Explained: Why did Durham University postpone the Union’s debate on ‘Palestinian leadership’?

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On 7th June, Durham University “regretfully” postponed a Durham Union Society event following advice from the police that it was a “risk to public safety”.

The motion, ‘This House Believes Palestinian Leadership is the Biggest Barrier to Peace’, was set to be debated in the Union’s debating chamber in the Pemberton buildings.

The debating chamber sits directly opposite the pro-Palestinian encampment, which was established on 10th May almost a month ago on Palace Green. Some of the protestors were connected to the encampment, and they were also joined by protestors from Newcastle.

Palatinate previously reported that protestors moved to block the front and back entrances of the Pemberton buildings at 7:15pm. The debate, which was supposed to start at 8:30pm, was postponed at 8:45pm by the University.

Palatinate understands from those who were inside the Pemberton buildings that the University planned for six members of security to be present in the area, with two stationed inside the building prior to the start of the protests. Police officers were present throughout the evening, with two Police Liaison Team Officers there from the start of the protest, and two police vans arriving later in the evening.

“Whilst we wished to press on, the University has decided on the advice of the police that it’s not safe for our members to continue,” the Durham Union said, “This is a very dark day for democracy and free speech at Durham University.”

Durham University explained that it is “committed to upholding freedom of speech and the right to lawful demonstration,” but that “of paramount concern is the safety of our University community.”

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Durham Students for Palestine, who organised the protest, held signs with slogans such as “Genocide is not up 4 debate” and chanted non-stop throughout the evening.

They criticised the Durham Union’s plans to host the debate, saying “freedom of speech is not an excuse to legitimise bigotry under the guise of public discourse.” Ahead of the event, Durham Students for Palestine criticised the Union for not including Palestinian voices in the debate.

On the proposition were Natasha Hausdorff, a barrister and Director of UK Lawyers for Israel, David Collier, a researcher on antisemitism within anti-Zionist activity, and Lance Forman, a former Brexit Party Member of the European Parliament.

All three have posted their reaction to the curtaliment of the debate: Mr Collier, on X, formerly Twitter, called the protestors “anti-Israel totalitarian thugs”, whilst Mr Forman said they were a “fascist mob”. At the protest, there were only a few minor verbal altercations between the pro-Palestinian protestors and Durham Union members.

In response to these claims, Durham Students for Palestine said “we stress again that our protests are peaceful”.

On X, Mr Collier criticised Durham University’s response. “Durham University should hang its head in shame,” he said. Similarly, UK Lawyers for Israel, whom Ms Hausdorff works with, said on X that “Durham University shut down free speech today.”

Durham University have said that it will “liaise” with the Durham Union to reschedule the event “at the earliest possible opportunity” and provide a “secure venue.” According to the Durham Union, when protestors blocked the doors, there was not enough time to rethink security plans to relocate the debate to a more secure location. The event was eventually postponed as a result of “advice from the police about a risk to public safety.”

Durham Constabulary confirmed this, telling Palatinate, “as with any event, the police offer guidance and advice to organisers with regard to public safety. Following these discussions, a decision was made by the University to postpone the debate.”

Opposing the debate were Chris Doyle, the Director of the Council for Arab-British Understanding, Dr Peter Shambrook, a Middle Eastern historian and consultant to the Balfour Project, and Mohab Ramadan, a Durham University student and co-founder of the Israeli-Palestinian Resolution Society.

Mr Ramadan, who had previously shown support for Durham Students for Palestine, told Palatinate that the events on 7th June changed his relationship with the encampment. He said, “Yesterday was entirely different – before it was genuinely peaceful, yesterday it was threatening.”

One protestor shouted “for Mohab, for Mohab the Egyptian guy, shame on you for normalising Israel, shame on you for giving a platform to Zionists” through the main door of the Pemberton buildings. This was followed by chants of “shame”.

Durham Students for Palestine argue that, “we did not chant ‘shame’ specifically against Mr Ramadan for speaking; this chant was directed at all those participating in the debate.”

Mr Ramadan told Palatinate that he sympathises with any protestors who have a personal connection to the Israel-Gaza war. However, he believed that, “I don’t think that justifies saying such messages […] if you call an Arab a Zionist, this has a lot more bearing.”

In a statement on Durham Union’s social media, Mr Ramadan said, “granting yourself what you’re denying to others is shameful. To deny others the freedom to speak and debate when you yourself have encamped on Palace Green and been tolerated, allowed to speak, and be heard by the entire University is unforgivable.”

Whilst not all the protestors on 7th June were from the Palace Green encampment, Durham Students for Palestine, the group that run the encampment, led the protest.

Talking to Palatinate, Durham Students for Palestine criticised Mr Ramadan’s involvement in the debate. They believe that participating in “normalising spaces” can “enable the genocide and occupation of the Palestinian people.”

“We do not want his support,” Durham Students for Palestine told Palatinate, “true solidarity is determined by those who are oppressed.”

In response to this, Mr Ramadan explained that he wanted to use the debate as an opportunity to “inform the student body”. He said, “if I’m there to inform people, then that goes towards the goal.”

Ten Union members, who arrived early to prepare for the event, were gradually escorted out of the building by security – the last members left two hours after the doors were blocked

The speakers set to debate did not enter Pemberton buildings — they were still at Hotel Indigo at dinner with some Union members when the debate was postponed. They were told by police that it was unsafe for the speakers to go to the chamber.

There were ten Union members, who had arrived early to prepare for the event, and some security in the Pemberton buildings when the protestors blocked the entrances. They remained in the building for several hours and were periodically escorted out of an unblocked entrance to the side by security. The last members were escorted out at 9:17pm, two hours after the doors were blocked.

Footage shared from inside the building indicates that protestors banged on the door and shouted profanities inside the building, the Union said in response that “our members do not deserve to suffer the emotional and reputational damage, be wrongfully shamed and accused of any such serious and violent acts.”

Durham University said in their statement that “we made appropriate security arrangements”, as they were made aware of the protest in advance. However, the Durham Union did not expect protestors to be at the back door, where they had planned for the speakers to enter through.

“University Security worked closely with Police to manage the safe dispersal of people from the Palace Green area,” the University said, “all attendees safely left the building within a short time.”

Protestors told Palatinate that they were “not made aware by the police or university security of any students inside the Pemberton building.” They claimed that they did not “knowingly obstruct students’ attempts to leave,” and that they would have “immediately facilitated their exit.” However, members of the Durham Union could be seen looking out of the window in a post on Durham Students for Palestine’s Instagram.

Images (left to right): Elliot Burrin, Durham Students for Palestine’s social media,

In response to this, the protestors clarified that “we were not aware prior to blocking the door”. They argue that “students were always free to leave if they wanted to” and that “the fact that students were able to leave clearly shows they were not trapped.” The last students in the building were escorted out by security after two hours.

“Our protest is a vigorous exercise of this freedom, manifesting our democratic right to challenge and resist, ensuring that voices of intolerance find no refuge in unchallenged expression,” Durham Students for Palestine told Palatinate.

Durham University had given their “full support” ahead of the debate. As the Durham Union’s debating chamber is on Durham University property, it must follow the University’s code of practice of Freedom of Expression. This included “assessing risk and taking advice as appropriate from the police.”

The University’s code of practice of Freedom of Expression says that the University should consider whether the invitation of speakers to an activity could “constitute a threat to public order or to the health and safety of individuals”, among other reasons, including whether the event could violate the Equality Act 2010. The University may also set “special conditions […] necessary for the holding of the activity.”

On its website, Durham University says: “To our knowledge, in recent years, we are not aware of a single occasion where a speaker has not been invited to speak at the University due to controversial views.”

“The right to lawful protest must be balanced between the rights of protesters to assert their views, and the rights of others to go about their business safely, unimpeded and free from intimidation, duress and harassment”

Durham University

Durham Students for Palestine also accused Durham Union of being a “Zionist mouthpiece” due to its associations with the Pinsker Centre, a pro-Israeli think tank that provides speakers for university campuses on foreign policy and geopolitical issues. The encampment raised The Union last arranged for a speaker with the Pinsker Centre in January this year.

“The Pinsker Centre has been able to exert huge influence as to the topics discussed at the Union,” Durham Students for Palestine claim. Whilst previous talks at the Union have been held in collaboration with the Pinsker Centre, this debate was not.

A spokesperson for the Pinsker Centre told Palatinate: “For nearly a decade, our organisation has worked with student groups across the country to facilitate open discussions on a range of topics. We have never influenced any society’s term card, nor would we want to – we only provide support to students who wish to host fair and open discussions on difficult topics. All our speakers speak with their own minds and welcome challenging questions in the spirit of free discussion.”

In a statement, the Union said that they retained “total control” over events arranged with the Pinsker Centre, and have never received any “financial remuneration” for these events. Palatinate understands that four talks have been in collaboration with the Pinsker Centre since December 2022. The Union said that during these events, attendees were “free to challenge the speakers and ask any questions they liked.”

Durham University maintains that “the right to lawful protest must be balanced between the rights of protesters to assert their views, and the rights of others to go about their business safely, unimpeded and free from intimidation, duress and harassment.”

“While individuals and groups within the University community may express lawful views on any issue, we insist that this is done in a safe and respectful way.

“Where there is evidence of behaviour which is intimidatory towards our students, staff, and wider community, we will take appropriate action through our established disciplinary procedures.”

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