Fears Israeli ambassador’s visit to Soas may spark unrest

Some university staff and students say invitation to Mark Regev is provocative and urge director to stop meeting

Students and academics at Soas University of London have said a visit by the Israeli ambassador Mark Regev this week could lead to serious tension and substantial distress on the campus.

Regev has been invited by two student societies to speak about the Middle East and prospects for peace on Thursday, but his visit has been criticised as provocative by other staff and students who are planning a protest.

More than 150 academics from Soas and other UK universities, plus 40 student societies at the university, have written to the Soas director Valerie Amos urging her to intervene to stop the meeting on Thursday at which Regev is due to speak.

A letter signed by more than 100 Soas staff says: “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.”

Regev was invited by the Soas Jewish and United Nations societies. He will be interviewed by Eric Heinze, professor of law and humanities at Queen Mary University of London, before taking questions.

The students’ union challenged the university authorities over the staging of the event, raising concerns about possible safety and security risks posed by the ambassador’s visit and “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”.

Soas, which is one of the world’s leading institutions for the study of the Middle East, Africa and Asia, has often been the focus of coverage of the sometimes fraught debate surrounding Israeli-Palestinian politics on university campuses. As a result, the small minority of Jewish students at Soas have complained of feeling uncomfortable on campus and unable to express themselves.

Prof Jonathan Rosenhead, one of the organisers of the academics’ protest letter to Lady Amos, said: “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 posted on Facebook by the Soas students’ union said: “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.”

A Soas spokesman said the university was committed to promoting freedom of debate and had a long tradition of hosting speakers from all over the world, sometimes in the face of public criticism and government pressure.

“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,” the spokesman said.

Students and trade unionists are planning to protest about Regev’s visit by staging an “apartheid off campus” day of activities on Thursday with briefings about the situation in Palestine and its relevance in the UK.

Since the start of the academic year Regev has visited about 20 UK universities, including Oxford, Cambridge, Manchester, Manchester Met, King’s, UCL, Queen Mary, Imperial, Bath, Bristol and Birmingham. There have been no visits by an Israeli ambassador or diplomat to Soas since 2005.

A spokeswoman for the Union of Jewish Students welcomed the event. “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,” she said.

Eighteen Palestinian students at Soas have written to Amos expressing their concerns. “The environment that Mr Regev would create on our campus for the event is unsafe for us as Palestinian students, many of whom have suffered directly at the hands of the Israeli security services,” they said.

A letter from 50 academics from other institutions across the UK agreed that everyone benefited from an open debate where Israel’s policies could be heard and challenged, but added: “There are two factors that make the projected meeting an exception to this rule, however. The first is that the format of this meeting does not permit Regev’s case, such as it is, to be subjected to any scrutiny.

“More importantly, there is Regev himself. He is the official representative of a government that is in violation of countless United Nations resolutions, and which routinely and for 50 years has denied human rights, including that of national self-determination, to the Palestinians.”

The Israeli embassy declined to comment when contacted by the Guardian, but the ambassador later tweeted that he was looking forward to the meeting.