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Debating free speech at Oxford and Cambridge

On Tuesday Marine le Pen addressed the Cambridge Union.  Not surprisingly, the decision to invite her attracted criticism.  Student Rights, for example, expressed reservations:

“Universities do have a duty to uphold freedom of speech, but they are no place for the promotion of fascist views, and university authorities have a duty of care to their students to protect them from those who would promote hatred.”

But the statement made by a spokesman for the Cambridge Union seemed reasonable to me.

“Whether you agree with her politics or not, this event represents one of the very few opportunities a British audience has had to directly engage with Mrs Le Pen, who finished third in the last French presidential election, behind Hollande and Sarkozy, and who currently sits in the European Parliament as a democratically elected representative.”

And there’s a big difference between inviting someone within the context of a debate, organised by an organisation without a particular political profile, and an invitation which implies an endorsement and exposes people to speakers with extreme views which will not be challenged – Gilad Atzmon at an anti-Israel event for example, or hate preachers at ISOC meetings. The response from some protestors seemed over the top too:

“Are you a Nazi? Or just thinking about becoming one?” Tony Woodcock, a trade union official who helped to organise the protest, asked students as they queued to enter. A little unfair, especially as two of his targets were black French students there to take her to task.

According to that same report she succeeded in both boring and alienating her audience – which is welcome.

Now, Marine le Pen does have ghastly views, so it does at least seem worth thinking about whether one wants to give her a platform.  By contrast, what one would think of someone who refused to debate an opponent because of an accident of birth – because of an officially protected characteristic What would we call such a person?  ‘Pure racism’ is one response I can report, when over in Oxford a debate was cut short because one speaker decided that his opponent’s nationality put him beyond the pale. 

You have probably guessed the nationality of the spurned speaker, Eylon Aslan-Levy, a third-year PPE student from Brasenose College, and perhaps the identity of his opponent will come as no great surprise:

“I have been misled,” Mr Galloway then commented, interrupting Aslan-Levy’s speech. “I don’t debate with Israelis”. He then left the room with his wife, Putri Gayatri Pertiwi, and was escorted out of Christ Church by a college porter. When prompted to explain why Aslan-Levy’s nationality prompted him to abandon the debate, Galloway stated that “I don’t recognize Israeli citizens.”

In a statement late on Wednesday evening Galloway explained that “I refused this evening to debate with an Israeli, a supporter of the Apartheid state of Israel.

“The reason is simple; No recognition, No normalisation. Just Boycott, divestment and sanctions, until the Apartheid state is defeated.” Mr Galloway is a leading political proponent of the campaign to ‘boycott’ Israeli goods, services and – it emerged tonight – people.

It has sometimes been asserted, in the context of academic boycotts in particular, that individual Israelis are not the targets, just the Israeli state, or Israeli institutions. A counter argument is that it is difficult to target Israeli institutions without also targeting individual Israelis – and it is also the case that many zealots just ignore this supposed distinction and go ahead and boycott the people anyway.

It’s great to see the hostility and derision which Galloway’s walk out provoked – but terrible that an MP should behave in such a way.  Michael Baldwin, the debate moderator, made a pertinent point (£):

As he himself [Galloway] is a Palestinian citizen, he would rightly be indignant if an opponent of his were to refuse to debate him on the basis of his passport. I would encourage Mr Galloway to reconsider his position, which is open to accusations of xenophobia.”

I’m left wondering whether Galloway would have behaved in the same way if his opponent had been an Arab/Palestinian citizen of Israel. 

Hat Tip: Jeremy Newmark

Alan A adds:

This piece by Tim Stanley is worth reading

Also, here’s a picture of George Galloway with one Israeli Jew he likes:

Finally, if you haven’t seen the footage, here it is:

Gene adds: John Wight at Socialist Unity applauds Galloway.