Politics & Policy

Students Against Freedom of Thought

The case of London's School of Oriental and African studies.

No place should be more committed to freedom of speech than a university. And perhaps no issue deserves more balance, more variety of voices, and more critical thinking than the Middle East, given its importance in world affairs. Universities should be grounds for critical thinking and pluralism of opinion, not brainwashing. Still, when it comes to the Middle East, the difference between should and is can sometimes be as great as the one between night and day.

Before you think Columbia University and the recent controversy surrounding some of its Middle East studies scholars, or Hamilton College and Ward Churchill, think England and the great tradition of scholarship on the Orient that made U.K. universities so distinguished, their scholars so renowned, and their works so enduring. And before you surmise that scholars manipulate their students into uncritical and one-sided thinking, look at the students. Judging by how this generation promotes free speech and a diversity of opinions, one gets the impression that students don’t need bad teachers to stifle their learning: They are doing well enough on their own.

Enter the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), a famous institution of learning in the heart of London, which is part of the University of London college system. Its faculty is dedicated to subjects ranging from the Far East to Africa and much in between, and it includes a wide range of scholars with diverse opinions and expertise on the Middle East. There is no room for complaint about a lack of views and opinions among those imparting wisdom to the next generation. SOAS invites scholars of all backgrounds. Some university forums–such as the University of London, SOAS-based Sir Joseph Hotung Programme for Law, Human Rights, and Peace Building in the Middle East–are so one-sided that their public activities border on pro-Palestinian propaganda. But the Middle East program can be faulted for little.

Scholars there play fair, but their students have a different idea of what higher education is about. Maybe what the next generation wants is not wisdom. It does not seek tools to form independent judgments. Rather, it seeks ready-made answers and a conventional wisdom that no alternative voice should be allowed to challenge.

Consider the following: SOAS’s student union recently hosted Palestinian politician Hanan Ashrawi, PLO ambassador to London Afif Safieh, and a two-day extravaganza dedicated to boycotting Israel. Not to be accused of one-sidedness–past guests of various student associations include Columbia University professor Joseph Massad and Haifa University professor Ilan Pappe, both avowed supporters of Israel’s end as a Jewish state–the Palestine Student Society also had an Israeli speaker recently: Azmi Bishara, the lone pan-Arabist anti-Zionist Israeli parliamentarian, whose solution to the Arab-Israeli dispute is a bi-national state, code for the end of the Jewish state. With such a range of opinions, who needs an additional speaker from the Israeli embassy or, indeed, an Israeli student society? That is what the Student Union thought and still thinks.

Until last year, an Israeli society was unthinkable at SOAS: It would have violated official Student Union policy, which states that “Peace requires the achievement of national liberation and independence, the elimination of colonialism and neo-colonialism and foreign occupation, apartheid, Zionism and racial discrimination in all forms…” Official policy also condemns “Any form of racism, Islamophobia, anti-Semitism, Zionism and other forms of racism on campus,” and on those grounds the university until recently prevented pro-Israel students from forming their own organization. But then, SOAS exerted enough pressure on the union to allow for an Israel society–alongside an existing Jewish society–to be established.

An intolerable act of censorship of students’ independent judgment, or a rare moment of sanity among union’s leaders? Don’t hold your breath for the latter.

Pro-Israel students can now have their society, but that does not mean they can hold events. The Israel Student Society invited a speaker, Roy Gilead from Israel’s embassy, to speak on campus on February 22. The Union voted to force the sponsors to disinvite him. Again, a swift intervention from the administration had the Union backtrack and the event can now go on. Still, Kavita Meelu, co-president of the Union, said in a statement, “we have advised the society that the student body… has explicitly expressed that they do not wish for this speaker to be allowed a platform, and therefore will not be actively supporting the society’s event.”

Veiled threat or grudging concession? Hard to say. Don’t anticipate a Student Union welcoming committee when Gilead arrives.

What is obvious is that when it comes to students, at SOAS dissenting views have no place. It is only thanks to pressures exerted from above–and Professor Colin Bundy, head of SOAS, should be commended for coming down on the side of freedom of speech–that a lone Israeli embassy spokesman could get a one-time chance to offer an alternative view of the Arab-Israeli conflict, before the old tune is monotonously sung again by the usual suspects.

So what’s the trouble? Perhaps what Gilead has to say terrifies the Student Union’s thought-control police–with the notion that one or two students might actually start thinking with their own minds. And that, even more than a Zionist speaking on campus, would be truly terrible.

Emanuele Ottolenghi teaches Israel studies at Oxford University and is currently a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.


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