Tonight, students at the University of Surrey will listen to Exeter University-based Israeli professor Ilan Pappe give his perspectives on what happened in 1948. But just yesterday, the University’s Student Union held a last minute meeting on whether the talk could go ahead, following complaints made by an organisation called Student Rights.
On their website, Student Rights condemn Surrey’s Palestinian Society for organising “one-sided lectures” with a “lack of balance”, objecting to the hosting of a member of Israel’s Knesset and a well-known Israeli professor. Student Rights sent this link to the Surrey Student Union, and also tweeted their objection to the Pappe talk to local MP Anne Milton.
Ironically, for a group that says it opposes ‘extremism’ on campus, their attack on Pappe cites the views of Benny Morris, the Israeli historian who believes that “mass Muslim penetration into the West and their settlement there is creating a dangerous internal threat”.
But none of this should be a surprise. For while Student Rights claims it pursues “non-ideologically aligned work”, the group is closely allied to the right-wing think tank Henry Jackson Society (HJS). The organisation’s national director Raheem Kassam is also Campaigns Director for HJS, and online magazine Standpoint describes Kassam as managing “counter-radicalisation pressure group ‘Student Rights’ from within the Henry Jackson Society”. Robin Shepherd, Director of International Affairs at HJS, has described Student Rights as a “British campus watch organisation… supported by the Henry Jackson Society think tank”.
In their 2009/2010 ‘Annual Review’, Student Rights ask people to make donations through the Henry Jackson Society, taking advantage of the latter’s charitable status in the UK and US. In March 2010, London Student, newspaper of the University of London Union, reported that when LSE Students’ Union received payment for a stall booked under Student Rights’ name, it “came from the Henry Jackson Society’s bank account”. I asked Raheem Kassam today to clarify the exact nature of the relationship between Student Rights and HJS, but for an unspecified reason, he declined.
HJS is well-known for promoting right-wing pro-Israel positions. In July, they were set to host a retired Israeli general for a talk in the House of Commons, before he fled the country “after the Israeli embassy warned him he was in danger of being arrested”. Meanwhile Student Rights’ advisory board includes the Political Director of Conservative Friends of Israel and a former chair of Liberal Democrats Friends of Israel.
There are other examples where Student Rights have targeted Palestine solidarity on campus. In December 2009, Raheem Kassam was the source of a claim that at a large meeting in SOAS, pro-Israel activist Jonathan Hoffman was the subject of “racist jeering”. Hoffman publicly credited and thanked Kassam for having drawn his attention to the alleged incident. Yet the original version of events became the subject of a ruling by the BBC’s Editorial Complaints Unit and a correction appears on the revised story.
In February 2010, Raheem Kassam criticised Israeli Apartheid Week events as part of an article in The Jerusalem Post, while earlier this year, Student Rights published a ‘briefing document’[PDF], attacking two professors at LSE for their opinions on Israel and boycott. While the report admitted that any evidence of “bias” within the LSE’s Middle East Centre was “inconclusive”, Student Rights still called on LSE’s board to “review” the Centre’s management.
Interestingly, the advertisement for the position of ‘National Organiser’ at Student Rights appeared in February 2009, a month after unprecedented student protests against Israel’s war crimes in Gaza had taken place on campuses across Britain. Student Rights was founded a few months later in response to “increasing political extremism”, a reference Raheem Kassam “admitted” was to “increased activism on campuses over the Israel-Palestine conflict”.
Coincidentally, in December 2009, an anti-BDS working group at an Israeli Foreign Ministry-convened conference – including a number of UK-based participants – suggested that one way to “put the boycotters on the defensive” was to “create a ‘Student Rights Watch’ organization”. Such a body could have a “focus on rights as students on college campuses with an emphasis on how Israel and Jews are treated, but also monitor other abuses inside and outside the classroom”.
Using – or abusing – the language of ‘rights’ and ‘freedom of speech’ to attack the growing Palestine solidarity movement on campus seems to be an increasingly popular strategy. In its hypocrisy and transparency, it is also – like in the case of Surrey – doomed to failure.