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January 24, 2018 4:39 pm

Students Protest University College London’s Restriction on Event With Ex-IDF Soldier

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University College London campus. Photo: David Egan.

The heads of Israel and Jewish societies have condemned University College London’s (UCL) decision to restrict attendance to an upcoming talk with a former Israeli soldier, saying the move failed to demonstrate the school’s commitment to free speech.

Hen Mazzig — who facilitated humanitarian projects in the West Bank while completing his IDF service — was invited to speak at UCL by administrators, after a talk he gave in October 2016 was interrupted by students. A university investigation into the incident found that “hostile and abusive protestors” gathered near the room where Mazzig was speaking, then forcibly entered through the windows and used loudspeakers and chants — including some “that could be interpreted as anti-Semitic” — in an effort to drown him out. Mazzig eventually had to be escorted out of the building by police.

While university spokesperson Charles Hymas told The Algemeiner that Mazzig was invited to speak this upcoming Thursday “to reaffirm our commitment to free speech,” administrators have been called out for limiting attendance to UCL students and staff — a restriction critics suggested was a capitulation to the protesters that first impeded Mazzig’s talk.

petition signed by over 2,800 people accused the university of failing to publicly advertise the event, and noted that as the majority of individuals affected by the 2016 disruption were not affiliated with UCL, and rather hailed from the wider Jewish student community in London, they will once again be unable to hear Mazzig speak.

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Alexandra Taic — president of UCL’s Friends of Israel Society — submitted the petition to university administrators on Tuesday, two days in advance of Mazzig’s talk. In an email also signed by Tamara Berens, president of King’s College London’s Israel Society, and Khulan Davaajav, president of SOAS University of London’s Jewish Society, she voiced “immense concern” about the university’s decision, saying it “will risk creating a precedent on campus where Israeli speakers are only permitted to speak in a closed, private format, which bars them from engaging with the wider community.”

“While the event is being advertised as a demonstration of UCL’s commitment to free speech and making redress for the horrible circumstances of Mazzig’s 2016 event,” the students wrote, “for us, the symbolic nature of the event is lost on the majority of the students who were negatively affected.”

As the students awaited a response from administrators, Hymas told The Algemeiner that the university “maintained from the outset that this will be an all-ticket event for UCL staff and students.”

The spokesperson addressed criticism about the amount of advertising the event received — particularly that it was not featured on UCL’s calendar — by pointing out that it was now fully booked, after having been “publicised on staff and student newsletters.”

“It has not been included in the UCL public events calendar because that only lists events that are open to the general public,” Hymas said.

In response to concerns about renewed protests — UCL Friends of Palestine Society is planning a demonstration against Mazzig on Thursday — he said that the university has “taken all the necessary steps and advice” to ensure that the event will proceed smoothly.

Yet Aviva Slomich, international campus director for CAMERA, indicated that the university’s stance amounted to “caving into the pressures of their aggressive students.”

“The university should realize what a detriment establishing a precedent such as this is, where it’s acceptable that the university cannot guarantee the safety of their students, Jewish and non-Jewish alike, from other hostile and even violent students,” she said. “The victims of the 2016 event should not be the ones being persecuted.”

In its submission to a recent parliamentary probe on UK universities, the Board of Deputies of British Jews — the chief representative body of local Jewry — warned that “Free speech is being curtailed in the name of pro-Palestinian activism by shutting down through violence speakers who originate from Israel.”

Over the course of the same inquiry, the group UK Lawyers for Israel (UKLI) argued in written testimony that campus events organized by Jewish or pro-Israel clubs “have been deliberately closed down by violent riots organised by Palestinian societies on a number of occasions in recent years.”

To lessen the risk of such interruptions, administrators and students unions have imposed certain restrictions on events with pro-Israel speakers, UKLI asserted. These range from limiting public advertising and permitting entry only to ticket holders with a valid ID, to requiring the presence of security personnel, which Jewish and pro-Israel societies are sometimes asked to pay for.

“Thus the current position tends to be that meetings with Israel-supporting speakers can go ahead at British universities, but often only under onerous conditions which make it unlikely that they will be attended by students who are not already sympathetic to Israel,” UKLI wrote. “By contrast, there are rarely any similar restrictions on anti-Israel speakers, who often deliver highly misleading propaganda, inflaming hostility towards Israel and those who support it.”

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