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Not about censorship

Guest post by Jak Codd

As previously reported on Harry’s Place, on April 30th the Leeds Student newspaper published an interview with Sameh Habeeb, the editor of the Palestine Telegraph. Mr. Habeeb has a rather dubious history, including flirtations with Holocaust deniers and promotion of Ku Klux Klan members.

The article, entitled ‘Reporting from the frontline’, was intended to give students an insight into “his experiences as a reporter during the 2008 Gaza crisis.” This raises the first of many questions– why does Leeds Student want to give such a vile individual a prominent one page spread? Surely there are better placed people to talk about life in Gaza as a journalist during Operation Cast Lead? Aside from the dodgy interview subject, the feature takes a nasty turn when Habeeb talks about his work with international news organisations. When asked by the reporter (Laura Mackenzie, next year’s full time editor of the newspaper) whether he believed that mainstream news organisations have a “hidden” agenda, Habeeb replied with the following:

“There are certainly pro-Israeli. I think you have to ask yourself who controls the media.”

I am not really sure what response Ms. Mackenzie was trying to elicit when asking about a hidden agenda, but the one given certainly showed that Habeeb has more in common with Nazis than simply Holocaust denial. His 1930s era response (all too common within today’s ‘anti-Zionist’ movement) has a clear insinuation of Jewish media control that could have been lifted straight out of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.

When brought to the attention of Leeds Student newspaper, one would have thought that they would have been prepared to acknowledge that publishing racist slurs probably wasn’t the best thing to do and attempt to do something to rectify the situation. Instead, the editor claimed that it was a perfectly acceptable opinion that had a right to be aired. The Leeds Student editorial team may now claim ignorance about the anti-semitic nature of the comment, but why wasn’t any basic research done on Sameh Habeeb before the interview was published? A quick Google search reveals the dark underbelly of the Palestine Telegraph and its editor; could Leeds Student really have made such a monumental mistake?

Leeds University Union’s core value is equality, and we are proud to have been at the forefront of challenging racism on campus. We fund, support and resource the Leeds Student throughout the year, and the paper and the Union are inextricably linked. As chair of Leeds University Union, I made the call that being linked to such outright racism would do damage to our reputation, as well as going against the values we claim to hold. I requested that distribution of Leeds Student should be suspended until an agreement could be reached with the paper as to how we could deal with the issue of anti-semitism being propagated by their interview. On Friday night an agreement was reached with the newspaper in which they agreed to delete the line relating to Jewish control of the media, and in exchange the papers could again be distributed.

The outcry that ensued from certain elements within the student body was both disturbing, worrying and shocking. I have been accused of censorship, inventing anti-semitism, seeking to silence criticism of Israel, and even of proving that Jews do control the media by my actions. Apparently it is ‘ironic’ that a Jew should take action to stop the student paper promoting the view that Jews control the media. However, people who scream ‘censorship’ are seriously misinformed. If Leeds Student wish to fund themselves, source their own advertising, and rent their own office, then they can print whatever they want. This is not about censorship– it’s about not wanting Leeds University Union to become associated with such disgusting racism. Islamophobia, anti-semitism, homophobia, sexism, racism and bigotry have no place in a student union, not matter what guise it is presented in.

Let me be clear right now– hand on heart I truly believe I did the right thing. If the interviewee had said that all Muslims were terrorists, I would have taken the same actions. If the interviewee had said that homosexuals were all pedophiles, I would have taken the same actions. That my deeds may have conformed to some racist stereotypes that certain individuals hold is their problem, not mine. Many will say that a response should have been printed in the following edition, deconstructing Habeeb’s claim. I personally believe it is a sad day when anti-semitic claims that Jews control the media are treated as a legitimate point of view that simply requires a response.

The reason that I became involved in my Union is because I knew that as a Jewish student I couldn’t rely on anyone else to fight my corner. The reason I now work full time for Leeds University Union is because I was fed up with the constant delegitimisation and intimidation of Jewish students on campus. I truly want to do what is best for the students of Leeds University. Today I read an email from a Jewish student who stated that she has hated her three years at Leeds because of the hostility she has faced being a Jewish student, and that she cannot wait to leave university for good. This is unacceptable. The benign anti-semitism that afflicts certain parts of the student body is a cancer that has still not been eradicated.

I could not stand by in good faith and watch racism being peddled at Leeds University Union, knowing that I could have done something about it. I would sooner resign than play my part in perpetuating Nazi-era rhetoric. I believe that anti-semitism has no place in our society, let alone our supposedly progressive campuses. The one thing I have learnt from this episode is that I no longer feel anger towards the people who think anti-semitism is an acceptable form of racism. Rather I pity them. I pity the fact that they are so consumed by hatred. I pity the fact that they have so little understanding why their words and actions upset and distress Jews. And most of all, I pity the fact that rather than using university to open their minds, they remain committed to their narrow-minded ignorance. I only hope that one day we will see our campuses become once again a comfortable place to be Jewish.

Jak Codd is Communications and Internal Affairs Officer of the Leeds University Union

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Update from Harry’s Place: Robert Heath, Leeds Student associate editor, replies in the comments:

I know the readership of this website will, by and large, instantly reject what I have to say since Jak Codd hath spoken, but if you’re feeling open-minded then have a read.

We’re obliged to exist by the constitution of Leeds University Union. Contrary to what Jak said, we raise the funds to produce our paper by private advertisements, and have been working hard this year to remove the currently existing advertising policy that prevents us from accepting a great deal of other advertisers. Independence from the Union is our aim.

The goal of any newspaper should be the dissemination of knowledge, culture, and opinion. When an opinion differs from yours, silencing it is not the response. I’m sure the Jewish community will understand more than most the inherent flaws in this approach: who is to claim that the censorship is right? At Leeds Student, we honestly believe free debate is more important than restricting opinions.

Jak’s actions, while ultimately acting in the name of student welfare, stifle the right to free expression enshrined in Article 19 of the 1948 UN Declaration of Human Rights, which states:

“Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”

The Leeds Student perhaps underperformed by not offering a follow-up question asking for clarification. In the past, when this has happened, an apology or correction is printed, or the offended party is offered the right to reply in a letter or article. Jak did not follow this procedure, instead opting to violate rights written to protect society in the wake of World War II.

This is the reason that Leeds Student opposes the action he undertook.