(Featured image via the Friends of Palestine Society, used with permission.)

As news reaches Spineless that the LUSU Executive Committee is set to decide later today on approving a controversial new Friends of Israel Society, we have decided to publish information obtained from the University under freedom of information law. The information exposes the lengths to which the University and LUSU went to facilitate a visit to campus by the Israeli Ambassador in 2019.

Last November, Lancaster University campus was awash with rumours as the Politics Society refused to reveal the identity of the ‘High Profile Middle Eastern Speaker’ they were hosting on campus. Onerous restrictions were to be placed on those wishing to attend, with coats, phones, and laptops, banned from being brought into the event, and attendees warned to expect random searches from private security. Then, less than a fortnight before the event was due to take place, and with no explanation or warning, the event was cancelled.

Spineless can now confirm what many had long suspected, that the mystery speaker was the Israeli Ambassador to the UK, Mark Regev. We can now exclusively reveal the inside story of the months of negotiations and preparations which lay behind this mysterious series of events – from secretive discussions between the University and LUSU, to a complaint to the vice-chancellor from the Union of Jewish Students.

Links between UK universities and Israel have often proved a topic of controversy, especially with the International Criminal Court recently opening an investigation into alleged Israeli and Palestinian war crimes relating to the ongoing occupation of Palestine by Israel. The last time it was such a prominent issue in Lancaster student politics was in 2015, when students voted to ‘abstain’ in a controversial referendum which would have committed LUSU to support the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israel.

Organising the first attempt

The Politics Society (aka PolSoc) first informed Lancaster University of its plans to host Mark Regev in December 2018. According to an email sent by the University’s Director of Strategic Planning and Governance, Simon Jennings, to then-vice chancellor Mark E. Smith, this was instigated by ‘an approach made by the ambassador rather than an invitation issued by the students.’ Spineless is not aware what prompted Regev to approach PolSoc at the end of 2018 to ask to speak at the University.

Potentially connected is the fact that the University’s Pro-Vice Chancellor for Engagement, Professor Dame Sue Black, had just returned from Israel, where she had formed part of an academic delegation led by an Israeli diplomat. The five-day visit to Israel at the end of November 2018 was organised and funded by the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and brought together senior officials from several UK universities, in order to promote increased collaboration between British and Israeli higher education institutions.

In her report back to the University following the trip, Black wrote that she was ‘subject to an obvious charm offensive’ whilst in Israel. She noted that 'at least one UK University declined involvement’, and ‘it was openly acknowledged that some international universities might find it challenging to be associated politically and morally with Israel.’ Obviously Lancaster University does not consider itself among them.

PolSoc had originally hoped for the event to take place in January 2019, but this was considered ‘too short notice for us to undertake our due diligence’, according to Jennings, and the University’s preference was for the event to take place in March at the earliest. Jennings met with PolSoc in the LUSU offices on 15 January. The next day, a LUSU staff member wrote to Jennings, to formally request the University’s permission for PolSoc to host Regev at 5pm on 27 March in George Fox Lecture Theatre 1. As well as the public event, the Jewish Society would have a private meeting with Regev during his visit.

Security advice from the Metropolitan Police and Lancashire Police had been sought, and accordingly, the entirety of the George Fox Building’s ground floor had been booked out from 1pm to midnight. The building was to be sealed off with barriers, and private security drafted in to secure the building throughout.

LUSU policies under strain

The LUSU Policy on External Speakers includes a set of potential ‘regulatory steps designed to reduce risk’ such as a requirement that the event is filmed, and that ‘an event promoting a particular view includes an opportunity to debate or challenge that view.’ Despite this, had the event gone ahead, attendees would have been banned from recording anything Regev said, and no other speakers would have had the opportunity to make a speech, although a ‘Q&A’ was advertised as part of the event.

An email sent from a LUSU staff member to PolSoc earlier in January had included reference to inviting a speaker from the Palestinian Mission in London. It is unclear if a Palestinian representative would have been invited to contribute to the same event as Regev, or in a separate event. It is also unclear if a Palestinian representative was ever actually invited by PolSoc. In any case, after January there was no further mention of hosting a Palestinian speaker in any communications with the University.

Mark Regev at a Foreign Office event in 2017. Via the FCO, licenced CC BY 2.0.

The Policy on External Speakers also requires that ‘the sense of oppression felt by the imposition of security on the door’ must be taken into account. After Regev spoke at an event hosted by the University of Leicester Jewish Society in early March 2019, Middle East Monitor reported how one student protester claimed he was 'racially profiled' by Regev's personal security, and ‘pressured to comply’ by university security. He said he was left feeling ‘intimidated and anxious’ following his interactions with private security and the police for trying to stage a peaceful protest.

Despite the several ways in which the event would have broken LUSU policy, by February, the Societies Committee had secretly allocated about £400 to subsidise the security costs for Regev’s 27 March visit. LUSU describes the Committee as ‘an initiative’ of the Activities sabbatical officer, who also acts as its chair. The Committee makes the final decision on all societies’ funding applications, as well as assessing any new student society applications. The societies approval process came under fire in 2018 after LUSU approved a fascist society, a decision that was quickly overturned. The secretive Committee is not governed by any LUSU bye-law, nor are the identities of its four appointed student members publicly available. There is no public record or minutes of any of its meetings or decisions.

Prohibitive costs?

It is normal for universities to also subsidise and facilitate the special security measures for such events. In 2018, lobbyist group UK Lawyers for Israel ‘demanded damages’ from City, University of London after their failure to make special security arrangements for a planned visit by Regev led to its cancellation.

Jennings wrote that Lancaster University would cover ‘an element of the cost rather than passing the whole cost onto PolSoc’, and that the society had indicated ‘that funding for the full costs had been found’. PolSoc planned to fund their share of the costs with the secretly allocated funds from LUSU, and the attendees of the event itself via ticket sales. There is also an indication that the group may have received funding from the Israeli Embassy itself.

Just a fortnight before Regev was due to visit in March, the Union of Jewish Students (UJS) wrote to the vice-chancellor to complain that PolSoc ‘has been subject to prohibitive additional security costs’, which they claimed ‘were in the region of £1850.’ The UJS argued that the precedent of passing on security costs to student societies hosting Israeli speakers ‘could lead to limits on free speech.’ Mark E. Smith replied, disputing the claim that the costs were ‘prohibitive’, as ‘my colleagues were privy to information indicating the Society was in a position to meet its share of the costs in full.’

The UJS suggested that the costs be shared between PolSoc and any groups organising a counter-protest to Regev's visit. The vice-chancellor's reply indicated that the University would consider this approach ‘were we to receive advance notice of a protest.’

Tensions rise

In the week following Mark E. Smith's email exchange with the UJS, the Regev visit was postponed until November. That same week saw an especially active period for the Friends of Palestine Society as part of Israeli Apartheid Week. Posters highlighting Israeli human rights abuses appeared along the Spine, soon to be replaced later in the week by rival posters objecting to the categorisation of Israel as an ‘apartheid state.’ At the end of the week, a University employee wrote that ‘tensions are still heightened.’

The weekend before Regev had been due to arrive, a University employee wrote that they had been made aware of a ‘threat of protest on campus on Wednesday from the Lancaster trade union council linked to the Israeli Ambassador event (which is not happening).’

As subtext reported at the time, the protest on 27 March was peaceful, and provoked interest right across campus:

Various people walked around campus peering into lecture theatres to try and discern evidence of a gathering, but there was no sign of any heightened security. The sight of a large black luxury car provoked a brief frenzy of interest… until the person behind the wheel turned out to be a Lancaster student.

Following the protest, pro-Palestinian activists assumed that their job was done, and their presence had effectively deterred Regev from showing up, and for several months there was no more mention of diplomatic visits to the University.

One of the posters put up around campus by PolSoc in November 2019.

Round two

Then, out of the blue, on 6 November, PolSoc announced their ‘In Conversation with: A High Profile Middle Eastern Speaker’ event on Facebook. Apart from the date of 27 November, no further information was provided, and they refused to reveal the speaker’s identity. Shortly after it was announced, the student press noticed the similarity in marketing with other events attended by Regev on university campuses across the UK, and reached out to the Israeli Embassy for a comment. No reply was forthcoming, but the Embassy wrote to the University to cancel the visit on 11 November.

On 15 November, PolSoc made a Facebook post entitled ‘!!! IMPORTANT STATEMENT !!!’, which announced that the still-anonymous speaker event ‘has had to be cancelled due to unforeseen but unavoidable circumstances’ and that ticket-payers will be refunded in full. According to the statement, PolSoc was ‘in the process of planning a similar event for those interested in Middle Eastern affairs and details will be announced shortly’. Two months on, details of any such event have yet to be announced.

The two FOI requests that this article was based on can be scrutinised here and here.