The University of Manchester censored the title of a Holocaust survivor’s talk criticising Israel after objections from the Israeli embassy.
Marika Sherwood, a survivor of the Budapest ghetto, was due to discuss Israel’s treatment of Palestinians in a lecture titled “You’re doing to the Palestinians what the Nazis did to me”.
Ms Sherwood, a historian, was booked to speak as part of Israeli Apartheid Week 2017 in March, which was organised by the university’s student committee of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign.
But, according to the Guardian, after Mark Regev, the Israeli ambassador to the UK, visited university officials in February, it was agreed the title of the talk would be amended to “A Holocaust survivor’s story and the Balfour Declaration”.
The details emerged after the Information Commissioner ruled the university had to comply with a Freedom of Information (FOI) request by a student to disclose “all correspondence between the University of Manchester and the Israeli lobby”.
The title, described by university officials as “unduly provocative”, was banned and conditions were imposed by the university before the talk could go ahead, including that it had to be recorded, and that only students and staff could attend.
Michael Freeman, the Israeli embassy’s counsellor for civil society affairs, contacted the university about the talk.
He claimed the title “could be considered antisemitic”, saying it breached the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of antisemitism, and would make Jewish students feel uncomfortable on campus.
He also criticised two speakers booked for a separate event.
Ms Sherwood’s talk went ahead with the amended title. She denied the original title was antisemitic.
According to the Guardian, she told the audience she was saved from the Nazis by Hungarian Christians who baptised her and provided her with documents saying she was not Jewish.
She said: “I was just speaking of my experience of what the Nazis were doing to me as a Jewish child. I can’t say I’m a Palestinian, but my experiences as a child are not dissimilar to what Palestinian children are experiencing now.”
A spokesperson for the Israeli embassy told the JC: “Comparing Israel to the Nazi regime could reasonably be considered antisemitic, given the context, according to IHRA’s working definition of antisemitism, which is accepted by the British government, the Labour Party, the NUS, and most British universities.”
The spokesperson said Mr Freeman had made it clear to the university that while debate was welcomed as an essential part of a democratic society, “in the case of these two particular events, we feel that this is not legitimate criticism but has rather crossed the line into hate speech.”
The embassy denied that its contacts with the university over the issue could be interpreted as lobbying, “given the fact that meetings between embassies of all countries and universities are common and frequent. Such meetings cover a range of topics – from academic interchange to lectures on different subjects”.
A University of Manchester spokesperson said: “Events held on campus are reviewed under the University’s Code of Practice on Freedom of Speech if they concern potentially controversial topics and whenever they involve external speakers.
“This includes events organised through and in the University of Manchester Students’ Union. In deciding whether or not an event should go ahead, the University pays due regard to all relevant legislation, including the Equality Act 2010.
“However, such legislation does not act to prohibit completely the expression of controversial views. In this case the university allowed the events to proceed in line with the requirements of the Act and our commitment to principles of freedom of speech and expression.”
Ms Sherwood has been contacted for comment.