Government Pressure, the Israel-Palestine debate

On the 10th October the University and College Union, the largest union for academics in the UK, issued a statement which condemned  

in the strongest possible terms the targeting of civilian life by both Hamas and the Israeli military, and we also condemn instances of Antisemitism and Islamophobia that we have witnessed since the violence unfolded.  

On the 11th October Gillian Keegan, Secretary of State for Education, wrote a letter to all Vice-Chancellors in the UK, which criticised the UCU statement as “grossly insensitive and unhelpful”, and asked them to “pay particular attention to any invitations issued by staff or students at your institution to speakers on this subject in order to ensure that any such events do not provide a platform for illegal speech.”  

Gillian Keegan may reasonably request that universities do not provide platforms for illegal speech – in particular speech that is antisemitic, or incites terrorism. However, the UCU statement is not illegal speech. For Gillian Keegan to write to Vice-Chancellors criticising this statement is an abuse of government power. For this criticism to be placed next to a call for care in issuing invitations is tantamount to the government pressuring universities to censor in line with its views. The specific view to which Keegan appears to object is that the Israeli military has targeted civilians. This claim appears in a UN report stating that current Israeli military action “indiscriminately targets innocent civilians”. Whether or not this claim is true, Keegan’s actions directly threaten academic freedom.  

Also on the 10th October, Suella Braverman, the Home Secretary, wrote a public letter to the Chief Constables of England and Wales. She informed the constables that it is an offence to publish an image of a Palestinian flag in circumstances “which arouse reasonable suspicion that the individual is a… supporter of Hamas.” When making arrests, which circumstances count as “reasonable suspicion” is left to the judgement of the police. Universities are understandably nervous of hosting speakers to discuss Palestine given that such speakers may show slides featuring the Palestinian flag, and the police may judge this to be an offence.   

The effect of the government’s actions has been to create an atmosphere of fear, and reduce the space for academic discussion of the Israel-Palestine conflict. The British Society for Middle Eastern Studies has stated that Keegan’s letter may be used to “stifle legitimate discussion, and to threaten academics and students with potentially severe and irrevocably damaging accusations.” Already, Liverpool Hope University has cancelled a talk by Professor Avi Shlaim, an esteemed professor of international relations and critic of Israel. CAF has written about Professor Shlaim here. Eventbrite has removed tickets for a talk to be given by Omar Barghouti, a notable Palestinian activist, at Queen Mary University, London. In the US Professor Michael Eisen has been fired from his post as editor in chief of the academic journal eLife for sharing a tweet which satirised allegedly callous responses to deaths of Palestinians. In Israel Professor Uri Horesh has been fired for posting “free Gaza” online.