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Humanist talk on Israel cancelled by Palestine protest group pressure

Report by David Warden

David is Chair of Dorset Humanists and Humanist Representative on the Bournemouth & Poole Holocaust Memorial Day committee.

I was due to give a talk about Israel at a Dorset Humanists evening event on 31st January. The evening before, I checked with the hotel to ensure that our normal arrangements were in place. The manager told me that they had been receiving worrying emails throughout the day claiming that a talk by the “far right” and “divisive” speaker, David Warden, would be a “hugely offensive and deeply irresponsible act, particularly when there are members of the Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole community who have lost dozens of members of their families in this genocide... I ask you, on behalf of that community to do the right thing and to cancel the booking immediately”. Initially, the hotel obliged and cancelled our booking. The following day, they changed their mind. But by then, Dorset Humanists committee had decided to cancel the event.

The same pressure group, the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, was in the news twelve day later when they protested noisily outside the home of the Rt Hon Tobias Ellwood, MP for Bournemouth East. A tweet on X said “Come out & tell us what you're going to do. Use your influence for peace not violence.

We will not stand quietly by while you & the rest of the British govt support genocide.” Ellwood told Sky News it was “astonishing” particularly given he has “been one of the most critical” MPs of Israel.

On 21st February, the House of Commons itself descended into chaos, partly as a result of the atmosphere of threat around MPs. The fear is that if they are deemed to have voted “the wrong way” by protesters they will then be accused of being “complicit in genocide” – as was Tobias Ellwood. Is this how democracy should work? How do protesters know that Israel is committing genocide in Gaza when the International Court of justice is likely to take years to rule on South Africa's allegation that it is?

Views in Dorset Humanists about the cancellation of my talk were mixed. Some members were outraged at this suppression of free speech whilst others supported the cancellation on the grounds that the publicity for my talk was provocative and appeared to be one-sided.

Reactions from the local Jewish community were very negative. One local Jewish woman wrote to Tobias Ellwood and the Police & Crime Commissioner for Dorset to say that she felt deeply disturbed and intimidated by the actions of the protest group. In his reply, the PCC stated that “There has been a well-documented challenge nationally concerning the legitimacy of the protests, and the appropriate authorities have confirmed that, within certain key parameters, they are indeed lawful at this time. The police role of neutrality and proportionate law enforcement is paramount... Dorset Police’s trained personnel maintain open dialogue with the relevant organisers to ensure peaceful and lawful operations wherever possible, to reduce the risk of offences being committed and a respectful and proportionate police presence across Dorset as a whole.”

My reflections on the incident are mixed. On the one hand, I think that the “Palestine Solidarity” viewpoint has had enormous publicity since 7th October 2023 when Hamas carried out its attacks in Israel. I have corresponded with humanist and Buddhist/Quaker friends, many of whom seemed to have internalised a particular narrative about Israel which I believe to be historically false. It was this narrative I planned to challenge in my talk. It was not going to be a commentary on the current conflict, although the fact that Israel-Gaza is in the news is what prompted the timing of the talk. If the whole world is talking about the Israel-Palestine conflict, I believe that humanists should be talking about it too. On the other hand, with the benefit of hindsight, I can see that it might have been wise to arrange a dialogue or debate with opposing sides equally represented, or to have described the event in advance in more neutral terms as an historical exploration.

The talk was open to the public and I know that some of the protesters were planning to attend. I hope that they would have listened to my talk and engaged in Q&A in the normal civilised way in which we conduct our humanist events. But they succeeded in getting the event cancelled. I think this is an impairment of civil liberties. The idea that I am “far right” is demonstrably false. But such slurs are used when activists want to get events cancelled. Proper debate in the House of Commons is also being subverted by the threatening atmosphere around MPs and their families.

At what point does legitimate protest turn into rule by the mob? Please let us have your comments below.

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