Armed police flanked the Bodleian on Tuesday night as Shimon Peres arrived in Oxford to present a lecture to staff and students at the Sheldonian.
But the heavy security could do little to prevent a verbal assault on Peres as students interrupted his speech with a series of attacks on Israel’s policy on Palestine.
Throughout the course of the talk, entitled ‘the globalisation of peace’, a string of eight students stood up and shouted over the president in what they described as a gesture on behalf of the Palestinian people.
Najla Dowson-Zeidan, a fourth-year from Wadham, shouted, “I represent the thousands of farmers who’ve had their land stolen illegally to build Israeli settlements.”
Abdel Razzaq Takriti, a History graduate student from Wadham, began walking towards Peres and calling him “a war criminal” before being escorted out of the building by security guards.
After the event Takriti said, “By saying ‘I represent…’ we were bringing the absent voices of the Palestinian people oppressed by Peres’ government to the lecture. Instead of honouring the occupiers and rewarding them for their human rights infringements, we urgently need to listen to those who are forcefully occupied.”
The 85 year-old president was noticeably unsettled by the students, who interrupted him roughly every five minutes throughout his lecture. While he chose to ignore some of the interventions, to Dowson-Zeidan he responded, “It’s not too bad to open the ears and the eyes but keep the mouths for a later occasion.”
Around 40 students also gathered in front of the Sheldonian to protest at Peres’ visit and carried placards bearing the slogan ‘Balliol honours Peres while Gaza burns.’ At one point their chants of ‘Free Palestine’ threatened to drown out the lecture entirely, with students at the back of the theatre struggling to hear.
The response of other students to the protests was mixed, with some booing and some clapping in response to those who interrupted.
One third year Brasenose student, who asked to remain anonymous, said, “I have every sympathy with the complaints of the protestors and their right to protest, but given that it was announced that there was to be a question and answer session at the end the interruptions were misguided and severed only to frustrate and irritate the vast majority of the audience.
“Free speech means giving those who disagree with you a chance.”
In response, Omar Shweiki, one of the hecklers, said, “When such a grand event takes place, with all the prominence granted a head of state, there is no room afforded for alternative voices but I am proud to say through collective effort we made it clear that many in the University refused to be complicit in legitimising an apartheid regime, one that only days before the lecture was bombing a besieged and defenceless people in Gaza.”
At the end of the talk, some students chose to remain seated while those around them got to their feet to enthusiastically applaud
Peres, who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1994, was in Oxford as part of a three day visit to Britain, where he met with Gordon Brown and was awarded an honorary doctorate at King’s College, London. He invited to Oxford by Andrew Graham, Master of Balliol College, in order to inaugurate the first of a series of five lectures on the subject of world peace.
The visit to the UK was bound to be difficult for the Israeli president. In 2007, members of Britain’s University and College Union voted to boycott Israeli universities, despite worldwide condemnation of the move. Mr Graham said that he was “well aware of the opposition that has been expressed about this invitation,” but that “the fundamental purpose of a University which is to hear and discuss and examine all points of view.”
Peres’ sets out world view
Shimon Peres came to Oxford this week at the invitation of the Master of Balliol to inaugurate a series of five peace lectures. He used his speech to praise the outcome of the US elections and express his optimism about the prospect of a more peaceful world.
Peres hailed Barack Obama’s recent victory as a turning point in modern history.
He said, “Zionism started because of racism and anti-Semitism. In a way, the election of Obama is the end of racism. The fact that a black person got the top job in our time is a clear demonstration that we live in different world.”
Describing the problems of achieving Middle Eastern peace he said, “We have had to defend ourselves militarily but have hoped, philosophically and otherwise, to make peace.
Both sides paid heavily – thousands of youngsters on both sides. It was a mistake. All wars are a mistake whether you win or lose.”
On the subject of Palestine he said, “We are still negotiating with the Palestinians. It is difficult to make peace – you have to negotiate with your opponents and with your own people; I don’t know which is more difficult.” He added, “The problem for the Palestinian people is Hamas. Were it not for Hamas they would already have a state of their own.”
He said that with his age and experience had come a sense of optimism, saying, “I feel that maybe we are nearer to peace now than any time in the last 100 years.”
Despite the frequent interruptions Peres persevered to the end of his talk, stopping only a few times to express his frustration with the protestors. In his closing speech, Sir Adam Roberts, Emeritus Fellow of Balliol, praised the Israeli president for “demonstrating grace under fire.”