UK university probes speaker who compared Israel to Nazis

Mike Prysner spoke on the day of a Holocaust Memorial Day event at University of Birmingham, comparing Gaza to concentration camp.

By JONNY PAUL
February 10, 2011 05:50
University of Birmingham

Birmingham 311. (photo credit: Courtesy)

LONDON – A British university is investigating the actions of a student society after it hosted an anti-Israel activist who compared Gaza to a concentration camp and Israel’s actions to Nazism at an International Holocaust Memorial Day event.

American anti-war activist and Iraq war veteran Mike Prysner spoke to the Friends of Palestine Society at the University of Birmingham on January 26, the day it marked Holocaust Memorial Day, which is January 27, the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz.

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In his talk, Prysner compared Gaza to a “concentration camp” and Israel’s actions during Operation Cast Lead to Nazism.

“I think history will not just remember these people [Israelis] as fools but really in context of other atrocities we’ve seen, in particularly that the Nazis waged during the Holocaust,” Prysner said. “I think you really can draw an equals-sign between what was done in Germany and what is done to the Gazan people because Gaza literally is one massive concentration camp where people are kept just hanging on by a thread.”

He later said: “Since then, Palestinians are denied rights in Israel like Jews were denied rights in Germany. They’re killed with impunity, they’re massacred with impunity.

You can very much draw an equal-sign between what the Nazis did to the Jews and what is done to the people of Palestine.”

Prysner also paid tribute to Palestinian “resistance.”

“Whatever resistance comes from the people of Palestine is justified resistance because if they weren’t resisting... if the Palestinian people did not resist, they would not exist anymore. It’s only because of the steadfast resistance of the Palestinians that they have not been completely exterminated,” Prysner stated.

Following the event, the university’s Guild of Students received a number of complaints.

The student body is now investigating, which could lead to the Friends of Palestine Society being derecognized or suspended for a period of time.

“The University of Birmingham’s Guild of Students is currently investigating an event held by the university’s Friends of Palestine Society on 26 January, at which US army veteran Mike Prysner was the guest speaker,” Dora Meredith, president of Birmingham’s Guild of Students told The Jerusalem Post on Tuesday.

“The investigation follows a number of student complaints received by the guild, and as this investigation is still on-going, it would be inappropriate to comment further.”

In response, Faris Karouni, president of the Friends of Palestine Society, said that they were unaware it was Holocaust Memorial Day when organizing the event.

“We were unaware of the Holocaust commemoration taking place on the same day, not least because both events occurred on the day before HMD,” he said.

Karouni said when they became aware of the commemoration they brought back the Prysner event by two hours to allow people to attend both events “if they chose.”

“We hope that people will understand the constraints of hosting an international speaker on a tight schedule and only in the area for a short period of time. We would also like to stress that this was in no way intended to minimize or draw attention away from commemorating the Holocaust,” he said.

In response to the speaker’s use of Nazi analogies, Karouni said the society does not vet its speaker talks in advance and cannot “always take responsibility for all of the content” within them.

“We believe that associating the actions of the Israeli state with Nazi Germany, or its iconography, is neither useful nor respectful to the sensitivities of sections of the student body and are happy to dissociate ourselves from any such comparison,” he said.

“We regret, deeply, that some students have been upset by aspects of the talk and would like to reaffirm our desire as a society, to pursue our activities in the spirit of mutual understanding and solidarity with all victims of oppression or injustice, wherever or whenever it has taken place,” he added.

Joseph Moses, a Jewish student who was at the event and is also the Guild of Student’s anti-racism officer, dismissed Karouni’s words.

“The comparison between Israeli policy and that of the Nazis is not only ludicrous, it is also deeply offensive for Jewish students,” he said. “Making such a comparison evokes the most painful memories of the Jewish people and clearly violates the Guild of Students anti-Semitism policy.”

Moses also said that students who challenged Prysner’s remarks at the event were heckled.

“The atmosphere of the event was hostile, and all attempts made to challenge the speaker were met with heckling and abuse from parts of the audience and the Friends of Palestine Society.

“Immediately after the event the Friends of Palestine lauded Prysner as moving and inspirational, and therefore I am inclined to not take their makeshift apology, made 10 days later, that seriously,” Moses said.

Moses also highlighted Karouni’s entry on the Society’s Facebook page: “Thanks to everyone who came to the Mike Prysner event, it was truly one of the most inspiration and engaging event we’ve ever had. In his words ‘Palestine will be free,’ the people of Gaza have not given up hope despite Israeli brutality and the Zionist agenda of apartheid will be defeated by a worldwide effort to hold Israel to account for its crimes.”

He also pointed out that in his blog, Karouni said that Prysner had “made an important and compelling contribution to understanding the Middle East and many attendees found it a challenging and valuable experience.”

In a statement, the university’s Jewish Society said it was deeply upset.

“A great number of Jewish students have been offended and deeply upset by the comments made and subsequent endorsement by the Friends of Palestine Society,” the Jewish Society’s Eytan Halon said.

“The Jewish Society has always looked to play a positive role in regards to the Middle East, for example hosting the Parents Circle and the current Save A Child’s Heart campaign.

We always encourage debate and are always keen to engage in debate on all issues but it is simply unacceptable for anti-Semitism to be endorsed and unchallenged.

“In addition to this, the insensitivity of the talk was greatly increased as it was given only two hours before the university commemorated Holocaust Memorial Day.”

Halon also accused the Guild of Students of repeatedly delaying the investigation.

“The Guild have repeatedly postponed and delayed the making of the decision with no explanation as to the reason for this. This is also greatly surprising as Prysner’s comments were without doubt anti-Semitic, in line with the Guild of Students-adopted definition of anti-Semitism,” he said.

Meanwhile a petition has been set up calling the investigation an attack on the freedom of speech.

“It is unacceptable for his right to speak at Birmingham University to be called into question. This is a clear attack on freedom of speech,” the text of the petition states.

At the time of press, 293 people had signed the online petition, which any person can sign, any number of times.

Prysner spoke at Edinburgh University last week, on the same day that anti-Israel activists managed to shut down a talk by an Arab-Israeli diplomat at the university.

Ishmael Khaldi was scheduled to address students but activists mobbed the senior diplomat, hurling abuse at him. Security officers had to be brought in to contain the situation and the event was eventually canceled.


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