On 9 November, the LSE campus hosted a protest against Tzipi Hotovely, the Israeli Ambassador to the UK. Allegations of antisemitism and intimidation ran abound the next day on national media. The claims thrown around have left people asking: what actually happened that night? The Beaver was there to find out.
In the 48 hours before the protest, strong reactions from various student groups set the stage. A statement released by the LSESU Palestine Society called Hotovely “an avowed anti-Palestinian racist, islamophobe, and self-proclaimed ‘religious right-winger’”. The message was echoed by many, including the Middle East and North Africa Society, the Grimshaw Club, and even the Food and Cooking Society. They criticised the Debating Society, as well as LSE and the SU, for allowing Hotovely to speak on campus, which they claimed was against LSE’s External Speakers Policy and the recently passed SU motion against apartheid. This was reflected in the protest, with students shouting “shame on you, LSE!” and “shame on you, LSESU!”.
Initially, the protest was concentrated around the Centre Building. However, once the location of the event, closely guarded until less than an hour before, was revealed, the protesters rushed to 32 Lincoln’s Inn Fields to disrupt it. In the end, Hotovely spoke for 90 minutes even with the protest of around 100 people outside.
The protesters’ outrage was centred around giving Hotovely a platform. One student told The Beaver, “[Why are] politicians who have a record of passing policy that is 100% genocidal… given a platform to speak and spread that rhetoric among students?” “We believe these people don’t deserve a platform,” said another student. De-platforming was justifiable for one protester because “the Zionist side has a history of using academic platforms… to normalise the idea… that they have a right to ethnically cleanse Palestinians”.
However, the protesters’ anger extended beyond the invitation of Hotovely to LSE. “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free,” the protesters chanted, with placards reading “End Apartheid Israel” and “Stop Israeli War Crimes” displayed above their heads. Their discontent towards Israel’s human rights abuses against Palestinians and the legitimacy of the State of Israel were evident.
Groups represented in the protest were diverse and, at times, controversial. Students from universities across London such as UCL, King’s, and SOAS were at the protest, with many saying that they were notified by their university’s Palestine society. LSE Class War stirred the most controversy, posting on Instagram: “Whoever smashes the Ambassador[‘s] car window… gets pints. Let’s fuckin frighten her.” The threat was not followed through. It remains unclear whether they are a genuine student group or a fake account. The account was later banned from Instagram.
Non-student groups were also an important presence. Neturei Karta, a group of ultra-orthodox Haredi Jews who oppose Zionism, was one of them. “State of ‘Israel’ does not represent authentic Jewry,” said one of their placards in bolded, black text. One of their members, when interviewed, told us that “in the Jewish belief we are in exile by divine decree – going out of exile is rebellion against the Almighty”, reflecting the religious undertone underpinning their opposition to Zionism.
Many protesters, including one who made her views known to The Beaver, were less than enthusiastic about their presence, however, characterising them as a “fringe” group supporting the Palestinian cause on purely religious reasons rather than humanitarian ones. Throughout the night, the chants coming from Neturei Karta were overwhelmed by the louder chants of the student organisers.
As 7pm rolled around and the event was expected to end, the protest went into its third hour. It was then when the protesters, who had so far gathered in front of the main entrance to the building, split into two groups. One group circled the back exit in anticipation of Hotovely’s departure. They were trailed by several police officers, who evidently seemed alarmed that the protesters blocked Hotovely’s likely exit. From inside the building, men in suits who appeared to be Israeli security guards took pictures of protesters, who promptly and uniformly responded with the middle finger.
At 7.30pm, the wait was over – Hotovely exited the building through the disused back door. In the span of seconds, the police had formed a line between the protesters around the back exit and Hotovely’s exit. Boos and screams of “shame!” were heard from the protesters, as Hotovely, carrying flowers, was rushed into a car by her security guards and driven off, followed by a running security guard. LSE for Palestine claimed police “physically assaulted” them at this stage.
That night, a video showing Hotovely’s exit went viral on social media. The reaction from the Government was as expected; cabinet ministers, including Priti Patel and Liz Truss, called it “appalling” and “unacceptable”. The former said that the police have her full support in investigating this “incident”. However, even figures from Labour, such as Lisa Nandy, condemned the protests, saying “freedom of speech is a fundamental right and any attempt to silence or intimidate those we disagree with should never be tolerated”. A few showings of support were seen, however, namely from left-wing figures such as Owen Jones.
Right-wing media had a field day with the news. Within 12 hours, MailOnline claimed that the “hard-left crowd” was trying to intimidate the ambassador, characterising protesters as a “mob” and “thugs”. The Jerusalem Post said the ambassador was “almost attacked”. Writing for The Spectator, Jake Wallis Simons said that there were flags of Kata’ib Hezbollah, an Iraqi paramilitary group supported by Iran, a claim The Beaver can verify. While the group is not a proscribed terrorist organisation in the UK, Hezbollah, the Lebanese ally of the group, is. Simons concluded, “Students, convinced in the righteousness of their cause, are being utilised by more sinister forces to further the agenda of Iran and its sympathisers.”
It is true that Iran-affiliated groups were present at the protest. Press TV, an Iranian state-owned network, was the only broadcaster reporting from the ground. Placards by Innovative Minds, a self-described “Islamic group campaigning for justice around the world through grassroots direct action” with close ties to Iran, were widely seen at the protest. Members of the Islamic Human Rights Commission (IHRC), including its leader Massoud Shadjareh, were there as both supporters and legal observers. Shadjareh has in the past made statements such as “we are all Hezbollah” and called Ayatollah Khomeini “a torch of light for the whole of mankind”.
However, at the same time, there is no evidence the person carrying the flag of Kata’ib Hezbollah, which is undeniably radical, or the presence of Iran-affiliated groups was representative of the wider opinion of student protesters. In fact, the protest guidelines from LSE for Palestine stated that they “will not tolerate any form of… anti-semitism” and there is no evidence the student organisers condoned the views of these groups. After the protest, LSE for Palestine tweeted that they “do not approve of any flags at the protest that were not Palestine flags”.
The media frenzy around the protest represents the most intense scrutinisation of the LSE student body in years, with accusations of physical aggression towards the ambassador and anti-Israel sentiment pouring in. Given the protest was completely peaceful and clearly targeted towards Israeli’s policies and Hotovely’s views, however, it raises questions over whether the media is exaggerating the matter and looking for an anti-Israel narrative to fan public controversy. There may have been groups holding questionable views in the protest, but they came of their own accord. Students should not be blamed for peacefully exercising their right to free speech on their university campus.