"A violation of basic rights of free speech"
Varsity exclusive: Benny Morris speaks out against the cancellation of his talk
by Ellen Davis-Walker, Osama Siddiqui
Friday 5th February 2010, 14:45 GMT
Renowned Israeli historian and Cambridge alumnus Professor Benny Morris has condemned the decision to cancel his talk after accusations of “Islamophobia” were made.
Speaking to Varsity yesterday, Morris said, “I believe that the attempt by several Cambridge students and a lecturer to prevent me lecturing in Cambridge is a violation of basic rights of free speech – just as preventing publication of cartoons depicting Jesus, Moses or Mohammad are violations of free speech.”
Morris also criticised the Israel Society for caving to pressure and cancelling the talk. He said, “I think the Israel Society’s bowing to Muslim-Arab pressures to cancel the lecture was a terrible mistake, evidence of weakness and a bad precedent.”
Morris was originally scheduled to speak this Thursday on the topic of “1948 Revisited” at an event organized by the CU Israel Society.
The decision to cancel the talk was made after a petition signed by members of the Islamic Society and the English Faculty, among others, was sent to CUSU.
The signatories of the petition said they felt that the decision to invite Morris, who has talked in the past of “a deep problem in Islam… in which human life doesn’t have the same value as it does in the West”, could lead to incitements of racial tension.
Morris has been hounded by accusations of “Islamophobia” since an interview with The Guardian in 2009, in which he claimed that Palestinian Arabs have “no respect” for democratic values.
Previously, he came under attack after a 2004 interview, in which he stated that Palestinians should be “contained so that they will not succeed in murdering us”.
Morris has said that his comment has been mischaracterised, and is “always trotted out by critics out of historical context”. According to him, the remark referred specifically to the proposal to build a security fence to prevent suicide bombers from entering Israel.
In a statement, CU Israel Society said that they never intended to “provide a platform for racism”, and regretted the fact that Morris’s personal views were “deeply offensive to many”.
The society defended the decision to host Morris, stating that the planned Question and Answer session was meant to be an “open space for anyone, including those with grievances, to challenge Morris.”
Speaking to Varsity, Jake Witzenfeld, President of the Israel Society, said that he “decided to cancel for fear of CU Israel Society being portrayed as a mouthpiece of Islamophobia.
“To be clear, it was a very cautious, necessary and respectful approach to Cambridge student politics that drove this difficult decision.”
Witzenfeld added, “Cancelling the lecture and choosing to recognise the sensitivities of those offended by Morris was unfortunate yet noble.”
However, Cambridge resident and writer on Israel and Palestine, Ben White, argued that the attitude conveyed in the statement released by the CU Israel society, was equally alarming.
“It is unfortunately still not clear what the Israel Society finds ‘regrettable’ - Morris’ actual views or the fact that many people were offended by them.”
White also added that the decision to invite someone who “has publicly expressed such vile views about Arabs and Muslims” was a “worrying sign”.
He said, “Imagine if a student group organised an event for someone who had said similar things about Jews or Africans? The choice of Morris indicates a certain way of thinking that should give us all reason for serious concern.”
These sentiments were shared by a first-year member of the Islamic Society at Fitzwilliam College who felt that it was not the first time that a speaker had been chosen with a “less than tolerant attitude towards Arabs”.
Nevertheless, many felt hopeful about the decision. Rob Mindell, president of the CU Jewish Society, said that “the Israel Society committee have shown an unprecedented amount of compassion and consideration towards minority views in cancelling the talk.
“I have felt offended by countless hateful and anti-Jewish talks that have taken place in Cambridge over the past year. It fills me with hope that we have now adopted an atmosphere of understanding and co-operation in Cambridge.”