Back in 2016, UCL won international news coverage when an event with Hen Mazzig, hosted by UCL Friends of Israel, was disrupted by pro-Palestinian protesters, resulting in police involvement.
Following an investigation, UCL pledged to invite Mazzig back — in what the Provost described as a “tangible sign” of UCL’s commitment to free speech. Although, presumably, the University was also eager to overcome the accusations of anti-Semitism it received after the debacle.
UCL offered to cover the speaker’s accommodation and flights, amounting to over £2,000, as well as securing the event with multiple guards and security staff.
Mazzig’s return last Thursday was met by the promise of a protest, from several sabbatical officers and UCL Friends of Palestine. Ayo Olatunji, the Union’s BME officer, described UCL’s invitation of Mazzig as a “normalisation of Israeli Apartheid”.
Mazzig retaliated saying Friends of Palestine were guilty of “crypto racism”.
The Provost expressed his confusion at the amount of controversy caused by Mazzig, who served in the IDF for five years in a non-combatant role. According to the President of Friends of Israel Alexandra Taic, several senior IDF members have given talks in the last year at UCL without being protested.
In fact, last term UCL’s Department of Political Science hosted General Amos Yadlin, former head of the IDF’s Military Intelligence Directorate, while in January 2017, only two months after Hen Mazzig’s first talk, Friends of Israel and UCLU Diplomacy in Action hosted Knesset member and former IDF Major General, Elazer Stern.
Aiysha Qureshi, Welfare and International Officer, who attended the protest, claimed that she was unaware of any other IDF officials having visited UCL, although she is unlikely to have been the only protester who did not know this.
Friends of Palestine too were unaware of the visits at the time claiming that this was due to a “lack of institutional transparency”. The society said that they were currently pursuing a motion through the Students’ Union whereby they would “have to be informed of such events”.
In order to avoid further disturbances this year, Mazzig’s return was cloaked in secrecy. The location of the talk on Tottenham Court Road was only revealed an hour before the event to those who had already obtained a ticket.
Even the Provost’s office (all the way in the Wilkins Building) was manned by a security guard for most of the evening.
The names and ID cards of attendees, quite like Santa’s list, were not checked once but twice, to ensure that only pre-registered and approved UCL students and staff were let in. The event was only open to UCL students and staff, preventing students from other London universities who attended the talk in 2016 from attending. The chicanery all ultimately meant that Mazzig addressed a half-empty room.
The University’s attempts at subterfuge were insufficient to discourage Friends of Palestine who, after meeting in the main quad, moved to the street outside the event venue, accompanied as per usual by pro-Israel counter protesters.
The protest was peaceful, despite hostile verbal exchange between the two groups. Friends of Palestine described the behaviour of counter-protesters as “appalling and disrespectful” for making such comments as “you will never have a state.”
In the end, though, this time the event went as UCL intended: Arthur and Mazzig left through the back door of the venue, preventing any clashes with protesters, and avoiding another opportunity for Mazzig to call the campus a “war zone”.
Additional reporting: Jason Murugesu
Photo credit: Elias Fedel