Jews and Muslims forge a bond in the Oxford mêlée
JEWISH AND Muslim student leaders at Oxford University have expressed hopes that their co-operation in trying to stop the David Irving-Nick Griffin debate on free speech on Monday night will herald a new relationship between the two groups.
Their members were among up to 2,000 banner-waving, chanting demonstrators who besieged the Oxford Union buildings for four hours in the centre of the university city. A sit-down protest blocked the narrow entry gate to the Union and stopped many of the sell-out audience from getting in.
The Union of Jewish Students and Oxford University’s Islamic Society carried a huge banner marked with the symbols of both organisations. Some Muslim demonstrators carried posters proclaiming “Hands off our Jews”, while the Jewish Society carried others saying “Hands off our Muslims”.
Deborah Lipstadt, whom Irving sued unsuccessfully for libel that led to him being labelled a Holocaust denier by the trial judge, said in a message read out during the demonstration: “Inviting these two men [to the Oxford Union] smacks of a stunt which gives them what they most need to survive: publicity.
“Some of those who have defended the Oxford Union have called for open minds. The problem with people with open minds is that sometimes their minds are so open their brains fall out — and that is the best that can be said of the organisers of this debate.”
Ten minutes before the scheduled start, 30 demonstrators scaled the perimeter wall and invaded the hall, delaying the debate and sparking scuffles as the student audience tried to push them out.
The organisers were forced to split the event in two. Holocaust denier Irving joined Oxford West Lib-Dem MP Dr Evan Harris and author and journalist Ann Atkins in the debating chamber while BNP leader Griffin was despatched to the OU library with two student debaters, South African James Dray and Jess Prince from Canada. The event got under way 75 minutes late against a background of shouting and chanting.
Jewish Society president Steven Altmann-Richer said: “Ironically, the first event we held with the Islamic Society was last term when someone from the Muslim Council of Britain talked to us about the dangers of the BNP. We get on well because both societies are non-political. When politics comes in, it changes people’s attitudes.”
He added: “I am upset that the event was hijacked by rent-a-yob and that people got into the hall. But when you get a crowd of that size, there will always be people looking for trouble.”
Sazan Meran, co-president of the university’s Islam Society, said: “We have had good relations with Jewish students for some time and this demonstration has definitely brought us closer together. I am sure that this experience will result in us co-oper- ating in the fight against racism. We may have differences over politics but, at the end of the day, we have a lot in common.”
Oxford Union president Luke Tryl admitted he had been shocked by the level and ferocity of the protests but maintained that he had been right to invite the pair. He said he intended to write a full report on the event, with contributions from the society presidents, “so that the OU can learn lessons from this. I don’t want future presidents to think that this gives them licence to invite anyway they please”.
Students of a wide range of political persuasions demonstrate outside the Oxford Union on Monday night