Fighting for free speech in Scotland
AN OFFENSIVE IS UNDERWAY by the UK government and pro-Israel groups to silence public conversations about Israel’s violations of Palestinian human and national rights. The only response with any chance of defeating this attack is defiance and mobilising public support for a free speech campaign.
We booked Jackie Walker to speak at four venues across four Scottish cities on the topic of Palestine, Freedom of Speech and Israeli ‘Black Ops’ - relating to the revelations in the Al Jazeera documentary, The Lobby, of the Israeli embassy’s efforts to ‘take down’ UK government ministers not sufficiently pro-Israel.
After that tour was arranged we took up an offer from Pluto Press to host Richard Falk, until 2014 the UN Rapporteur on Human Rights in Palestine and a high profile Princeton Professor of International Law. Falk was to speak on the content of his new book: Palestine – Towards a Just Peace. A supportive councillor booked the city chambers but the booking was cancelled out of the blue on the grounds that the meeting would involve “some degree of controversy”.
Another venue was arranged and the tour went ahead without any other difficulties, including at venues in Aberdeen and Dundee universities. Unfortunately, two Falk meetings were cancelled the following week by the authorities of the University of Middlesex and the University of East London. Moves against open discussion of Israel- Palestine intensified when we published details of Jackie’s tour. One pro-Israel group wrote to Unison Glasgow demanding the meeting be cancelled on the bizarre grounds that Jackie was “antisemitic”, had made “comments…about Holocaust Memorial Day”, and - killer argument - claims she is Jewish but “her birth certificate…shows she has no Jewish blood”. Another letter claimed that Jackie speaking would be a “similar event” to a meeting with neo-Nazi junk historian David Irvine and would cause “significant distress”. Unison asked for background information, were satisfied by the comprehensive briefing we sent and the Glasgow meeting went ahead in a packed hall.
Dundee University moved to put all Palestine-related meetings under special measures, a sinister move met with determined resistance from student activists and members of the University and College Union (UCU). Dr Jim McGeorge, the university’s chief operating officer, wrote to the student Palestine Society concerning an “event involving a potentially controversial speaker”, issued “guidance” to the students and stated the university would “permit the meeting [to] go ahead” but insisted student organisers had to provide ten days in advance “a detailed synopsis/account of the material the speaker plans to cover in her talk, together with copies of all promotional materials prior to their use”. Most sinister, “the university reserves the right to have a member of senior staff present at the event who will have the authority to halt proceedings”!
The response from the student Palestine Society was swift and uncompromising: “We will not tolerate university officials treating us like suspects. We have had multiple speakers discussing the same topics that Jackie will be covering and have never been presented with such conditions - just as no other society at this university has been… In attempting to vet our meeting, and if there were to be any attempt to insist on interventions to halt proceedings, the university would be breaching the rights of freedom of expression and freedom of assembly.”
The student response, bolstered by support from UCU members and a network of Palestine solidarity activists off-campus, was to pledge both an international campaign to shame the university if it continued along this path, and to hold the meeting in any event. The Dundee meeting went ahead very successfully without interference.
In Edinburgh, the Methodist Church initially booked for the meeting cancelled following lobbying from pro-Israel groups. The Church was forced into absurdity and claimed that: “When the booking was taken on the phone, we were advised that it would not be a campaigning event”. I made the booking and would not know how to claim that any of our meetings was not a campaign meeting - it’s all we do!
The reason given for the cancellation by the other church, St Columba’s, by a decision of the Bishop of Edinburgh, was a single “email expressing concern”. St Columba’s makes it clear that any criticism of Israel is suspect and will not be allowed: “even well-meaning criticism of Israel's policies can have unintended consequences, leading to an increase in antisemitic attacks”. The church building could not be used to discuss attacks that killed thousands of Palestinians and will kill thousands more, because any discussion of such massacres might lead to “unintended consequences”.
Our good bishop really does consider Palestinians to be children of a lesser god.
The Edinburgh meeting went ahead successfully on the steps of the Methodist Church rather than inside, and SPSC will continue in future in the spirit of the Dundee students’ defiant pledge that every meeting we organise will go ahead either inside the hall, or outside on the steps or the pavement.