“Thugs”, Boycotts and Freedom of Speech

Sarah Payne

Yiftah Curiel, Head Spokesman and Press Officer for the Israeli Embassy in London, was scheduled to speak to both the Glasgow European Society and the Dialectic Society last week. However, the talks were disrupted by pro-Palestine protesters, provoking an angry, indignant and chaotic response from organisers, pro-Israel supporters and even Mr Curiel himself, who took to Twitter to denounce the protesters as “thugs”, intent on “abus[ing] freedom of speech on campus”. As someone who attended the talk, and as someone not previously affiliated with either the Glasgow University European Society or Glasgow Palestine Action, I feel compelled to share my experiences at the European Society meeting.

The first pro-Palestine supporter to stand up and voice her opposition to Mr Curiel’s invitation by the European Society was met with jeers, shouts and exasperated sighs. She read out her reasons for opposing the talk, proclaiming that Israeli government representatives are not welcome at Glasgow University, temporarily preventing Mr Curiel from speaking. I was at the talk; there was absolutely no violent or threatening behaviour on the part of the protesters. The only physical or violent actions I witnessed were from senior members of the sharp-suited but embarrassingly ineffectual Glasgow European Society, who rounded on the protesters, forcibly snatching and ripping the paper from the hands of the protesters.

These non-violent protesters have since been smeared appallingly by Mr Curiel, who appeared on STV to denounce them as being “to do with incitement and violence”, and drawing outrageous parallels between them and recent “stabbings…incited by the Palestinians”. As anyone who had witnessed the events could testify, Curiel’s claims that protesters “shouted obscenities” and that he had to be “evacuated” by security due to threatening and violent behaviour were completely false – in reality, Mr Curiel remained in the room for at least forty minutes, answering questions and making small talk with European Society members. In addition, due to the lack of any credible threat, security personnel present in the room remained inactive throughout the incident.  Mr Curiel continued his tirade on Twitter, despite being unable to answer when challenged as to how non-violent protesters can be construed as “thugs”, and instead continuing with ambiguous allegations.

This is where, I feel, vague “freedom of speech” arguments fail to stand up. Free and open debate is invaluable in building a fairer, peaceful world; however, Yiftah Curiel’s talks were nothing of the sort. There was no balanced debate; no representative Palestinian voices; no given context or parity. As Glasgow Guardian previously reported, a representative of the Scottish Palestine Solidarity Campaign and the Glasgow Palestine Action group stated: “we understand the nature of the Dialectic Society, but the parity of two sides of a debate don’t apply here. If this is about academic freedom and objectivity, why are no other students allowed in and allowed to express dissent against the views of the Israeli speaker?”

In addition to this lack of balance, the subsequent actions of Mr Curiel highlight the false equivalency which characterises debate surrounding the Israeli state. Curiel’s egregious lies to over a thousand Twitter followers, the national media and the Scottish people about the events of the evening went unchallenged and uncorrected. It is instances like this which have led to the establishment of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign, a global movement aiming to influence the Israeli government’s policy towards Palestine; indeed, the protests against Mr Curiel’s platform were organised in accordance with the BDS’s academic boycott of Israel, a growing movement supported by distinguished scholars such as Stephen Hawking, Noam Chomsky and Desmond Tutu.

It is also worth noting that concerns over the infringement of Curiel’s “freedom of speech” are particularly disingenuous, as he was personally involved in trying to prevent a book launch by human rights organisation Amnesty International earlier this year.

As I witnessed first-hand, the actions of the pro-Palestine supporters present at Mr Curiel’s talks were non-violent and non-threatening, and attempts to denounce them as anything else are dishonest. Arguments invoking “freedom of speech” and “free and fair debate” only apply as far as there is some parity of conditions, and, as was declared by the protesters, “we remind those assembled here that academia does not operate in some special apolitical space”.  In summary, as the late Scottish author Iain Banks put it: the only way to “convince Israel of its moral degradation and ethical isolation” is “simply by having nothing more to do with this outlaw state.”

For more information on the BDS campaign: www.bdsmovement.net

For more information on academic boycott: www.pacbi.org


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