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Response to Mark Aspinwall regarding protest at visit of Israeli ambassador

Written by admin  •  Thursday, 25.10.2012, 12:03
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Today the Head of Politics and International Relations at Edinburgh University, Mark Aspinwall, sent out an all student e-mail condemning the protests last night at the visit of the Israeli Ambassador, Daniel Taub. Below we publish this e-mail and a response to it by one of the protesters and by EUSA’s BME officer

Response to Aspinwall’s e-mail 1:

Dear Gillian and Mark, It is quite frankly outrageous that you have chosen to send this out. It gives no opportunity to the protesters to voice their views and shows no empathy or understanding of the context – ethnic cleansing and apartheid. It is a one sided diatribe from someone who has a strong vested interest in this debate.

I also have a vested interest. I was one of the protesters. What shocked me was the heavy handed approach to policing on campus. What also shocked me is that Mark, according to university security chiefs, specifically asked that members of Students for Justice in Palestine should not be admitted entry. So much for free speech!

I spoke to a number of black and ethnic minority students, including the standing EUSA BME officer, who felt threatened at the fact that an apartheid representative is admitted on campus. Never mind the idea that a hundred cops is needed to bully and harass them.

Let me add that there is a long record of civil rights interruption of ambassadors and spokespersons for racist regimes on British campuses, going back to the 1960s. These views are presented with the air of an official statement. They are not. They are your views. You should be clear about this.

I must add that I am ashamed that this man was invited onto my campus. I am proud that Scottish universities stood up against Apartheid in South Africa. I am ashamed that tenured Professors here are apologists, whether they know it or not, for genocide.

There are other regimes out there with terrible human rights record. But you have chosen to break a global call for boycott, divestment, and sanctions against Israel issued by hundreds of human rights groups. You have crossed a picket line. And this will stand to your eternal discredit.

If you really favour free speech, and university security are liars, then perhaps you would permit me or a representative of SJP to issue a response to your position? Or better yet. Why don’t you go and share your views with the millions of Palestinian refugees who, unlike yourself, are voiceless in the corridors of power?

If you think you have a better way to liberate Palestine from 64 years of occupation, then please – share it with me. But “dialogue” with the oppressor has been tried. It has failed. You must know this. I urge you to live up to the responsibilities that your position and your salary warrant.

I sincerely urge you to withdraw your comments and apologise for your actions. You have brought shame on this university.

Yours sincerely, James Foley PhD candidate Department of Sociology

Response 2:

Dear Professor Aspinwall,

I am writing to you, in a personal capacity, to share my concerns about your recent conduct in relation to the hosting of an event with Daniel Taub. I believe you have blurred the lines of your own responsibility by intruding in a divisive student debate. Your intervention has been extremely unhelpful and has caused alarm to many BME students who have have approached me and asked me to take action on their behalf. Insofar as you give no possibility for a right of reply, your remarks can be presented as victimization.

You have presented the event as if it was hosted by Edinburgh University. I believe that this is not the case. It was hosted by the Politics Society. I urged them not to host it in a letter prior to the event. My reason for this was partly moral, since they are breaking a global campaign for boycott, divestment and sanctions. Palestinians are denied a voice or a platform for their views, and you have done nothing to facilitate one.

It was also about safety. It is highly divisive to invite a figure whose role is to defend a racial state widely accused of extrajudicial torture and ethnic cleansing. Taub has gone on record declaring his support for Operation Cast Lead, in which the UN Factfinding Mission found evidence of war crimes and possible crimes against humanity. With this in mind, I regarded the move as provocative for its own sake.

If this was just a matter between the Politics Society and the protesters, that would be one thing. We could call it a legitimate disagreement about tactics.

But your intervention has turned the debate in another direction. It has come to my attention that you intervened personally to attempt to ensure that pro-Palestinian students could not attend. The event was presented as if it was for invited guests only. It was not an exercise in free speech and open debate. It was an orchestrated attempt to legitimize the Israeli narrative while giving no space for Palestinians to present their views.

To use your position, as Professor and Head of Department, to label students protesting for human rights as “extremists” is contemptible. I have honestly never heard of anything like this. This is not the sort of discourse befitting an academic in a social science department. It is the sort of drivel I expect to read in tabloid newspapers.

Campus security have said that the politics department – not the Politics Society – was responsible for requesting the police, the searches, and the air of secrecy surrounding the event. I must say that in all my years of student activism I have never seen anything like this, even in the anti-cuts movement. As one student said to me, “It felt like a little bit of Israeli apartheid was brought onto campus.”

You have no right to use your position and perogative to label students extremists. I urge you to retract your divisive comments immediately. This is the best thing for the university’s reputation, and for the safety of students.

I also think that you should cease your heavy-handed intrusion in student matters. This does not do you, or your department, any credit. It appears as if you are using a student society as a sock puppet for your own views, even if that is not your intention.

I do not deny the right of the politics department to open up difficult issues to discussion. But your actions in recent years have only shown one side of the narrative: the Israeli one. You have made no attempt to give voiceless Palestinians a say. In this sense you have become complicit in all the power relations and injustice in this issue.

I urge you to retract your position.

Yours sincerely,

Pete Ramand

EUSA Black and Ethnic Minorities Convenor

Aspinwall’s E-mail:

Hi everyone – Last night the University of Edinburgh hosted the Israeli Ambassador in a talk that was marred by continuous disruptive protests within the theatre. A small minority of students committed to silencing voices from the Israeli government created a situation in which the ability of others to voice their own opinions was made extremely difficult. Fellow students – some with critical views of Israeli policy – were simply unable to say what they had to say.

As a University we are committed to respecting those who are invited to speak in our institution. Freedom of speech is critical to an institution of higher education. Shouting down an Israeli Ambassador will not cause Israeli policy to change. It will (momentarily) stifle free expression and for that must be condemned. Some very thoughtful students voiced alarm and indignation at what was taking place around them in the theatre. They came to participate in a civilized debate, and found themselves criticizing the protesters for closing down the opportunity to do so. I very much endorse the post-event statement of the Politics and IR Society, which goes right to the heart of the issue (https://www.facebook.com/eupolsoc/posts/436869756370890?notif_t=like).

Two subsequent messages from students hit the nail on the head. One said ‘It is lamentable that the protesters would not even let Mr Taub respond to their points and it emphasised what I think is deeply concerning about the movement which they stand for; that it is against freedom of speech.’ Another said: ‘I think we can all agree that extremism, especially when it is aimed at silencing an opponent, is an unacceptable way to express oneself. This is particularly true for students of a university – an institution dedicated to academic and, by extension, political freedom.’

Best,

Mark Aspinwall

Mark Aspinwall Professor of Politics Head of Department of Politics and International Relations University of Edinburgh Chrystal Macmillan Building 15a George Square Edinburgh, EH8 9LD Scotland 44 (0) 131 651-1730 www.pol.ed.ac.uk/staff_profiles/aspinwall_mark

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