Opinion: Freedom of speech?

Southampton University is under attack: it is planning a conference on ‘International Law and the State of Israel: Legitimacy, Responsibility and Exceptionalism’  in April.  Paris University has been forced to cancel a conference entitled: ‘Israel Apartheid is real’.

I have recently attended two conferences on Islam, one of which also came under threat.

So when is free speech permissible and when not?

At my local university I have been shocked at the racist and Islamophobic comments made in talks and seminars by those who support Israel unreservedly.  Had I made similar comments about Jews and Judaism, I would have been thrown out.  Islam is no more homogenous than Judaism or Christianity  and the way it is practised is as much cultural, political and historical as any other. When I condemn Saudi Arabia or ISIS I am not condemning Islam as a whole, nor do I delegitimize Saudi as a State. On the contrary I am often defending Islam. When I criticise Israel, as a Jew myself, I am not attacking Judaism, I am criticising a regime that gives Judaism a bad name and when I criticise the USA, I am often criticising those who give Christianity a bad name.

So how do we deal with the appalling suffering of Gaza?  Reconstruction and the ending of the siege are hot topics. Some insist on putting all of the blame on Hamas, ignoring Hamas’ many demands for a two state solution and lasting ceasefire.  Others would like to sanction Israel for her blatant violations of international law.

Visiting the West Bank recently, I  witnessed houses and animal shelters demolished by Israeli soldiers, usually because the Palestinian owner was unable to get permission to build or even renovate on his own land and had to do so ‘illegally’. Small Palestinian villages were surrounded by illegal Israeli settlements and outposts, all with running water and electricity, modern roads, schools and infrastructure, while the Palestinians who have lived there for generations have even their water cisterns destroyed and solar panels confiscated by the IDF, and demolition orders on everything else.

I heard from affected families how children, as young as twelve,  are seized from their beds in the middle of the night, and interrogated without parental support or legal representation. Sleep deprived and terrified, they are interrogated in often poor Arabic and forced to sign confessions in Hebrew. That is only the start of a process that finds 99.74% guilty and that keeps them locked up, often in solitary confinement with no access to family or support, for weeks at a time.

Is it really evidence of anti -Semitism, of which I am frequently accused, to stand up for equality of security, self-determination, freedom of movement and quality of life for Palestinian and Israeli alike?

The UN considers the whole occupation of the West Bank to be against international law and the absorption of occupied land into the territory of an invading power, a war crime.  Surely international law is the only criterion for judging both Palestine and Israel?

Last week the Cambridge Union debated “Israel is a rogue state.” The motion was carried by 51 percent to 19 percent – with a 7 percent swing from the pre-debate vote. The debate was won on the evidence of Israel’s obvious violations of international and human rights law.  The debate has swiftly been followed by the usual frenzy of condemnation: Cambridge is ‘obsessively’ anti-Israel: Union debate descends into chaos

If we believe in free speech, then surely this topic deserves to be fully and openly debated without censorship or accusation?

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  • Jayne Mansfield 20th Mar '15 - 12:08pm

    As a general point, we have laws about what can and can’t be said. I find any move to prevent free speech that falls within the boundaries of the law, very worrying indeed.

    Universities in particular should be places where ideas should be both raised and challenged. If some of our brightest young people can’t be trusted with this precious freedom, what hope is there for the rest of us?

  • Criticism of Israel is perfectly justifiable but so much of it seems completely one-eyed. This article portrays Israel as a ghettoised state but having just returned from there, I saw a diverse country with Jews and Arabs living alongside each other in most of the cities, from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv- clearly not an ‘apartheid state’.

    Regarding Gaza- clearly the situation there is a terrible one, but the proposed solutions are glib and unconvincing. To say Israel should simply ‘lift the blockade’ to Hamas and its attacks on Israelis is unreasonable without some guarantees from Hamas of peaceful conduct (guarantees it shows no sign of providing). Israel has a duty of care to its citizens and cannot allow terrorists (with a long track record of targeting Israeli civilians) to pass unhindered into its cities. Compromise is needed from both sides, but articles like this only ever call for one side to back down.

  • Simon McGrath 20th Mar '15 - 2:00pm

    “If we believe in free speech, then surely this topic deserves to be fully and openly debated without censorship or accusation?”

    But isnt the issue that a debate at this conference is exactly what is not going to happen.? There clearly is a dialogue to be had about Israel’s actions but there will not be one – Israel’s guilt is taken for granted – for example in the call for papers

    The Conference should of course go ahead – but with a balanced list of speakers .

  • Graham Martin-Royle 20th Mar '15 - 3:57pm

    Free speech should always be supported, especially when you disagree with the speech. Unless the speaker is inciting violence then it is better to let them speak and then to answer back. The best way to counter speech you disagree with is to have more speech, not to outlaw speech.

  • I’m a bit confused by this one, the topic seems to start as one of free speech then gets off in to the rights and wrongs of current Israeli Government policy.

    The event should of course be free to go ahead, is someone considering banning it? There is another question of whether a University should choose to put on an event, if it wishes to maintain a reputation for serious discussion, which is perceived as seriously one sided. The example of one of the Paris Universities cancelling an event which I would have assumed would normally have a question mark at then end, may have more to do with the perception that it looks more like a political rally than a conference to engage in serious discussion.

    There is plenty to be said on either side but each side in this debate appear to believe they should be exempt from legitimate challenge. That position makes them look, frankly, ridiculous.

    Regarding anti-Islamic or racist comments made by students in seminars, it is a far cry from a student to make the comment and a university to put on an event that would promote those ideas via an agenda filled with one sided events.

    None of this is to say these one sided events should be “banned” but I imagine Universities, who want to be seen as serious centres of knowledge, would probably not be willing to host events that are skewed one way or the other which in turn reflects on them.

    Those who want to host one sided events would be able to rent conference space in hotels/conference centres (or Uni’s who don’t care about their reputations). A venue (such as a university) turning away an event that looks biased or intellectually light weight is not a sufficiently serious restriction of free speech for me to get worried.

  • Massles: “I saw a diverse country with Jews and Arabs living alongside each other in most of the cities, from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv”

    You clearly didn’t go to see East Jerusalem and see where Palestinians are being driven out of their homes to make way for settlement building or to visit Bedouin villages where they are also being driven from their lands to enable development for Jewish Israelis only. Clearly you didn’t also go to see Hebron as Miranda did and witness the way Arabs are being harassed and marginalised as Israeli soldiers look on, or talk to families whose children have been seized in the night and denied elementary justice.. So please don’t pretend that there are two equally wronged parties. The Palestinians are for more sinned against than sinning.

  • Miranda Pinch 20th Mar '15 - 4:27pm

    Massles, in regard to Gaza and Hamas, I note that the fact that Hamas has repeatedly accepted the existence of Israel on the 67 borders and repeatedly agreed to ceasefires that are broken by Israel and not by Hamas, goes unreported. Hamas should never have been labelled a terrorist organisation as it was democratically elected and the EU have now recognised that fact. The blockade came before the rockets and the violations by Israel have also occurred largely prior to rockets , though the media fails to report that. Israel is still destroying Gazan farmland as well as shooting at fishing boats and farmers trying to survive within the confines dictated by Israel.
    Now it is indeed true that Hamas doesn’t recognise the ‘right’ of Israel to exist. What does such a ‘right’ mean? Israel does exist and we all accept that status including Hamas, but Israel has no fixed borders and so how is it even possible to insist on the right of any country to exist without clearly defined borders?. If Palestine is Occupied, including Gaza (legal definition) then Israel should withdraw. If Palestine is not occupied and is indeed part of Israel, then the Palestinians should be given the right to vote in the Israeli elections and have all the other rights of citizens. Israel wants it both ways with a negative result for the Palestinians.
    Law, by definition should apply to all and should be impartial. So to discuss law and legal positions whatever the intent, should lead to conclusions based on law, in this case international law. If Israel has legal right on its side, then it should welcome such a debate.

  • John McHugo 20th Mar '15 - 4:55pm

    Simon McGrath – you assert that in the call for papers for the Southampton conference “Israel’s guilt is taken for granted”. I’ve just read the link you attached as evidence for this assertion and did not find any prejudging of Israeli “guilt”. Please could you explain what you mean?

    I am glad you think the conference should go ahead. I know from my own researches that the creation of Israel is a most interesting case for the academic international lawyer. It is also a question which has important practical consequences today for all those trying to help Israelis and Palestinians find a just peace. It has hitherto been something of a taboo topic, and it is important that light is shone upon it. Let us hope that the Southampton conference will do this.

    As someone who has touched on this subject in his own writings, and as Chair of the Lib Dem Friends of Palestine, I must declare an interest.

    John McHugo

  • Miranda- I note your comment fails to address my main point. How can israel open up to gaza while maintaining the safety of its citizens? Furthermore, your description of the conflict is deeply one-sided. Hamas have broken multiple ceasefires including the last one, and in the last couple of years have targeted civilians for abduction and murder, and fired thousands of rockets at civilian targets. Do you propose israel ignore the threat to its people posed by Hamas?

    you state that Israel is occupying gaza when in fact it pulled troops out some years back. It is blockading gaza from the outside. Your point about unclear borders applies equally to the putative Palestinian state as to Israel, and in any case is a red herring- the world is full of states with contested borders.

  • Jenny Tonge 20th Mar '15 - 9:01pm

    Maisie’s. Are we allowed to know who you are or are you hiding behind this name because you know that your f acts are wrong? Indeed, I have heard similar arguments many times before and they usually emanate from the Israeli propaganda machine.
    It’s the OCCUPATION which is causing all the problems. Let us judge each side when two states have been created as decreed by the UN with both entitled to prosperity and security., not just Israel.

  • Meral Hussein Ece 20th Mar '15 - 9:27pm

    Miranda, thank you for highlighting the contradictions in the flawed arguments that there is an absolute right to freedom of speech. We know this is naive and simply not true. As Liberal Democrats we surely respect other cultures, faiths and don’t believe we should go around insulting and trampling over people from different backgrounds. The UKs 2.5m Muslims are constantly told they must collectively grow a thicker skin, and a sense of humour. Support Palestinian rights and condemn their killing and suffering? You must be a Hamas supporter. People are fed up with these double standards, and it’s time to stand up for peace, democracy and the rule of international law.

  • Miranda Pinch 21st Mar '15 - 7:44am

    Massles, under international law Gaza is still occupied. The conference will be looking at international law. Is that the issue; that too many people might learn something about international law and be able to judge better for themselves? As for ceasefire infringements here just a few from 2015
    The first months of 2015 have seen more of the same. According to International Middle East Media Center (IMEMC ):
    On February 25, “Israeli forces opened fire at farmers in the central Gaza Strip.” The previous day, farmers near Khan Younis had been fired on. Two days prior farmers near Rafah were fired on.
    On February 27, Israeli forces “opened gunfire on Palestinian houses in the Central Gaza strip.”
    On March 2, “Israeli gunboats again opened fire … towards fishermen’s boats in the Gaza strip.” The Israeli forces reportedly “chased some fishing boats off the coast.”
    On March 7, fisherman Tawfiq Abu Ryala, 34, was killed when he was shot in the abdomen by Israeli navy ships. Several attacks in previous days were reported in which Palestinian fishermen were injured. “All took place while the boats were in Palestinian territorial waters.”
    On March 11, “several armored military vehicles and bulldozers carried out … a limited invasion into an area east of the al-Maghazi refugee camp, in central Gaza, and bulldozed farmlands.”
    More stats from other sources cited in: https://whitewraithe.wordpress.com/2015/03/17/the-misrepresentation-of-israeli-aggression-as-self-defense/
    And Meral you say I must be a Hamas supported. Does the UK’s close relationship with Saudi Arabia, make them a supporter of all Saudi’s human rights violations? The whole point about the rule of law is that it is possible to see situations from the more objective viewpoint of the law, both violations to it and the requirements of it. Some crimes are greater and have greater effects than others and should be judged accordingly. Hopefully the conference will highlight all these issues under a legal framework.

  • Meral Hussein Ece 21st Mar '15 - 9:50am

    Miranda- I was not saying you are a Hamas supporter. I think you’ve misunderstood what I’ve said, as I was being devils advocate. Every time a question is asked in the House of Lords on Palestinian rights, those opposed to recognition, who are unconditional supporters of Netanyahu’s polices, always cite Hamas as the barrier to peace. You don’t have to be a fan of Hamas to support recognition for Palestine, & an end to the illegal blockade. I totally agree with your point, and have highlighted the Saudi example on many occasions.

  • Miranda Pinch 21st Mar '15 - 9:58am

    Meral, I thought that might be what you were saying, but was not sure. I thought it a good point to make anyway! So thanks for the idea indirectly.

  • @Miranda Pinch
    “I note that the fact that Hamas has repeatedly accepted the existence of Israel on the 67 borders and repeatedly agreed to ceasefires that are broken by Israel and not by Hamas, goes unreported”

    Has Hamas really done that? Statements from their leaders have been – to put it mildly – ambiguous in this regard. For example :-



    The Hamas covenant explicitly rejects any possibility of an agreed settlement:- “There is no solution for the Palestinian question except through Jihad. Initiatives, proposals and international conferences are all a waste of time and vain endeavors”. Hamas refuses to renounce its charter, though its apologists try to argue that this is a mere technicality.

    Frankly I despair when I see people from either side painting the situation as a one-sided conflict, when it so clearly is not. None of this helps. Unless we acknowledge that this is a two-sided problem, we’ll never get a two-state solution, or any other kind of solution.

  • Miranda Pinch 21st Mar '15 - 2:52pm

    Stuart, I think we have seen some interesting rhetoric in the past week from a certain Israeli politician, have we not?! What was that about never allowing a two-state solution and being concerned about all those Arabs descending on the polling booths?
    Yes, Hamas has given some unfortunate rhetoric in the past. However, as I have said, and will repeat, Hamas has abided not only by the ceasefires it has agreed to in a way that Israel has not, but Hamas has also offered a long-term ceasefire based on Israel within the 67 borders with some land swaps. I am certain that with some Googling I could come up with all sorts of statements from both the Israeli political leadership now and in the past and from the settlers supported by it, about the Palestinians in Israel, the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza. There have been suggestions ranging from gassing them, killing all the children, wiping out Gaza, etc etc. So apart from the hypocrisy, you forget just how one-sided the conflict actually is. It is Israel who is occupying Palestinian land including Gaza. It is Israel who is continually taking Palestinian owned land for its own use. It is Israel who is building the settlements and encouraging Israelis to live in them. It is Israel who is blockading Gaza and depriving those within of just about every human right. It is Israel who is imprisoning countless Palestinians including children in appalling conditions. It is Israel who has state of the art weaponry and a large well-equipped army. I could go on. Do any of those apply to the Palestinians or specifically to Hamas? Not sure how one-sided any conflict could be.

  • SIMON BANKS 21st Mar '15 - 6:27pm

    The title of the Southampton conference, unlike that in Paris, sounds carefully-balanced. If a university can’t debate these issues, liberal democracy has failed.

  • A Social Liberal 21st Mar '15 - 9:46pm

    Which members of the present Israeli government suggested wholesale or individual gassing of Palestinians? Which mainstream politicians advocated wiping out Gaza? I can well believe that settlers might have – some of them are as guilty of bigoted and hate filled rhetoric as is Hamas. The difference of course is that settlers are just that, settlers – illegal in their settling the West Bank in all probability but in no way can they be described as speaking for the people of Israel. Hamas is the party elected to run the Gaza – its covenent explicitly rules out any other way of sorting out the problem except via violence.
    With reference to Netanyahu, yes he has said some hateful things but has he ever advocated wholesale slaughter of Palestinians?
    My final point is that we should not conflate Hamas with all Palestinians. Fatah, since it’s renunciation of violence and its move into mainstream politics has a much better approach to the two state solution.

  • Tony Dawson 22nd Mar '15 - 9:53am

    @A Social Liberal :

    ” we should not conflate Hamas with all Palestinians.”

    True. Just as we should not allow opposition to the disgracful supremacist creed which is Zionism to be twisted into false accusations of antisemitism just because there are a handful of nasty antiZionists who clearly are anti-semites (including some who are also anti-Arab (Christian and Muslim) semites . Yet this has been done within all sorts of situations including the central organs of the three main British political parties at various times.

  • Miranda Pinch 22nd Mar '15 - 11:28am

    For a ‘Social Liberal’: Ayelet Shaked has been accused of calling for genocide of Palestinians when she posted an article by speechwriter Uri Elitzur, on Facebook, arguing that Israel should declare war on the “entire [Palestinian] people”.
    Ayelet Shaked of the ultra-nationalist Jewish Home party called for the slaughter of Palestinian mothers who give birth to “little snakes.” “They have to die and their houses should be demolished so that they cannot bear any more terrorists,” Shaked said, adding, “They are all our enemies and their blood should be on our hands. This also applies to the mothers of the dead terrorists.” The remarks are considered as a call for genocide as she declared that all Palestinians are Israel’s enemies and must be killed.
    “We must expel Arabs and take their places.” — David Ben Gurion, 1937, Ben Gurion and the Palestine Arabs, Oxford University Press, 1985.
    “There is no such thing as a Palestinian people… It is not as if we came and threw them out and took their country. They didn’t exist.” — Golda Meir, statement to The Sunday Times, 15 June, 1969.
    “We walked outside, Ben-Gurion accompanying us. Allon repeated his question, What is to be done with the Palestinian population?’ Ben-Gurion waved his hand in a gesture which said ‘Drive them out!”
    — Yitzhak Rabin, leaked censored version of Rabin memoirs, published in the New York Times, 23 October 1979.
    “[The Palestinians] are beasts walking on two legs.”
    — Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin, speech to the Knesset, quoted in Amnon Kapeliouk, “Begin and the ‘Beasts,”‘ New Statesman, June 25, 1982.
    Will that do, or do you want more?
    I also totally agree that Hamas does not represent all Palestinians and Israel’s behaviour towards those in the West Bank who do not fire rockets is equally oppressive.

  • A Social Liberal 22nd Mar '15 - 12:58pm


    Having just googled your quotes I see that they were lifted from the internet, from one of several possible Palestinian the likes of which includes “Jew Watch”. Hardly authoritative!

    Incidentally, The New Statesman has no such quote or article on its website, nor the Times the Golda Mier quote. It is of course understandable given the date of the supposed articles but given that – it does return us to the question of where you got them from and therefore the veracity of all the quotes you used.

  • A Social Liberal 22nd Mar '15 - 1:12pm

    Miranda said

    “I also totally agree that Hamas does not represent all Palestinians and Israel’s behaviour towards those in the West Bank who do not fire rockets is equally oppressive.”

    Tell me then, how many air strikes have been delivered to the West Bank in the last thirty years? How many military offences have been initiated?

    There is a case for you to say that the settlements are illegal (and there I would agree with you) but to take away the policing forces would result in massacre – both of Settlers and of Palestinians. You might reply that Settlers get what they deserve, but can you say that of the children of those Settlers whose only crime is to be born at the wrong place and at the wrong time, to the wrong parents? Until the settlers are pulled out of the West Bank or become citizens of a future Palestinian State those innocents at least need the protection of a policing force.

  • Miranda Pinch 22nd Mar '15 - 1:24pm

    Well Social Liberal, if your accusations and quotes are the only ones acceptable then there is little point discussing anything at all is there/! You even dismiss the well publicised quotes from Ayelet Shaked . Of course the sorts of web pages you choose to view will filter out such truths.
    Another truth filtered out is what I have also said: You may go on about Hamas rockets, yet despite their absence from the West Bank and East Jerusalem at any time and under any provocation, those living there have no freedom of movement, right to remain on their own land, arrest under any or no charges, deaths, demolitions and confiscations on a daily basis with illegal settlement construction squeezing them on all sides.
    Going back to the point of this article about free speech; if you really believe that you are right and I am wrong, argue your case through the international law and come to the conference to do so. It really is outrageous that any evidence I put forward to counter yours is inadmissible, whilst you accuse the likes of me of being biased!
    My case rests, m’lord.

  • Miranda Pinch 1st Apr '15 - 9:52am

    I wrote a letter to the Telegraph and Guardian regarding the likely (not final) cancellation of the conference at Southampton University for ‘health and safety reasons’. It seems to me that the implication here is that there have been real threats and ‘bully-boy’ tactics against the university. That does not sound like a rational, balanced response to a conference that was meant to be an open, honest and truth seeking academic debate. Those who respond to such debate concerning Israeli policies and behaviour in that way do not do themselves any favours.

    My letter:
    I have learned with shock that the University of Southampton has caved into pressure from the Israeli Lobby to cancel its conference on International Law and the State of Israel.

    I am a Jew myself and the daughter of a holocaust survivor and can tell you that the Israeli Lobby does not speak in my name or the name of countless other diaspora Jews and even many in Israel.

    The behaviour of the Israeli government towards an innocent indigenous population breaks every international and human rights law and it is about time that the world held firm against the immense pressure to curb free speech and proper debate concerning such conduct.

    A University should be a place of reasoned debate, covering all and any subject. I noted the many eminent speakers are listed for the conference and can see they come from a wide perspective. To give in under the pressure of a minority who have the power and influence to make the lives of those who oppose them ‘difficult’ is to deny academic freedom, proper investigation and free speech.

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