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Sunday, 21 December 2014

Academics defend anti-Israel protest as democratic right in Glasgow

IT was a protest at a Scottish university that led to accusations by the Israeli Embassy of attacks on freedom of speech by "academic hooligans".

But now the tutors who took part in the demonstration at Glasgow University that disrupted a talk by the spokesman for the Embassy of Israel in London, Yiftah Curiel, have defended their action, saying they had the democratic right to protest against a state that is "supporting and enforcing apartheid" on Palestinians.

The row broke out after Curiel was invited to address a meeting of the Europe Society at Glasgow University on relations between Israel and Europe last month.

However, the event was halted and moved to another location after protesters stood up and "filibustered" the meeting by reading a statement on the justification for an academic boycott against Israeli state representatives.

It led to a furious reaction from Curiel, who said: "Universities need to listen to their students and take a firm stand against extremists who trample freedom of speech, using violent messages that demonise Israel." He added: "I left Glasgow with a nagging feeling that freedom of speech, a cornerstone of academic discourse and British tradition, may somehow not be applicable to Israelis on UK campuses."

However protesters Lorna MacBean and Lou Dear, tutors in literature at the university, have spoken out about the action. 

They said they had decided to make their stand to show support for the Campaign for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions against Israel by Palestinian Civil Society, which was launched in 2005 involving more than 170 organisations. 

MacBean, who worked with Makar Liz Lochhead to publish a collection of poems on Palestine, said: "The main point was to disrupt the meeting and really not allow Curiel to speak. He quoted the issue of freedom of speech, but to us engaging in a dialogue where you are allowing the representative of a state which is supporting and enforcing apartheid in a university which is supposed to be an academic critical space, and when you are inviting them ... to speak to international relations students on how good Israel's policies with the European Union are, it is quite clear-cut that needed to be stopped."

Dear acknowledged that trying to prevent Israeli state representatives having a platform was a difficult position to take, but added: "It is also part of the democratic process that people ought to have the right to say 'No, not at our university'."

Curiel had referred to reports of an alleged attack on a woman who had a "burning chemical" poured on her as she sold Israeli cosmetics from a stall at Glasgow's St Enoch Centre as evidence of how violent language can escalate.

However, Dear said the protest had been entirely peaceful and the statement read out had been the findings of the Russell Tribunal's emergency session on Gaza, a citizen-led international tribunal that recently examined evidence of Israeli war crimes in Palestine.

She said Israel aimed to "make villains out of anyone who dissents from their position, and to paint everyone who disagrees or puts forward the Palestinian position as dangerous, as extremist".

A Glasgow University spokesman said the institution "was able to facilitate the visit to its main campus by Mr Yiftah Curiel, press attache at the Israeli Embassy, arranged at short notice. When it became clear that his presentation was likely to be disrupted, an alternative venue was provided."

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