Israeli ambassador Mark Regev told demonstrators “israel is not going anywhere” as he became the first diplomat from the country to speak at SOAS in 12 years, despite an audible protest from hundreds outside.
Outside the event, organised by SOAS Jewish Society and Model UN Society, some 200 protesters gathered, including many who claimed that Regev’s presence on campus was an affront to SOAS Student Union’s BDS policy.
More than 1000 people registered interest in the protest, titled by organisers Apartheid Off Campus. Publicity for it described Regev as “the public face of Israeli barbarism”.
However pro-Israel groups were present for counter-demonstrations. One observer noted nearly as many Israeli flags as Palestinian in the crowd. Despite a tense atmosphere, the protest did not become and police did not separate the two groups.
In the run-up to the event a letter signed by more than 100 SOAS staff called on SOAS to cancel the event, saying: “We fear that if this provocative event proceeds as planned, it will cause substantial distress and harm to many of our students and staff who are, have been or will be affected by the actions of what a recent UN report refers to as the Israeli ‘apartheid regime’.”
A statement from SOAS Jewish Society said: “Our society has been at the forefront of bringing another dimension to the debate often intimidated off university campuses.
“Hosting the Ambassador fits within our guidelines of providing an additional viewpoint that we will be able to challenge throughout the course of the evening, this will be an evening of discussion, not an unchallenged lecture.”
A separate statement signed by SOAS student societies including the Palestine Society, Herb Society, Decolonising our Minds and others claimed the event “flies in the face” of SOAS Students Union’s BDS policy.
It also suggested that “armed embassy staff” would be policing the event, and that students would be made unsafe. They likened the supposed security to “living under military occupation in Palestine”.
However SOAS and the Jewish Society both put out statements refuting the accusations, and the SOAS security team were responsible for event security. There was also a small police presence at the protest, but no armed officers or security personnel.
Footage of ‘anti-Semitic hate speech’ emerged from the protests, including a man claiming that victims of the Holocaust were “cowards”.
An observer from Jewish Human Rights Watch described the protest as organised Jew-hate. As yet, no anti-Semitic incidents have been reported to the police, and it is unclear whether SOAS will be investigating the protesters.
SOAS registrar Paula Sanderson said: “There is no place for hate speech on the SOAS campus and freedom of speech does not permit the expression of racist or anti-Semitic views.
Live from SOAS University, London: An example of the antisemitic protestors: “Jews that went into the gas chambers were cowards”
Ambassador Mark Regev is speaking at an event organised by the SOAS Jewish Society.
Posted by StandWithUs UK on Thursday, 27 April 2017
“We condemn unreservedly the comments that were made by the person shown on the video – he is not a student or staff member at SOAS”
Sol Schlagman, who posted the video initially video, spoke to Jewish News after the event, and said his video “affirmed to me that this conversation isn’t about Israel. We’ve created a legitimate way in which people can be anti-Semitic.”
The student at UCL, added that he wished more would attend the counter-protests: “There were about 100 Jews there last night, but there should be thousands. I have exams right now, I’m swamped, but that would never deter me from being there.”
Despite the protests outside, the event itself took place with little interruption. Approximately 60 people attended the talk, chaired by Professor Eric Heinze of Queen Mary University London.
During his talk, as protesters outside could be heard, he said: “I would like to tell them a secret. Israel is not going away. Israel is not going anywhere.”
Inside, he spoke about his political experience then answered questions from the crowd, which varied from dealing with anti-Semitism to questions of border walls and settlements.
He said: “”If I’m a provocation, then I apologise. But I think there is a problem that people view Israel through a colonial prism.” Regev added, that “We have made mistakes… The question is can we learn from them. If you look at public debate, Israel is a very self-critical society”
Regev spoke topical issues including settlements, claiming Israel is “not building new settlements, we’re building inside existing communities”.
On Israel’s global relations, he said the Jewish state wants “to try a regional approach, bring in the Arab states into the peace process”, and added that President Donald Trump was ‘good news’.
— Mark Regev (@AmbMarkRegev) April 27, 2017
Avrahum Sanger, SOAS Jewish Society president, said: “I’m happy this event went ahead. Obviously they were quite diplomatic answers, but then again we were speaking to the ambassador. We’re very lucky to have had the ambassador at SOAS and very happy that the event went ahead well.
“I think SOAS did an amazing job with handling the protest which seemed to be very well contained. We really appreciate them standing up for the right of free speech.”