On Wednesday evening Edinburgh University’s Students For Justice in Palestine (SJP) manged to attend and disrupt a lecture by Daniel Taub, the Israeli ambassador to the UK.
Taub was hosted by the university’s student politics society, and protected by what one activist told EI was the largest police presence anyone could remember.
“Many of the activists I’ve spoken to, people who’ve been active in student politics for maybe 10 years have never seen a police presence on campus, even at the hight of the anti-cuts movement,” said student union activist Liam O’Hare.
The event was practically clandestine, but activists discovered it: “an invitation that we got wind of maybe two days before the event. It had been kept secret,” said O’Hare. Attendees were searched before entering the lecture theatre.
Outside, more than 100 police officers surrounded a crowd of approximately 150-200 students who were chanting “Zionism is a crime, Free Free Palestine” and “Boycott Israel.”
Inside, activists disrupted the ambassador’s lecture at key intervals, calling Taub a “defender of war crimes” and “ambassador for apartheid.”
Although the head of the politics department personally banned SJP members from attending the lecture, activists manage to use connections to other student societies to obtain tickets.
Mossad on campus?
Students had written to the politics society before the event urging them to cancel. “Taub was here to defend the racist policies of the state of Israel,” said Pete Ramand, Edinburgh’s Black, Minority, Ethnic (BME) student officer in an SJP press release.
“It is an unacceptable situation when someone with such abhorrent and dangerous views can be brought on to campus. It is threatening to students from a Palestinian or Arab background, who are then treated like criminals for attempting to voice their justified opposition to it,” he wrote.
In a statement posted on the Israeli Embassy’s website, Taub laughably claimed he “stands up” to such protesters.
Taub’s statement tried to downplay the numbers, and belittle the students, claiming they “have very little to say for themselves.”
While Taub claims to have been spoken to “a crowd of 150 students,” O’Hare said there were only about 60-70 in the audience, including SJP activists. A significant portion was disruptive, said O’Hare.
As well as the unprecedented police presence, Taub was protected by about half a dozen Israeli security agents inside the lecture theater (although police were not in the hall). O’Hare said he was unable to confirm rumors the agents were armed. The agents were recognizable from previous events on campus, including the visit of former ambassador Ron Prosor and Israeli diplomat Ismail Khaldi.
The day after the disruption, Mark Aspinwall, the head of the politics department, sent an indignant mass-email out to students in which he moaned that “Shouting down an Israeli Ambassador will not cause Israeli policy to change.”
Aspinwall had organized the event. O’Hare said that according to campus security they had spoken to, Aspinwall’s instructions meant that only certain student societies were allowed to attend. SJP-affiliated students were barred. SJP activists asked the politics society, but they claimed it was a “diktat” from the politics department and from campus security. O’Hare described this as “quite a worrying situation.”
Even more disturbingly, Aspinwall’s email accused protesters of “extremism” merely for exercising their freedom of speech.
Ramand replied to Aspinwall saying he had overstepping the mark: “Your intervention has been extremely unhelpful and has caused alarm to many BME [Black, Minority, Ethnic] students… It is highly divisive to invite a figure whose role is to defend a racial state widely accused of extra-judicial torture and ethnic cleansing. Taub has gone on record declaring his support for Operation Cast Lead, in which the UN Factfinding Mission found evidence of war crimes and possible crimes against humanity.”
He also accused the politics society of “breaking a global campaign for boycott, divestment and sanctions” against Israel.
O’Hare told EI that SJP was planning to deliver a petition condemning the “extremist” email to Aspinwall’s office early next week. They will deliver calls from students calling on him to retract his comments and make a public apology.
While students are often criticized for being apolitical “here we have students standing up for human rights … and the head of the politics department calls these people ‘extremists’. It’s quite dangerous,” O’Hare concluded.
Here’s what happened in 2011 when Israeli diplomat Ismail Khaldi tried to speak at Edinburgh University.