London’s School of Oriental and African Studies is the only higher education institution in Europe specialising in the study of Asia, Africa and the Near and Middle East, it’s designed to grapple with the pressing issues of these regions.
Therefore, there should be no furore around an event planned by the Model UN and SOAS Jewish society on 27 April hosting a discussion with the ambassador of Israel to the UK, Mark Regev.
Events such as these aren’t a sign of an institution as the Palestinian Society claims, “failing to uphold its basic duty of care to staff and students”, rather, it’s a sign of a university doing what it’s embodied to do – providing a platform for free speech, debate and discussion.
In 2015, 20 percent of our student body voted to censor and cut ties to all associated with Israeli academic institutions. However, banning by association contravenes one of the basic tenets of a university, free speech. In order to form complete and reasoned conclusions, we need to hear all sides. If one disagrees, don’t censor, engage and debate instead.
If it’s ‘dangerous’ to invite people who we disagree with, what kind of debate and discussion do we aspire to? One must ask oneself, especially when attending a centre for higher education, “Do I care about determining the truth through reasoned discussion and debate or am I only able to tolerate discussions with those agreeable to my point of view?”
SOAS academics and staff, particularly Yair Wallach, the chair of the Centre for Jewish studies, have also played their part. After claiming in an email that because “Regev’s talk is likely to be a controversial and fraught affair”, “We see little value in the talk itself.
This is the view of myself and other colleagues at the Centre for Jewish Studies. Therefore we suggest that the JSoc and the SOAS UN society reconsider the event”.
Why is it that he effectively asked us to cancel? Why is it that he went even further, emailing the academic chair selected for this event, writing: “I have been involved in discussions with the student Jewish society and with the management regarding the event. I would be very grateful if I could discuss it with you over the phone.” Yair and the Chair have since said that the phone call never managed to happen. The chair withdrew a few days after that email though, although this decision was made independent of the email.
Do we actually care about free speech or do we only care about hearing those that agree with us?
Do we reserve the right of free speech at our university only to the likes of Ilan Pappe who belittles anti-Semitism, Shlomo Sands who denies the existence of a Jewish people, Thomas Suarez who gave an anti-Semitic lecture and homophobic preacher Haitham al Haddad who supports female genital mutilation but then deny it to the ambassador?
This is double standards.
We should pride ourselves on free speech for all, not selective hate speech.
Engaging in debate with someone you disagree with isn’t ‘sponsoring’ their views, it’s an opportunity for us all to broaden our minds to dimensions of a discussion often ignored.
Societies that wish to bring controversial speakers shouldn’t be dissuaded from hosting events, they should be encouraged, it allows students to challenge both the speaker and their conceptions and arrive at independent conclusions.
We have had to respond to breaches in confidentiality by either management or the student union, before even receiving approval for this event, the Palestinian Society released a statement and wrote to the university demanding censorship. The university and the student union should provide greater support to students and societies, not attempt dissuade and sabotage them.
How about those that show solidarity with far more controversial speakers and events on campus listen and question those with differing views instead of trying to silence them?
• The author is president of the Jewish society at the School of Oriental and African Studies