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The Silencing of Israeli Voices Must Stop

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Why did George Galloway run away from debating with a student who announced that he was an Israeli citizen?

Here is a man who has gone eye ball to eye ball with prime ministers and Senators, and indeed who has supped with some of the most brutal dictators of our age, from Saddam Hussein to Bashar Al-Assad. Why then should he grab his tailored jacket and flee from a relatively harmless looking Oxford undergrad, faster than you can say, 'bring on the revolution'?

What is so abhorrent to him about conversing with an Israeli? Why is he so adamant that the Israeli should not be seen; that the Israeli should not be heard?

Perhaps he is afraid that if people hear from Israelis first hand, it will belie the demonic image he would like to create of them. People will see Israelis as they generally are: no horns, no fangs, a people like others, who care about reasonable things like: how can we make peace with our neighbours in a way that doesn't make us more likely to be blown up by extremists.

Galloway himself is of course irrelevant. His repeated, ridiculous acts of buffoonery are a gift to those who reject his opinions and a liability to anyone who might share them. It is frankly hard to understand why anyone would invite him to speak anywhere on any subject of importance.

The Oxford society that hosted him was perhaps more interested in entertainment and a bit of publicity, than the really important issue of reconciling Israelis and Palestinians. In that case they got what they wanted.

Unfortunately, Galloway is the thin end of a more disturbing wedge. There is a small but energetic movement to silence the voices of Israelis and prevent them from being heard more widely. Most people completely reject this movement, but they are nonetheless succeeding at times to impose their will.

On Wednesday, Israel's deputy ambassador, Alon Roth-Snir, was prevented from speaking at Essex University, where he had been invited by the Department of Government, and forced to leave the campus. This month the student union at Oxford University is considering whether or not to endorse a motion to promote a boycott of Israel.

Such attempts to silence Israelis extend even to Israeli academic work and cultural expressions that have nothing to do with politics. In the past year there have been attempts to disrupt Israeli dance performances, plays and concerts, carried out by individuals who simply cannot stand the sight or sound of an Israeli.

Those taking these actions claim to be standing up for Palestinian human rights, but in fact these actions do nothing at all to help Palestinians. Their effect is to deny Israelis the right to free expression, and to deny the rights of the majority who would like to listen to what Israelis have to say. This boycott campaign is not only an abuse of human rights, it is profoundly anti-democratic; indeed a form of censorship. A tiny minority, through these acts of cultural vandalism, try to dictate to everyone else what they should be able to see and hear.

It is vital that the majority stand up against this. Israelis must be seen and Israelis must be heard in the UK. This is not only because resolving the complex Israeli-Palestinian conflict cannot be achieved without understanding the concerns of Israelis, as well as Palestinians, but more deeply because no marginal group should be able to police the public discourse and silence the voices of an entire nation.