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January 27, 2012

Freedom of Speech: US versus UK

January 27, 2012

January 27, 2012

By As'ad AbuKhalil*

There is no question that limitations on freedom of speech in the United Kingdom exceed those that are applied in the United States, although the US has been increasing those limitations since Sep. 11 and even before when Bill Clinton – before George W. Bush – used the Oklahoma city bombing as a pretext to pass measures that were precursors to the Patriot Act. But when it comes to the subject of Israel and its crimes, there is more freedom of speech in the UK.

Being in the midst of a speaking tour against Israel (titled “The Case Against Israel”) on UK college campuses, I get to compare and contrast the experience between the two countries. There is no question that one can get away with more criticisms of Israel in the UK than in the US. One can maintain a teaching position at a major UK university, while holding “extreme” views against Israel. That would be unimaginable in the US. In the US, Zionist groups can interfere in the academic tenure process when they don’t like the professor who is being considered for promotion. That is how Zionist “hoodlums” – as Vanessa Redgrave called them years ago – prevented the widely published Norman Finkelstein from receiving tenure at a small college in Illinois. A Zionist professor (of law) saw fit to write the university to prevent Finkelstein from receiving tenure. Comrade Joseph Massad faced a similar onslaught. In the case of of Massad, however, the Zionist failed miserably, despite years of the most crude and vicious smear campaigns.

I got to notice the difference between the UK and US a few years ago when I was doing another speaking tour in the UK. After I finished my talk at Oxford University, my hosts took me to dinner at a local Italian restaurant and they arranged for special menus to be printed with the title: Israel Apartheid Week, or words to that effect. I had to comment to my hosts that such a gesture would have been impossible in the US. I explained that any restaurant which would have agreed to print such a menu, would have been picketed and voices in Congress would have been raised to impose penalties on that restaurant. In the US, Abraham Foxman, would have vomited his regular and casual accusations of anti-Semitism and would have invoked the Nazi threat, etc.

In the UK, there is more of a free debate on the Arab-Israeli conflict although there is a Zionist lobby in the country. But public opinion in the UK is less influenced by the Zionist lobby and its impact on the political establishment is less than in the US. But in the UK, the political class is out of step with the public: the two major parties continue to adhere to the standards British policies of supporting Israeli and its war crimes. But you may be a member of the House of Commons and be a vocal critic of Israel. It is quite different in the US: advocacy for the Palestinians can automatically kill one’s career or his/her chances of promotion within the ranks of either party.

And among college students in the UK, there is more militancy in advocating for the Palestinians. American college students are often too afraid of being accused of anti-Semitism: so many progressives either avoid the subject, or adopt a highly moderate and diluted version of advocacy.

To speak of the college theatres in the US and UK is not to say that the battle for the liberation of Palestine will be fought there. We need all the support that we can get, but the Palestinians are quite capable of liberating their own lands on their own (Oh, and NATO bombers don’t need to be deployed—but thank you for asking).

* This article was republished in The Arab Digest with permission from the author, the original appeared in al-Akhbar's blog.


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