate, but not most, and not any I’ve talked to, including the actual Palestinians.

Bob B,

I agree. My point was that the question of whether Nazis deserve free speech is academic, because there’s zero chance a true Nazi would exercise that right without immediately overstepping its boundaries into hate speech or incitement. But I wanted to give the theoretical question a serious answer lest I be accused of ducking it.

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