The violent anti-Israel protest that took place at UCL last week was undoubtedly one of the most shocking events in the history of the university. Students were threatened and it took dozens of police officers to facilitate a safe escape for the students who attended the event with Hen Mazzig, a former Israel Defense Forces Commander and a renowned pro-Israel activist. Whereas many, including the Board of Deputies and Sir Eric Pickles MP, rightfully condemned the protest as “disgraceful” for a society that values freedom of speech, many of us, admittedly, were hardly surprised. Indeed, over the last couple of years we have got used to such incidents, ranging from the decision to no-platform Macer Gifford to a similar protest at King’s College London earlier this year, all of which shed light on the greatest problems currently faced by our society.
The first and most evident issue is the blindingly obvious anti-Israel bias at UCL and in British universities in general – just imagine the outrage if a member of Friends of Israel dared to raise his voice at a Friends of Palestine event. As evidenced by this week’s protest, as well as a similar one at King’s College earlier this year, universities tend to shy away from taking disciplinary measures against any pro-Palestinian groups, resulting in UCL and many other universities passing Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) motions and carrying out anti-Israel demonstrations in spite of protests from Jewish students. In contrast, the National Union of Students has failed to pass an anti-ISIS motion for fear of it being called Islamophobic, yet it never occurred to them that anti-Israel activism can be perceived as being anti-Semitic. In fact, the bias is so deeply rooted in our education system that supporting Israel has become a taboo topic, and even the most dedicated and loyal supporters of the Jewish State are forced to keep quiet about their beliefs. Surely, the BDS activists will say, there is nothing wrong with being a Jew, unless of course one happens to be a Zionist – in other words, the only good Jew is one that resents the Jewish claim to have a country of their own. Worse still, universities appear – at least indirectly – to endorse this trend, since in light of the recent protest, both the UCL Union and UCL Friends of Palestine went no further than to recycle”we do not endorse violence” rhetoric – no apology was issued by either body and there was no disciplinary action from the university management. To cut a long story short, it has become the norm to deem pro-Palestinian activists untouchable and to expect pro-Israel activists to put up with abuse.
Such open bias sheds light on a different problem within both the academic and the wider world, namely the open censorship of unpopular ideas and the slow but steady deterioration of free speech. Universities and student unions in Britain all claim to be committed to freedom of expression and freedom from discrimination, yet in reality this only applies to the kind of rhetoric that the student unions in question would support. The recent anti-Israel protests at UCL and Kings are an obvious example, but the problem is much greater and much deeper rooted. Most readers will be familiar with the myriad of “Free Education” posters and placards scattered around campus, as well with the annual march for free education, which without fail ends up turning into a socialist-revolutionary march against the Tories. Such things are often dismissed as youthful rebellion, and perhaps they could be, if only one could comfortably speak out in favour of the opposite side. Similarly, it was not easy to forget the week following the general election, when revealing oneself as a Tory was synonymous with social suicide in the eyes of one’s peers, the union, and in some cases even the staff – the most striking example being an official email from the student union at SOAS that apologised for the “dreadful result”. Once again, the most worrying aspect of this tendency is not so much the presence of polarising views, but the unashamed bias against those who disagree and the failure of academic institutions and their unions to maintain a politically neutral stance. Similarly, one cannot help but notice the same trends spreading into our day-to-day lives. Indeed, on the election day the words “Tory Scum” graced not only the walls of university campuses, but also, shamefully, of memorials and public places. Much as in the academic world, there is clear anti-conservative bias perpetrated by popular culture and the loud-mouthed Twitterati who constantly remind the general public of the threat of all things conservative. So desperate is the situation that anyone who reveals themselves as a conservative becomes a legitimate target for cyber-bullying, abuse, and in some cases a fate much worse (check out the recent Spectator article titled “Rage, politics, and the murder of a friend”).
Another and perhaps even more menacing revelation is the deterioration not only of freedom of speech, but also of the art of civilised political and academic debate. Increasingly we are seeing all manner of controversial topics being reduced to profanity, threats, and in some cases even violence. Note the participants of both protests – these are not calm and collected intellectuals ready to defend their position with arguments and facts, nor do they qualify as open-minded activists who are willing to listen and compromise in order to achieve their goals. Instead we are treated to an unsightly gathering of raging, screaming, violent bullies who try to intimidate and shame the people who dare to disagree with them. This is by no means a gathering of informed progressives – this is a raging mob from the days of Spanish Inquisition, and the institutions that are meant to protect us from it are failing. Time and again we hear about no-platforming, disavowals, and boycotts. Inviting a speaker who disagrees with the established norms is an increasingly daunting task, as any reference to free speech is dismissed by branding the opposition as racists, bigots, and at times “literally Hitler”. Debates are being cancelled, speaker events suspended, and the protesters who disrupt the events are celebrated as heroes by their own ilk. The reason why the art of debate is dead becomes clear – it is no longer about the debate. Debates, as you, dear reader, know full well, rely on a sense of solidarity between the opposing sides and more often than not is aimed at finding solutions to highly controversial issues, and this, alas, is no longer very popular. The aforementioned protesters and Twitterati care little about the debate and even less about the solution – for them it is an opportunity to make the loudest statement they can and feel important and powerful. Cynical as this may sound, these people know full well that they will face little resistance from both their target (by virtue of their target’s being civilised) and the supervising bodies (by virtue of their turning a blind eye for fear of becoming unpopular), which is why they do not hesitate to use profanity and intimidation to disrupt and silence anyone who disagrees with them.
The anti-Israel protest last week was more than just a disgusting display of violence – it was a wake-up call, an incarnation of the problems of our society that we can no longer afford to ignore. Of course, one can always disagree with nuances, such as the scale of the anti-Semitic bias or the level of the threat posed by the loud-mouthed, infantile ignoramuses who dominate social media and the academic environment. One thing, however, is categorically clear – freedom of speech and civilised debate are under the threat of extinction, and anyone who still believes in these values has the moral duty to defend them at all costs.