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SOAS and LSE, Swings and Roundabouts

By Gavin Gross, ZOTW

A report on recent events, prospects for understanding and situation in the streets of London form Gavin Gross at SOAS.

Israeli diplomat Roey Gilad returned to SOAS on 15 November and spoke to a packed Khalili Lecture Theatre of 150 students on the subject "After Gaza Disengagement: What Happens Next?". It was a mixed audience of various nationalities and faiths. Roey limited his remarks to only 20 minutes, which left over one hour for a vigorous, open and wide-ranging discussion. There were many tough questions asked of Roey from students critical of Israeli policies, but all the questions were asked in a polite and respectful manner, and Roey was careful to answer each one directly.

When the talk finished, an older gentlemen came up to me and said howproud we should feel as SOAS students at having conducted a civiliseddebate on some very contentious issues. He had been present at Roey'stalk at SOAS during the last academic year, which was marred by protestsand interruptions. For those unaware of the disgraceful events of February 2005, the SOAS Union tried to ban Roey's appearance and threatened to tear down flyers advertising the event, and on the night of the talk a malicious fire alarm was set and the front glass door of SOAS was smashed in an attempt to prevent the talk from going ahead (it did proceed after a 40-minute delay).

This is the whole crux of the matter. Last year, the idea of an Israeli official speaking at SOAS was so abhorrent to the SOAS Union and some student groups that we saw an attempted ban, protests, a fire alarm and destruction of school property. This year, the same Israeli official spoke and the event was carried off without incident like any other normal student society event. I consider this a great victory for the SOAS Jewish Society, but above all a great victory for common sense at SOAS. It demonstrates that progress can be achieved when Jewish students refuse to be intimidated and stand up for their legitimate rights of expression on campus.

In the week since this meeting I have been stopped in the hallwaysby many students - Muslim students included - who have thanked us forbringing Roey to campus. Expecting an Israeli diplomat to reveal very little, they were all amazed at how openly, directly and sincerely Roey discussed the issues and by his willingness to answer every single question put to him (and not avoid them). Students also told me how much they appreciated the opportunity to hear for themselves the Israeli viewpoint - this on a campus where often only the Palestinian viewpoint is presented. Whether they agreed with what the speaker said is irrelevant - that is up to each student to decide for themselves. What's important is that they had a chance to evaluate different arguments on the issues.


Two days after the Roey Gilad event, on Thursday 17 November, a group from the London School of Economics (LSE) held a protest outfront of the main SOAS building at 1pm, a protest for which they had police permission. The LSE group set up a stage and microphones and performed a play where students dressed up as Israeli soldiers abused and humiliated other students dressed up as Palestinian civilians. They handed out flyers and shouted in their microphones about "Israeli apartheid". I was not present, but the reports I received said these students were met with derision and laughter, and even students sympathetic to their message said that this LSE group went too far. I was also later told by a student affiliated with the SOAS Palestine Society that they did not support this theatrical protest, and wondered why an LSE group shlepped (not the word he used!) all the way to SOAS to do it. I suspect the visit of Roey Gilad to SOAS two days earlier had something to do with it.

Gavin Gross
Chair, SOAS Jewish Society
Postgraduate Student, Near and Middle Eastern Studies

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