Students defend LSE protest against “racist” Israeli ambassador

Students and social media commentators hit back at the response from UK politicians to protests outside the London School of Economics (LSE) against a talk by Israel’s ambassador to the UK.

Tzipi Hotovely faced a backlash from students on Tuesday following her appearance at the university’s student debating society.

These protests were described in a Jewish Chronicle leader as a ‘Jew hunting mob’ and characterised by the Home Secretary, Priti Patel, as ‘Antisemitism’ and ‘intimidating harassment and abuse’. In 2017, Patel was forced to resign as International Development Minister for holding undisclosed meetings with Israeli politicians.

But student groups reacted strongly to this misrepresentation and said that they were holding legitimate protests because they felt Hotovely’s participation contravened LSE’s policies on external speakers.  

In an open letter before the event, student groups called Hotovely an “avowed anti-Palestinian racist, Islamophobe,” adding that the LSE inviting someone who has a history of making ‘dangerous’ comments violates the safety of Palestinian and Muslim students.

A hard-line supporter of Israel’s illegal settlements, Hotovely has said in the past that there is “no Palestinian people”, Palestinian resistance is ‘a religious battle led by Islam’ and described the 1948 Nakba – when 800,000 Palestinians were expelled from their homes to create Israel – as an “Arab lie.”  

Hotovely did not ‘flee’ the university

Footage of the protest led to a few UK politicians condemning the incident.

Patel said she was “’disgusted by the treatment” of Hotovely, Foreign Secretary Liz Truss suggested the protest was an “attempt to silence” her, while Labour’s Lisa Nandy also said it prevented “freedom of speech.”

But the LSE confirmed that Hotovely spoke, took questions and left on time, adding that it would take action if any students made threats. Meanwhile, the Met Police said it was present but had made no arrests.

In a statement after the event, LSE for Palestine said it was ‘laughable’ to suggest the ambassador to the UK with access to British politicians and media “can somehow be ‘cancelled’ or have her free speech curtailed, especially as Palestinians face constant censorship and erasure by Israel and other complicit governments.”

“Contrary to false reports, Hotovely did not ‘flee’ the university; students maintained a peaceful protest throughout the evening…we made our protests guidelines and safe space policy clear, stating that we would not tolerate speech, behaviour or displays that incited any sort of prejudice or discrimination,” it added.  

The statement added that hosting her on campus “constituted an attempt at legitimising her openly racist views.”

Support for the students from journalists and commentators

Prominent social media commentators agreed with the students and criticised the politicians for their stance.

“We oppose any intimidation or threats of violence. That does not mean protesting the Israeli ambassador is antisemitic. Jewish students in our movement recognise that Tzipi Hotovely’s far-right and racist views need to be challenged, tweeted Na’amod, a British Jewish organisation that is against the occupation.

Journalist Ash Sarkar pointed out that championing free speech also means allowing students to protest: “Absolutely ridiculous to see Labour politicians call for arrests in response to what looks like lawful and peaceful protest against Tzipi Hotovely – the Israeli ambassador who once called the nakba ‘an Arab lie.’ Protest is as much a form of free expression as a campus speech.

Meanwhile, Guardian columnist Owen Jones pointed out some of Hotovely’s views: “Tzipi Hotovely is a right wing extremist who supports the annexation of all Palestinian land and describes the ‘nabka’ – the expulsion of Palestinians in 1948 – as an “Arab lie”. She’s the Ambassador of a state deemed by Human Rights Watch to practice Apartheid.”

‘No room for such bigoted and racist rhetoric’

In an open letter before the event, LSESU Palestine Society and 17 other student groups condemned the students’ union for inviting the Israeli envoy.

“There is no room for such bigoted and racist rhetoric on our LSE campus. There is no room for the denial of Palestinian existence on our LSE campus. There is no room for colonial apologism on our LSE campus. We reject the notion that inviting her will provide a balanced take on the “conflict.” This is not a conflict; this is apartheid; this is settler-colonialism,” it said.

The letter added that Hotovely’s past statements contravene LSE policies that prevent the “expression of racial or religious hatred.”

Last year, almost 2,000 British Jews signed a petition organised by Na’amod calling on the UK government to reject her appointment as ambassador.

The group said Hotovely has an “appalling record of racist and inflammatory behaviour from throughout her political career. ”

It listed some of the things Hotovely has said and done, including inviting a far-right Jewish supremacist organisation to speak in the Israeli parliament, calling for the Israeli flag to fly over the Temple Mount, and accusing Palestinians of being “thieves of history” and stating that the occupation is “a myth.”

Image source: London School of Economics Flickr account


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