THE IDEA that universities need to be safe spaces is the go-to justification for campus censorship today. All the headline-grabbing bans we’ve seen on campus of late – from the calls to ‘No Platform’ Germaine Greer at Cardiff to the boycotting of The Sun at almost 30 campuses – have been dressed up by blubbing students’ union bureaucrats as an attempt to protect students from being hurt or offended.
This is not about censorship, they say, this is about protecting students from ‘emotional harm’, particularly those most blighted in our society – women, ethnic minorities and gay people. It is all horrendously patronising. Apparently if you’re not white, male and straight you’re considered too soft to engage in free debate unassisted.
But it’s also deeply hypocritical.
Safe spaces might appear therapeutic and apolitical. Compared to the campus ‘No Platforming’ of fascists and racists in the past, the tactical banning of political foes, safe space policies seem free-floating and indiscriminate. They are, as one student union safe space policy puts it, about making sure ‘every student feels comfortable’ – free from upset or offence.
Taking these tear-stained policies at their word, you’d think any student could complain about at an opinion they didn’t like – sorry, made them ‘feel unsafe’ – and enjoy swift action from the SU. So paramount is their psychic safety that sanitising academic life, snuffing out anything that raises hackles, is a price worth paying. But, in practice, safe spaces are neither as apolitical or as caring as they sound. Particularly if you’re one of those students who dares to support Israel.
Last week at King’s College London, a talk being given by Israeli security expert Ami Ayalon was disrupted by a mob of pro-Palestine students. They banged on windows, set off fire alarms and chucked chairs, claiming that Ayalon, a former head of Shin Bet, was a war criminal who shouldn’t be dignified with a KCL platform.
Esther Endfield from the KCL Israel Society, which organised the event, said: ‘When did I become so unsafe in one of the global universities in the world that we can no longer hold an event without being scared for our safety?’
This wasn’t a one off, either. There have been a string of nasty protests at pro-Israel events on campus in recent years. In 2015 students at the London School of Economics were blocked by activists from entering a lecture by the then Israel ambassador to the UK, Daniel Taub. At King’s in 2014 an event featuring former IDF soldier Hen Mazzig was disrupted by the students’ union’s own ‘Safe Space officer’, who squared off to one of the student organisers.
Though campus politicos are quick to distance themselves from such dustups, this illiberal anti-Israel fervour has been spurred on by students’ unions themselves. spiked, the magazine I work for, launched our second, annual Free Speech University Rankings last week, and we’ve seen a marked rise in anti-Israel censorship. Today, 13 students’ unions have pledged support for the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, which advocates an outright ban on speakers from Israeli universities and institutions.
And that’s not even the half of it. Aside from the rowdy excesses of pro-Palestine activists and censorious SU dictat, a culture of intolerance towards anyone who dares defend the State of Israel has taken root. Israel Apartheid Week, a nasty initiative in which students set up mock checkpoints and border fences, are now held annually at students’ unions across the country.
The Israel-Palestine conflict has always stirred passions on campus. When the National Union of Students’ (NUS) notorious No Platform policy was introduced in the 1970s it was wielded as much against Zionists as it was fascists. But anti-Israel censorship on campus has become particularly ugly of late. Pro-Israel students are being casually smeared as supporters of oppression.
For all the touchy-feely talk of today’s campus thoughtpolice, what is happening to pro-Israel students is straightforward political censorship. They are being ostracised, banned and intimidated for holding a political opinion. And that’s an outrage. But pro-Israel students must resist the urge to simply shout hypocrisy, to argue for their right to be protected by the safe space – tempting and understandable though that may be.
The hideous treatment of pro-Israel students shows that the safe space is a lie. It’s a slippery codeword for censorship and political intimidation. Rather than ask to have the borders of acceptable debate redrawn to include them, students must demand free speech for all.
- Tom is an organiser of The New Intolerance on Campus conference, which will be taking place at Conway Hall in London on 17 February.