The speaker said he was Palestinian, and claimed his family’s home had been “stolen” when Israel was founded in 1948. “Israel is and always has been an apartheid state,” he added, his voice amplified by a megaphone. “Anyone who denies this is denying systematic settler colonialism and racism.”
In the wake of this and other impassioned speeches to a crowd of about 200, the familiar chant began: “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free” – or, to put it another way, Israel as a Jewish state will cease to exist.
Unlike her visit to LSE in November, Israeli Ambassador Tzipi Hotovely’s talk at the Cambridge Union on Tuesday did not end with her being bundled into a car amid the threat of violence. Security was tight and well-organised. However, among the protestors gathered by the Union entrance, the rhetoric was bitter and intense.
Anti-Israel protestors have long condemned Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, where some call the treatment of Palestinians a form of apartheid. Generally, though, in recent years most have been careful not to say that Israel is fundamentally racist and has no right to exist – claims that clearly breach the International Holocaust Remembrance Association’s definition of antisemitism.
Protesters at the Cambridge Union event holding signs saying 'Zionist scum not welcome here' (John Nguyen)
Now, thanks to the spreading smear that Israel has been “an apartheid state” since its inception, such as that made in an Amnesty International report this month, these nuances have been lost. “Zionist scum not welcome here” read one homemade placard. “Apartheid off-campus” proclaimed another, carried by a young woman.
I asked why she had come. “Because I believe Israel is unjust,” she said. “It’s the illegal occupation of Palestine.” Did she mean Israel or the Occupied Territories? “It’s complicated,” she replied. “There is no simple answer. Anyway, there are elements of Israel that are in violation of Islamic law.”
It seemed all the protestors were under instructions not to disclose their names: all I asked refused. But when I tried to speak to them, most were friendly enough – until I said I was from the JC.
Protesters on their way to the Cambridge Union (John Nguyen)
“Do you support her then?” one young man demanded, her meaning Ambassador Hotovely. He jabbed his finger towards my chest: “Do you support settler colonialism?” I insisted I was there only to report. “So you do!” he crowed. “I have nothing to say to you.”
I discussed the Amnesty report with Anne Herzberg, of the think tank NGO Monitor. The suggestion Israel had been apartheid since 1948 marked, she said, “a return to the claims made by the PLO and the Soviets during the Cold War. I think we’re on the verge of another Resolution 3379 moment” - a reference to the 1975 UN motion stating “Zionism is a form of racism”, which was revoked in 1991.
Ms Herzberg thought the impact on Israel’s relations with other states was likely to be slight. But she added: “My fears are for the Diaspora. The UK is likely to see an escalation in antisemitic violence. And of course, its effects will be felt on campuses.” Cambridge on Tuesday felt like her comments were being made real.
Inside the hall, the ambassador spoke and took questions for 90 minutes, tackling critics of Israel head on. She pointed out that to talk of the Nakba, the “disaster”, the term used by many Palestinians for Israeli independence, was misleading if not set in context – those who claimed Israeli “apartheid” started then had forgotten that after Palestine was partitioned by the UN, seven Arab countries invaded the fledgling Jewish state, launching a war that killed ten per cent of its population, while 800,000 Jews were expelled from their homes across the Middle East and North Africa.
Tzipi Hotovely speaking at the Cambridge Union
All the while, the din from outside grew, with drums, chants, whistles and, most piercing of all, vuvuzelas, the horns that ruined the 2010 World Cup. Ms Hotovely was unfazed: “Ah, the music of democracy!” she exclaimed. “The music of free speech.”
“But the Israeli ambassador is the only one who gets this kind of welcome,” she added, and for those protesting, “Israel is evil.” And she had a simple message for them: “If your concern is that this country should not exist, then you’re an anti-Semite.”
When she left, the protestors sat down in front of the vehicle entrance, briefly blocking it, and fired flares. But one of the organisers ordered them to move and they got up and crossed the road, allowing her to be driven away.
Compared to LSE, the event had gone smoothly. But the hatred, if anything, had grown.