University College London (UCL) was founded in 1826 by a remarkable man named Jeremy Bentham, a polymath whose sense of justice transformed him into one of the most active social reformers of his day.
Long before any of these causes were popular, he championed freedom of speech, separation of church and state, equal rights for women, economic reforms, and the abolition of the death penalty and any form of physical punishment.
In addition to all of this, frustrated by the prejudice and discrimination rife in the established universities in the UK, he established UCL as “the first university in England to welcome students of any class, race or religion, and the first to welcome women on equal terms with men.”
That was the UCL I attended in the 1990’s – a broad-minded, tolerant educational establishment, home to every shade of opinion and creed, where students felt comfortable communicating their opinions without having to fear the scourge of negative student activism aimed at stifling their freedom of speech and expression.
Despite the fact that I was a visibly Jewish student studying Jewish history at the university’s world-class Jewish Studies Department, not once in my four years on campus did I experience any antisemitism, nor did I come across anyone who so much as questioned my support for Israel.
There were certainly students at UCL who were sympathetic to the Palestinian cause and seriously critical of Israeli government policy on settlements and the occupied territories. Indeed, many of them were Jewish. But we all interacted with each other at student events without any rancor or acrimony.
Which makes last week’s ugly incident at UCL – when police had to be called in to escort Jewish students to safety after they had been barricaded into a room by screaming pro-Palestinian protesters – all the more disturbing.
When I saw the story in the news, all I could think of was, is this really my UCL? Is this the college Jeremy Bentham envisaged? Is this what it means to have an educational institution where anyone who wants to can study without being terrorized and intimidated?
The irony of boorish bullies yelling at and terrifying fellow students to protest what they believe to be Israel’s mistreatment of Palestinians would be funny if it were not so tragic. And frightening. For where does it all end? Are we to accept this as our new reality? A world where advocates for Israel, the one and only Jewish national home, are denied the right to freely proclaim their views in a non-violent, non-provocative setting, while advocates for a Palestinian national home can do and say – scream, actually – whatever they want without repercussions?
Is there any space left in the UK for a pro-Israel activist to feel comfortable and safe? Or must we accept that from now on pro-Israel activists will be confined behind a police cordon, so that they are protected from the baying mob?
With each passing month it seems we are sliding ever deeper into an Orwellian era of “four legs good, two legs bad!” In today’s world the only mantra we hear, the one that is constantly being forced down our throats, is “Palestinian nationalism good, Jewish nationalism bad!” And the howling wolves in sheep’s clothing continuously chant this fashionable slogan at the tops of their voices, drowning out any other opinion in an emerging dictatorship of neo-liberal fascism.
Of course one cannot expect everyone to support the concept of a Jewish state, nor can one expect conformity in terms of finding solutions to the dual and seemingly irreconcilable claims for the territory between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River. But the UK is a country that mandates freedom of expression, and UCL is a college whose very foundation was about creating a safe haven for all opinions.
Surely this means that those who disagree with Israel must be required to respect those who champion Israel? Internationalists and post-modernists have no greater right to their views than I have to my view, which is that the Land of Israel is the ancient homeland of the Jews, from which they were dispossessed and displaced for almost 2,000 years before it was rightfully returned to them by the international community in a majority vote at the UN in 1947.
As far as I am concerned, you can call it Palestine, or Judea, or Israel, or anything else you want. No name will change the fact that this is a country where every square inch is steeped and saturated in Jewish history, from the days of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, through King David and King Solomon, Nehemiah, Isaiah, Ezekiel, the Hasmoneans, King Herod, the authors of the Talmud – in an uninterrupted history that predates Islam, Arab nationalism, and even Zionism.
Meanwhile, where are the UCL administrators? Are they or are they not the champions of freedom of speech? Where is their robust defense of UCL pro-Israel activist students? Where is the condemnation and consequences for students whose actions have undermined Jeremy Bentham’s legacy? Where are the objections from those who support the Palestinian cause, but whose respect for freedom of expression must surely mean they are horrified at what is being done in the name of their cause?
Or perhaps they are not that horrified? Is their weak response the cowardly reaction of those who prefer to avert their eyes from violence, or is their reaction the tacit support of those who have the same views as the hooligans, but have not (yet) resorted to violence? For many pro-Israel activists it is this ambiguity that is the most serious cause for concern.
I’m supporting the call issued by Israel educational organization StandWithUs for UCL alumni and all concerned individuals to contact the UCL provost currently investigating this, as well as University of London administration and Universities UK leadership. They must ensure proper protection for future events on campus.
Extremist groups must not be allowed to suppress and intimidate. It is long past time for action.
A version of this article was published by the JERUSALEM POST on November 3, 2016
Photo: Jeremy Bentham’s mummified body greets students at the entrance to UCL, Bloomsbury, London