By Mahnoor Chaudhry, BA Politics and Economics
Cambridge University has been criticised after a SOAS academic was stopped from chairing a controversial event organised by its Palestine and Middle East Society. Dr Rubah Salih, who herself is Palestinian, was due to chair the discussion – entitled ‘BDS and the globalised struggle for Palestinian rights’ – on November 8. The event featured a panel of pro-Palestinian speakers to discuss the developments around the Palestine-Israel conflict and cite possible solutions. Umar Barghouti, a resident of Israel and founder of the BDS (Boycott, Sanctions and Divestment) movement, which campaigns for international economic and political sanctions on Israel, was among those invited to speak. Malia Bouattia, former President of the National Union of Students, and Asad Rehman, Executive Director of anti-poverty charity War on Want, were also present.
However at the eleventh hour Dr Salih was disinvited. Citing not only the students’ request for a security presence, but also “the subject of the meeting” and opposition to the meeting proceeding, Cambridge University threatened to cancel the event on health and safety grounds if the chair was not removed. She was replaced by Cambridge University’s Director of Communications, Paul Mylrea.
Dr Salih told the SOAS Spirit: “These biased academic institutes are the enemies of democratic debates, not myself.” Dr Salih added “I wonder whether the reasons for my suspension from chairing were linked to my Palestinian origin? Or to my critical scholarly work on refugees? Or perhaps to my gender, not robust enough to facilitate a passionate Q/A debate, or perhaps to a mixture of all of those positions?”
She expressed fear that the move may result in “policies in the future in the UK, with proscription lists similar to the ones redacted in the US, where scholars who have political or biographical positions, as well as research interests, which inform their public and academic opinions in relation to the Palestine question will be deemed unfit not just to chair a panel, but to teach on these issues.”
Speaking on the topic in the aftermath, Mr Barghouti declared the decision ‘ludicrous’, stating that the university was moving towards “McCarthyism on campus.”He added: “It is shameful that a reputable academic institute like Cambridge would fall for the intimidation of the Israeli lobby. After failing at grass root level, Israel since 2014 has resorted to heavy-handed bullying, intimidation, cyber war, legal war fare and even using intelligence services to sabotage BDS.”
In response to Cambridge’s decision, an open letter has been launched criticising “intolerable violation of academic freedom.” It stated: “[Cambridge] risks being seen to side with those who seek to silence the voices of the marginalised, and raises questions about the extent of its commitment to free speech.”
Prominent academics all over the world have signed the open letter, including Noam Chomsky from MIT. A Cambridge University spokesman told the SOAS Spirit: “The University is fully committed to freedom of speech and expression.”
“In this instance, following calls from the organisers for extra safety measures, a neutral chair was provided to ensure that all sides were represented in what is an important and often emotionally charged debate.” The spoeksman went on to say “we believe it is important that staff, students and visitors to the University can participate fully in legitimate debate, partly so that they are able to question and test controversial ideas.”
Asked by the SOAS Spirit what made Salih particularly biased and incapable as a chair, the university did not respond. Ed McNally, the Cambridge student who organised the event, told a media organisation that the university was “violating” their aim of promoting freedom of speech.
He said: “Removing a respected Palestinian academic as chair of a panel event based on an unsubstantiated assumption about her lack of ‘neutrality’, and in doing so bowing to external pressure from a pro-Israel lobby group, cannot be construed as anything other than a naked attack on free speech and, more particularly, academic freedom.”
Not long ago Cambridge also banned its Arabic students from travelling to the Palestinian territories, following a spate of interrogations and deportations by Israeli security.