On Academic Freedom and Freedom of Speech

Raphael Cohen-Almagor, professor and chair in politics at the University of Hull, discusses the issue of academic freedom of speech by sharing an exclusive story of former Deputy Prime Minister Dan Meridor’s visit to the University of Hull.

academic-freedom-speeechIn my last article, I explained why boycotting Israeli academics is a bad idea. Recently I had first-hand experience how the boycott is working, and how disturbing the attempts to curb academic freedom and to stifle freedom of expression can be. Let me share with you the behind-the-scene story of former Deputy Prime Minister Dan Meridor’s visit to the University of Hull.

The Hull campus is known for its indifference and sleepiness. It is not politically active like Israeli campuses, Oxford or London. Thus I expected that my efforts to bring people who endorse the two-state solution and explain the intricacies of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would materialize in a tranquil and quiet atmosphere.

Last month I brought to the Hull campus His Excellency Manuel Hassassian who delivered a very effective presentation for the Palestinian people. The visit went well. There were no disturbances or concerns. I reported the main themes of Ambassador Hassassian’s lecture in my Israeli Politics Blog. Ambassador Hassassian’s speech is available here. To balance his views, and to represent Israel’s point of view, I invited former Deputy Prime Minister Dan Meridor. I was hoping for a peaceful visit. Until…

Some three weeks before the scheduled event, and about a week after the Hassassian lecture, I met by accident at the university cafeteria a former student of mine, AW. He asked me what I thought of the Hassassian lecture and we embarked on a conversation. Then he changed gear, asking me whether I was not afraid of the upcoming visit of Meridor. “Afraid of what?”, I asked. “Well,” he explained, “surely you would appreciate that when representatives of dictatorships come to campus, it is our duty to stand against them and deny them the right to speak.” Calmly, I replied that the Hull campus is known, if not notoriously known, for its indifference. Thus I expect that the lecture would go in the same way that the Hassassian lecture went, in good order.

AW then explained that while Hassassian is perfectly entitled to explain the Palestinian stance, Meridor was not. To my arguments in favor of freedom of expression, academic freedom, and free exchange of ideas, he answered that no such things are relevant when Israel is concerned. He told me that when Israeli representatives were invited to nearby campuses, Leeds and York, they were met with protests outside and inside the halls, preventing them the right to speak. He described those events with knowledge and authority, making the impression that he was involved in them not only as a participant but also as one of the organizers. He called Meridor a “war criminal” and said that he deserves the same treatment as other representatives of Israel. The discussion was longer, with more details, but you get the message.

I became concerned

As far as I know, Hull never had such a high-profile visitor from Israel before. I worked very hard to bring Meridor to Hull and organized the best possible visit. I really did not want things to go wrong. This would be bad for the university. This would be bad for Israel. And more so, I did not want to insult or offend Meridor. He was my guest. I had the responsibility to see that he would be able to deliver his views. After all, this was the purpose of his visit to Hull.

I became concerned also because I know one or two things about Mr. AW. AW was my student in a seminar titled “A Theater of Terror,” which analyzes the special relationships between terrorism and the media. AW was an industrious and thoughtful student. He was keenly interested in the subject. It was clear to me that he knew more about terrorism more than the average English student did.

When we discussed September 11, AW challenged my assumption that this terrorist attack was done by al-Qaeda. He claimed that there was no proof to connect that organization to September 11. When asked who then was behind the attack, Mr. AW preferred to remain silent. I suspected that he believed it was probably the Mossad. When we discussed the 1987-1993 Intifada, AW opted to speak on Cast Lead. I had to stop him and refocus the discussion. I also became aware of his involvement to fight for civil rights of Muslim preachers who were convicted of radical incitement to violence and jihad under the guise of religious freedom. AW is involved in some very radical circles in the UK.

And now he tells me that he needs to think whether he wished to organize his friends to protest against the “war criminal” representing the Israeli “dictatorship” whom I invited to Hull, prevent him from speaking, and turn the event into a pro-Palestinian propaganda event.

I decided to involve the campus security and the Israeli Embassy. They needed to be aware.

The university chief security officer took matters swiftly in hand. The problem, however, was that he had no previous experience with anti-Israeli demonstrations on campus. Meridor was the first top Israeli to visit our campus. I needed to explain to my colleague what could happen and to see that he was well prepared.

And then my Head of School came to see me. AW, or one of his colleagues, met her and protested against the invitation of the Israeli “war criminal” to Hull. Again, threats were made that Meridor’s freedom of speech will be denied. She also became concerned and contacted the head of security.

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Furthermore, my assistant received an email, saying that the university must revoke Meridor’s invitation. Here it is:

“Hi, my email is regarding your session for next Wednesday of hosting war criminal Dan Meridor who was partly responsible for the act of piracy in the international water which resulted in killing many and seriously injuring others. Freedom Flotilla was attacked when Dan Meridor was deputy prime minister for the government who took the decision to attack a humanitarian aid mission which was widely and internationaly condemened (sic). I urgue you to cancel the meeting as a demonstration of concern for many feeling agregated (sic) by his acts same as many other universities in the UK did e.g. Manchester University…Thank you”

From the outset, I asked people to RSVP with my assistant. The campus head of security decided to involve the Academic Registrar who, in turn, resolved to issue tickets to those who RSVP’d and to deny entry from those who did not. All names and emails were checked. It was decided that suspected individuals would not be able to enter the hall. The Israeli Embassy decided that the issue was serious. They decided to send three people with DPM Meridor to ascertain that the visit would go smoothly. The embassy security spoke directly with the campus chief security officer. I checked the venue’s points of entry and exit. Some doors we ordered to be locked.

I also organized Israeli supporters from Hull, Leeds and other places to come to the lecture. I did not wish to leave the stage to anti-Israel protestors.

Finally, a day prior, I got a telephone call from the local police. Someone had alerted them. They wanted to hear all the details. On the day, police officers were present on campus, to make sure everything went smoothly.

And it did. Better be safe than sorry, these measures contributed to a smooth visit and operation.

Meridor arrived at the train station, where a policeman was assigned on watch

I welcomed him and the embassy people. The university driver and car took us directly to the Vice Chancellor’s Office, where Dan was greeted and welcomed by the VC. The VC led us to lunch with some dignitaries — university leaders and my personal guests, including the President of the European Israeli Studies Association, and the Senior Vice President of The Board of Deputies of British Jews. After lunch, Dan had a discussion with a small group of friends and then he delivered a thoughtful presentation on the Arab Spring and its effects on Israel and the Middle East.

Dan spoke of the need for a two-state solution, as this is the only viable solution. He explained the wrongs of the occupation, and the need to evacuate some settlements in order to avoid a situation of either an apartheid state, or a bi-national state that would effectively end the Zionist dream. Meridor spoke, without a single piece of paper, for more than one hour, and then patiently answered all questions from the audience. The hall was packed. As a matter of fact, we needed to restrict entry as the demand was greater than space. More than 100 people RSVP’d for the event, and the majority of them came. Those who did not RSVP beforehand were denied entry. Dan received excellent comments from quite a few people who attended the lecture.

After the Q&A, the Lord Mayor took us in her stretch limousine to the Guildhall, where she organized a festive dinner in Meridor’s honor, with the city dignitaries and officials, leaders of the two small Jewish communities – the Orthodox and the Reform – and my university leaders, including the Vice Chancellor. Toasts were raised in honor of the Queen, and President Shimon Peres. The Lord Mayor delivered a speech in Meridor’s honour, and Dan thanked her warmly. All in all, it was a great event.

It was an important event for the university, for the city, and especially for the Jewish communities. Usually, Israeli dignitaries visit only London, sometimes Manchester, but they refrain from going to other places. Such a high-profile visit is so vitally important for the Jews of Hull as it makes them feel they are part of the discourse, that Israelis relate to them and care about them, coming to see them in person.

Public Speaking

Former Deputy Prime Minister Dan Meridor speaking at the University of Hull. Credit: Raphael Cohen-Almagor

Dan was, as usual, pleasant, friendly and gracious. He was generous with his time and sharp as ever. He probably has little idea just how much good he did for the people in Hull. Meridor’s visit has demonstrated that we should fight those who wish to dictate the agenda with bans, exclusion, and animosity. We should not allow bigots and extremists to deny freedom of expression and the free flow of ideas. Constructive talks about the need for peace bring the peace nearer, not outright bans on all Israelis notwithstanding their contributions to the discussion.

Raphael Cohen-Almagor, D. Phil., Oxon, is Professor and Chair in Politics; Founding Director of the Middle East Study Group (MESG), University of Hull, www2.hull.ac.uk/fass/me-study-group.aspxWebsite: hull.ac.uk/rcaBlog: almagor.blogspot.comTwitter@almagor35Read other articles by Raphael.