Monday,20 November, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1339, (6 - 12 April 2017)
Monday,20 November, 2017
Issue 1339, (6 - 12 April 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Free speech at risk

Recent responses to a report and a book discussing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict suggest that freedom of speech and discussion are under serious threat in Britain

I arrived in Edinburgh in Scotland on 13 March to begin a 10-day string of speaking engagements arranged by my publisher, Pluto, to launch my new book, Palestine’s Horizon: Towards a Just Peace. The Scottish phase of the visit went smoothly enough, with well-attended talks and discussions in Aberdeen, Glasgow and Edinburgh on the main themes of the book.

Then on 15 March the calm was shattered. The UN Economic and Social Commission for West Asia (ESCWA) released a report that I had co-authored with Virginia Tilley, a political scientist at the University of Southern Illinois in the US, which examined the question of whether sufficient evidence existed to conclude that Israel’s forms of control exercised over the Palestinian people amounted to the international crime of apartheid.

It was an academic study that analysed the relevant issues from the perspective of international law and summarised Israel’s practices and policies that were alleged to be discriminatory. Before being released, the study had been sent by ESCWA for review to three distinguished international experts on human rights and international law, each of whom submitted highly favourable reports as to the scholarly contribution of the report.

But as soon as the report was released in Beirut at a press conference at which both Tilley and I participated by Skype, the furore commenced. First came denunciations of the report by the recently designated American ambassador at the UN, Nikki Haley, and by firebrand Israeli diplomat Danny Danon.

These were quickly followed by a statement released by newly elected UN Secretary-General Antonio Gutteres, indicating that the “report as it stands does not represent the views of the secretary-general” and that it had been released “without consultations with the UN Secretariat.” The director of ESCWA, Rima Khalaf, holding the rank of UN deputy secretary-general, was instructed to remove the report from the ESCWA Website, but chose to resign on principle rather than follow the order.

There has been so much “fake news” surrounding the response to the report that it has become difficult to sift truth from rumour. Ambassador Haley, for instance, self-righteously declared that “when someone issues a false and defamatory report in the name of the UN, it is appropriate that the person resign.”

The report in question was clearly labelled as being the work of independent scholars and did not necessarily reflect the views of the UN or ESCWA. In other words, it was not a UN report, nor had it been endorsed by the UN. Beyond this, how could it be “false and defamatory” when its analysis amounted to no more or less than a scholarly interpretation of a legal concept and a presentation of Israeli practices?

Danon, along with Haley, called the report “despicable” and “a blatant lie”. He had apparently forgotten that a series of Israeli leaders had warned since at least 1967 that if there was no separate Palestinian state established soon Israel would become an apartheid state.

Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, put the issue this way in a radio address: “Israel... had better rid itself of the territories and their Arab population as soon as possible. If it does not, Israel will soon become an apartheid state.” Or consider what Yitzhak Rabin, two-time prime minister of Israel, told a TV journalist back in 1976: “I don’t think it’s possible to contain over the long term, if we don’t want to get to apartheid, a million and a half [more] Arabs inside a Jewish state.”

More definitively from a legal perspective, Michael Ben-Yair, a former Israeli attorney general, concluded that “we established an apartheid regime in the Occupied Territories.”

It should be clear from these statements, and there are many others, that an investigation of apartheid in the Israel context is not something outrageous, or even particularly new, although the study does break new ground.

It looks at the contention of apartheid as applicable to the Palestinian people as a whole, and not just to those living under occupation. This means including refugees, involuntary exiles, the Palestinian minority in Israel, and residents of Jerusalem within a coherent overall structure of systematic discriminatory domination. It also examines whether Israeli practices rise to a level of clarity and intentionality to satisfy the notion of apartheid as defined by the 1973 Convention on the Suppression and Punishment of the Crime of Apartheid.

Danon also accuses the study of “creating a false analogy,” presumably a reference to the South African apartheid system. But rather than claiming an analogy the study goes out of its way to argue that the international crime of apartheid has nothing to do with its historical connections with South Africa’s racist regime and that Israel’s control over the Palestinian people proceeds in a wholly different manner. For instance, South Africa’s former leaders claimed to be proud of apartheid as a supposedly beneficial system of racial separation, while Israel’s leaders seek to affirm Israel as a democratic state that rejects racism.

What the discussion of the fallout from the report shows above all is the refusal by Israel and its supporters to engage in reasoned discussion of an admittedly controversial set of conclusions. For them, it is better to wound the messengers rather than respond to the message.

Part of the pushback at the UN was to brand me personally as biased and an anti-Semite, drawing on a series of defamatory attacks that I had endured while serving as UN Special Rapporteur on Israeli Violations in Occupied Palestine. This is part of a trend in recent years in which supporters of Israel move to close down critical discussion rather than to respond substantively to alternative views. In my view, such tactics are a reflection of how weak Israel’s positions have become on such contested issues as the settlements, excessive force, Jerusalem residency, discriminatory laws and regulations and the diversion of water.

Following these developments at the UN, the events in London I attended to promote my book were predictably dominated by concerns about the report. The first such attempted book launch was held at the LSE, and it attracted several Zionist extremists, as well as some harsh critics of Israel.

My presentation was allowed to proceed, but when a Q&A period started, pretty soon all hell broke loose, with members of the audience shouting at one other. Among the most disruptive of those present were a middle-aged man and a woman who stood up, unveiled an Israeli flag, and started shouting “lies” and “shame” and holding up placards covered in insults in large letters. After trying to establish quiet, the security personnel removed them from the hall and the discussion more or less resumed.

However, on the following two days previously announced lectures at the University of East London and Middlesex University were cancelled. The excuses given were, in the first case, that procedures governing outside speakers “had not been adequately followed,” and in the second that “health and safety concerns” had led university administrators to issue cancellation orders.

In both instances, the conveners were well-regarded academics who had tried their best to persuade the authorities in their respective institutions to go ahead with the planned events. What is disturbing about the experience is not only the personal loss of opportunities to discuss my views on Palestine and how to bring sustainable peace to both peoples, but also the adverse institutional consequences of silencing discussion of controversial issues of wider public interest.

Few elements of advanced education are more lastingly beneficial than exposure to various viewpoints, reasoned discussion, and learning how to become responsible and engaged citizens. In this regard, academic freedom, along with an independent media, is integral to the proper functioning of constitutional democracy. My experience over recent days in the UK suggests that academic freedom in Britain has taken a fairly serious hit and that it is definitely being tested in relation to the Israel/Palestine agenda.

It should be obvious that the vitality of any democratic society is most at risk when the subject matter discussed touches on matters of fundamental belief and opposing views of justice. For this reason alone it is worth struggling to ensure that British universities in future act more responsibly and make a greater effort to uphold the ideals and realities of academic freedom and not give in to insidious pressures designed to produce dangerous silence.

I also would not separate too sharply what happened at the UN from my disappointing loss of such opportunities to address university audiences.


The writer is an international law and international relations scholar who taught at Princeton University for 40 years. In 2008 he was appointed by the UN to serve a six-year term as the Special Rapporteur on Palestinian human rights.

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