On November 5 students of the schools of Social Sciences, Arts Languages and Cultures, and Law at the University of Manchester received an invitation via email to an event titled “Changing political paradigms in the Middle East”. According to the email, the event would feature a “VIP speaker from the Middle East” on Wednesday November 18, and seats were limited. Students had to pre-book their tickets.
Two days before the event, those attending were told the guest would be Eitan Na’eh, Deputy Head of Mission at the Embassy of Israel in the UK. On Wednesday morning a source told The Manchester Magazine the talk would be taking place at 2pm at the Whitworth Hall, University of Manchester. Location and time of the event were only disclosed at 11am, just three hours before the talk was scheduled to take place.
Outside Whitworth Hall: the protest
For this diplomatic visit, security was strict. Eight police officers and a number of university security guards could be counted outside the building. According to our team’s analysis, Israeli and British security services were also seen on site, though this information could not be confirmed by official sources. It could also be noted that a blue van belonging to G4S, one the world’s largest security companies, was parked two streets down from the Whitworth Hall, but no members of the company were wearing a uniform.
A protest outside the precinct was planned by UoM Action Palestine, which according to its description on the Students’ Union website, is a “secular, non-profit society concerned with raising awareness of the plight of the Palestinian people”. A crowd of about 45 students and supporters was already visible outside the Whitworth Hall when we arrived at the scene.
The opinions brought by the protesters were mixed and when talking with them interesting and controversial points could be heard. Deej Johnson, BME Officer at the Student’s Union who wore a Karl Marx red star pin, denounced Israel’s Human Rights abuses towards minorities. He went further in saying: “As a University it is appalling to give a platform to that kind of government”.
However, a sense of optimism and idealism, that old cliché that characterises us, students, was also present. Cosimo Mati, a first-year Politics and International Relations student, said that attending these kind of protests is important: “Politics students are the future. We have to show commitment to how we want to change the world”.
If being loud translates to commitment, then the protest can be seen as a success. Chants could be heard from inside the event room during the entire time of the protest. They ranged from “Israel is a terrorist state” to “We are all Palestinians!” At first some disorganisation could be seen, but as time passed the protesters were more coordinated and louder. At one point, a strong “Fuck UoM, fuck the Israeli Ambassador” was heard.
There was certainly anger and disappointment in the faces of the protesters, who stayed at the building entrance for about one hour. Nevertheless, the protest remained peaceful and there was no confrontation with security. Mariam Cherifi, leader of the protest and General Secretary of UoM Action Palestine told us that these kinds of demonstrations are aimed at making the “University think twice” before hosting events with speakers like Mr Na’eh.
Inside Whitworth Hall: the event
Inside the building, the story was different. Vice Chancellor Dame Nancy Rothwell prefaced the talk. She began by saying: “The history and politics of the Middle East are not without controversy and they evoke intense passions from all sides… With this in mind, I will ask that everyone show respect towards the ambassador”. At the same time, “Free, free Palestine!” chants coming from the protest outside were clearly audible.
After speaking on the stability of Middle East, the ambassador moved on to a question and answer session with the public. What followed was scrutiny of Israel's commitment to the two-state solution. During this Exchange Mr Na'eh affirmed Israel's commitment to peace, but stressed it can only be achieved through negotiation. He said that peace is not a “gift” Israelis have been withholding from Palestinians. It was made clear that the desire for peace is overridden on both sides by security concerns, which look increasingly unlikely to be resolved in a polarised region.
Mr Na’eh was also asked how, if possible, peace in the Middle East should be achieved. The ambassador answered: “If I had to close my eyes and say what is my dream, I would say it is to see democratic states in the Middle East”. He reiterated this desire with the old adage that “two democracies have never been to war”, a sentiment that proved popular among the audience. Unfortunately, this aspiration for wider regional peace also looks doubtful. In the words of Mr Na’eh: “Is it realistic? At the moment, it looks very bleak.”
Mr Na’eh was cautious in his responses when challenged by tough questions on Palestine. We believe that the ambassador went out of his way to engage with questions that he would have preferred gone unasked. As probably any speaker would do, especially when being challenged by thought-provoking University students.
Speaking to The Manchester Magazine a day after the event, Mr Na’eh said: “I met with the Vice Chancellor, Nancy Rothwell, and had a very interesting and fruitful discussion with her and the students. Relationships between Manchester and Israel have remained very strong and I have been met with a tremendously warm reception at every place I have visited.”
James Elliot, former Secretary of the university's International Affairs Society, said: “I quite liked the honesty. It was a very open and well-structured event. I don’t think there was anything too controversial to speak of.”
By welcoming Israeli diplomats while allowing the conditions for protests by Palestine supporters, the University of Manchester has strengthened its position as an institution where both sides of an issue can be heard, a reputation which could have deteriorated after recent decisions by the Students’ Union on banning specific speakers from campus. More events like this one will be positive for the university, allowing free, critical academic debate to flourish rather than falling into the vicious circle of supressing it. TMM