Protesters break into Oxford debate

University society's invitation to Holocaust denier David Irving sparks sweeping condemnation.

irving 248 88 (photo credit: )
irving 248 88
(photo credit: )
Demonstrators broke into Oxford's venerable debating society Monday night, sitting on the debating table of the Oxford Union to protest the appearance of infamous Holocaust denier David Irving and far-right British National Party leader Nick Griffin. At least 200 protesters chanted anti-fascist slogans and waved placards decrying the appearance of the two. Irving and Griffin were bundled into the hall hours before the forum was to take place as protesters yelled "Keep Oxford fascist-free; We will defend democracy." Just minutes before the debate was due to take place, a group of protesters broke through the security cordon around the Union and staged a sit-down protest in the hall. Several students groups, including the Oxford Student Union and the university's Jewish and Muslim societies, have teamed up with activist group Unite Against Fascism to organize the protest. The Union of Jewish Students (UJS) organized buses of Jewish students from Birmingham, Bristol, Cambridge and many London campuses to join representatives from Jewish Council for Racial Equality, the National Union of Students and Unite Against Fascism. Yair Zivan, UJS campaigns organizer, said he was "appalled" by the invitation. "We are desperately disappointed that the president of the union has chosen to allow this debate to go ahead," Zivan said. "The [union] president seems completely unconcerned by the offense this debate has caused to Jewish students." The Union, while independent of Oxford University, is composed mainly of university students. Union members voted Friday to allow the men to speak, despite calls to have the invitations revoked. The union's president, Luke Tryl, has said he invited the men to talk about the limits of free speech, not to expound on their views. "The reason the Oxford Union was founded 184 years ago was to promote and defend freedom of speech. This is what this debate is about," he told Sky News on Sunday. "It is about an opportunity to challenge David Irving and Nick Griffin." "Democracy does include the right to free speech - so long as that doesn't incite hatred against others - but it also includes the right to tell extremists that they're not welcome and the responsibility to protect minorities," Zivan said. "By allowing this event to go ahead, the president has put the welfare of Jewish students on campus secondary to his own publicity seeking and we believe that this will send out entirely the wrong message," he added. Irving was arrested in November 2005 in Austria on charges stemming from two speeches he gave in 1989 in which he was accused of denying that the Nazis exterminated 6 million Jews. Denying the Holocaust is a crime in Austria, which was occupied by the Nazis. Irving was convicted in February 2006 and sentenced to three years in prison. He served 13 months and was released on probation. He arrived for Monday's forum carrying a ball and chain. Irving has refused to use the term Holocaust, calling it a concept that "became cleverly marketed." "The Holocaust was one of the greatest crimes of the 20th century and its apologists are today resurfacing in academic spheres," said Dr. Edie Friedman, director of the Jewish Council for Racial Equality. "When the Nazis were defeated, the world said 'Never Again.' That means never again would we, who truly value democracy, allow it to be used to promote fascism. If we truly value democracy we must not give platforms to those who seek to destroy it." The Board of Deputies of British Jews, the representative body of Anglo Jewry, issued a statement on Monday condemning the event as an "immature student stunt." "Generations of students have sought to push at boundaries, often doing so with a mixture of idealism and naivety," Jon Benjamin, chief executive of the Board of Deputies said. "Those who issued these invitations doubtless think that they too are testing the limits of free speech, but rather than being daring and original, they are just being dupes. Most of the rest of us see this as a rather immature student stunt which in this case has wider ramifications because of the credibility Irving and Griffin will seek to claim from their involvement." Griffin runs a party that campaigns on a fiercely anti-immigration and anti-Muslim platform. A Unite Against Fascism spokesman said: "The Oxford Union should not be providing a platform for fascist British National Party leader Nick Griffin and Holocaust denier David Irving in the Free Speech Forum. There is a world of difference between defending free speech and choosing to provide a platform for fascists. "Far from being the champions of free speech, history shows that when fascists rise to power they destroy freedom of speech, democracy, human rights and they have murdered millions of people and attempted to annihilate entire communities. Wherever fascists have a presence, violence and intimidation increases. The Oxford University Student Union and the National Union of Students also protested the event. "First and foremost, Oxford University Students Union has been concerned about the safety of students and local residents of Oxford," Martin McCluskey, Oxford University Students Union president said. "From the outset, we have made it clear we support freedom of speech and any genuine debate on it. Where the BNP and Holocaust deniers go, violence follows." "The Holocaust denier, David Irving and leader of the fascist BNP, Nick Griffin have no place in our multicultural society let alone on our diverse university campuses," National Union of Students president Gemma Tumelty said. "NUS utterly opposes racism and fascism wherever it arises and will certainly oppose any attempt by Oxford University's Debating Society to invite Irving and Griffin to speak." Tumelty continued: "The pair's racist, anti-Semitic, homophobic and Islamophobic views threaten the safety of our diverse university communities. Wherever the BNP is active, racist attacks and other hate crimes increase. "With freedom of speech comes the responsibility not to abuse it. All students have a right to learn in an environment free from discrimination or harassment. It is unacceptable to expose students and staff at any university to the possibility of attacks and to give a platform of academic respectability to Griffin and Irving." The Associated Press contributed to this report.