After addressing the students of Cambridge, Oxford and UCL, Israeli Ambassador Daniel Taub continued his tour of British universities with a visit to Durham University this Tuesday. The ambassador's presence on campus was strongly condemned by numerous students and staff members who considered an invitation a tacit defence of war crimes and continuous human rights violations against the Palestinian population. Our opposing responses and the moral implications of his visit were not acknowledged by the university. Instead, the Durham Union Society granted the controversial guest space and time for an unchallenged propaganda speech.
Earlier this year, Gaza endured a horrific military assault targeted at Palestinian civilians, many of whom are Durham University current and former students. As a result of continuous shelling, the death toll exceeded 2200, with thousands more Palestinians being heavily injured and struggling to restore their lives in the besieged and occupied homeland. Many of us hence share a firm belief that hosting a representative of the government complicit in the suffering of the Palestinian people should not be an honoured guest of any educational institution, including our own one.
The Durham Union Society did not address the moral responsibilities of inviting an Israeli representative but instead kept his visit restrictive and secretive. Whilst the location was announced only on the day of the event and the topic of his talk remained 'TBA' in all promotional material, the guest list was exclusive and questions from the audience approved in advance. No telephones, laptops or bags were allowed and students needed to identify themselves upon their entry into the venue. Unlike most of the Union's similar events, the address was not held in the debating chamber but was shifted into one of the lecture theatres, conveniently located opposite the local police station, where the ambassador's security joined local police in securing the building.
Despite the Union's - or the Embassy's - evident attempts to hamper unwanted protests, a couple of dozen students and staff members held an impromptu silent vigil in front of the venue, holding 'Free Palestine' posters and handing out leaflets about the Israeli occupation. The organisers of the event - our fellow Durham students - ignored the questions posed by protesters, our presence and the views we came to defend, just like Taub who passed us speaking on the phone with his gaze directed towards the floor.
Responding to protests in the Durham University's media outlet, the representatives of the Union dismissed criticism by referring to the upcoming address by Professor Manuel Hassassian, diplomatic representative of the Palestinian Authority, who will speak at the Union next week. Under the banner of free speech and political neutrality, his talk in an equal setting aims to foster an informed understanding of the conflict.
After hosting Godfrey Bloom, an openly sexist former UKIP MEP, to speak on the topic of women's rights in May and a South African ambassador during the apartheid years, the Durham Union Society once again reaffirmed its questionable debating culture. 'Pro et contra' approach with the same debating predispositions for both sides is not an applicable model for discussing all topics, as it presupposes that both parties hold equal power and rights. The aforementioned cases of apartheid, women's rights or Palestine-Israeli relations are clear cases of not only asymmetric power but also oppression-oppressor relations that should not be legitimised by universities.
Sharing similar experiences with Cambridge, Oxford and UCL, Durham is yet another example of an elite university that facilitates problematic relations of power with its choice of speakers, a form of discussion (or the lack of it) and, above all, by ignoring the sentiments and voices of its own students. By doing so, it conveys a clear message: all opinions are welcome, no matter how insulting for the student body and society at large, as long as they are debated by a selected audience and from approved perspectives. Those who do not fit into this limited vision of an open dialogue are expected to be silent - or else be silenced, not by repression but even worse - by ignorance.