To begin with the heckling was nothing out of the ordinary: a student stood up and read something out – extracts from the Goldstone report, I think – but spoke too quickly and too quietly for me to follow. Shortly after another student jumped up, shouting that she was a Lebanese Palestinian, before shouting some more while holding her passport and some photos in the air. She stayed standing for the remainder of his talk. So far, so usual; in the world of anti-Israel campus activism, this was nothing.
But then things got more heated. One audience member rose waving a Palestinian flag and left the room shouting that Ayalon was a war criminal who would be tried in court for his role in the Gaza war last year. Since Ayalon was not yet in the government at that time, I couldn't help but wonder: what crime was he to be be tried for?
Another student then took it upon herself to stand up and, in a shrill and impassioned voice, speak too quickly and too emotionally to make any sense. She then refused to stop talking, apparently misunderstanding the instructions at the start of the night that there would be time for questions at the end. She continued despite a rising chorus of ‘sit down’ being levelled against her. One student put it nicely when he said ‘stop being selfish, this is not a tutorial. It's a lecture!.’ She didn’t seem to get the message though, and rambled on. Ayalon, to his credit, took her seriously and attempted to engage with her comments. She didn't return the favour, and left soon after, no doubt with a great deal of self-righteous satisfaction.
The worst, however, was still to come. ‘Death to the Jews’, one student shouted in Arabic as he stormed out. (disclaimer: I don't speak Arabic, but that's what Ayalon claimed he said - and nobody in the audience challenged the translation) I’m no lawyer, but I’m fairly sure that comment constitutes incitement to racial and religious hatred under UK legislation – it will be interesting to see if anything is followed up by the Union. At the very least, I expect them to remove the Union-membership of the student in question, for breaking the law and calling for the slaughter of fellow members while at a Union event.
Outside the debating chamber, all the while, protestors were shouting ‘free free Palestine from the river to the sea’. When Ayalon argued that this chant amounted to a call for Israel’s destruction, and asked where Israeli Jews would have to go for Palestine to be free 'from the river to the sea', the woman sitting next to me said ‘back to where they came from!’ I couldn’t resist and had to ask her where exactly it was that she expected Jews to go ‘back to’, to which she replied, ‘well you’re in England, you appear to be doing fine’. I didn't think it worthwhile to point out that actually my grandparents 'came from' Poland and Czechoslovakia, and that the reason I am in England today is that in the 1930s they were not 'doing fine' in the countries they 'came from'.
In any case, I’m tired, and am heading to bed with the following thoughts:
- What would happen if a student called out ‘death to the muslims’ in the Oxford Union? Would it get national publicity and receive widespread condemnation? I expect (and hope) it would. I’m waiting to see how the press deal with the ‘death to the Jews’ outburst, and how quickly the apologetic ‘yes but you have to understand...’ voices are to emerge.
- By attacking him in the way they did, the protestors today handed Ayalon an undeserved victory. His politics and approach to diplomacy are deplorable; they could and should have been intelligently exposed. Instead, by the end of the night he seemed to be the calm victim of the aggressive onslaught of idiots. To judge from the opinions of the few non-partisan audience members whom I overheard talking as they left the chamber, he left looking more reasonable than his critics.
- To the extent that we can generalize from the events at the Oxford Union tonight, it seems that no Israeli official can expect to receive a fair hearing or to give a speech freely at a British University anymore – even at Oxford’s self proclaimed ‘bastion of free speech’. That’s bad for debate but it’s also bad for the Palestinians; however much self-righteous satisfaction protestors may feel when they shout aggressively at Israeli officials, doing so only feeds the perception within Israel that foreign critics of Israel are unwilling to give Israel a fair hearing, that they’re simply Israel bashers, and that they are anti-Semitic - and that's never going to inspire Israel to change its policies.