Students and staff at London’s School of Oriental and African Studies (Soas) have called for planned visit by Israeli ambassador Mark Regev to be called off.
More than 150 academics from Soas and other British universities, as well as 40 student bodies, have written to the institute’s director Valerie Amos urging her to cancel the event scheduled to take place on Thursday.
The letter, which was reported by the Guardian, read: “We fear that if this provocative event proceeds as planned, it will cause substantial distress and harm to many of our students and staff who are, have been or will be affected by the actions of what a recent UN report refers to as the Israeli ‘apartheid regime’.
“The event could further cause serious tension on campus and result in a charged atmosphere that will be detrimental to the wellbeing of all faculty, staff and students.”
Mr Regev was invited to speak at the central London campus about the Middle East and prospects for peace by the university’s JSoc and its United Nations society. Mr Regev is due to be interviewed by Eric Heinze, professor of law and humanities at Queen Mary University of London before taking questions from the audience.
In opposing the event Soas students union cited “the inability of students and staff – in particular Palestinian students – to participate openly in the debate, because of possible repercussions on their ability to enter Israel/Palestine”.
Activists are now planning “apartheid off campus” protests to coincide with the visit.
Organisers have called on “people of conscience around the world” to join their “evening of solidarity” against Mr Regev, who they describe as “an abhorrent individual” and “the public face of Israeli barbarism”.
In a tweet, Mr Regev wrote: “Looking forward to speaking with students at @SOAS this week. Open discussion crucial for understanding and peace.”
This is not the first time the ambassador will have addressed British students. This year he has visited Cambridge, Oxford, Manchester, Manchester Met, Kings, UCL, Queen Mary, Imperial, Bath, Bristol, Birmingham, all of which proceeded without incident.
A leading institution for the study of the Middle East, Africa and Asia, Soas has often been the focus of anti-Israel sentiments on campus.
Professor Jonathan Rosenhead, one of the organisers of the protest, told the Guardian: “Holding this meeting at Soas, where staff and students have voted overwhelmingly in support of boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel, and in support of Palestinian rights, seems like a deliberate provocation.”
A statement on the student union’s Facebook page read: “We stand with the Soas community in expressing our concern at Mark Regev’s presence on campus, and in rejecting the idea that our spaces of learning should serve as avenues for officials to put forward state propaganda.”
The university has previously hosted the likes of a Syrian ambassador, ministers from Iraq, Palestinian legislator Hanan Ashrawi and Egyptian diplomat Dr Mohammed El Baradei. However, no Israeli ambassador or diplomat has visited Soas since 2005.
In a recent article, Avrahum Sanger, president of the JSoc on campus, accused the institution of “double standards”, adding: “Engaging in debate with someone you disagree with isn’t ‘sponsoring’ their views, it’s an opportunity for us all to broaden our minds to dimensions of a discussion often ignored.
“Societies that wish to bring controversial speakers shouldn’t be dissuaded from hosting events, they should be encouraged, it allows students to challenge both the speaker and their conceptions and arrive at independent conclusions.”
A spokesman for the university: “We support the right of Soas student societies to invite speakers and host debates on contentious and difficult issues. What we do not do is thereby endorse or support the views being expressed. We pride ourselves on our diversity and we know that this will sometimes create tensions and disagreements.”
Welcoming the event, a spokeswoman for UJS said: “We are pleased to see the Israeli ambassador’s address to Soas J-Soc and UN Society will be going ahead, despite insidious attempts to shut the event down. It is important that Jewish students are able to host guests with diverse opinions on their campuses without being intimidated, in order to have informed and engaged conversations about Israel and Palestine.”