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Allegations of antisemitism after Friends of Palestine host controversial Holocaust survivor speech

‘Jews were directly compared to Nazis’

Bristol Friends of Palestine have been criticised by the UoB Jewish Society after hosting a controversial talk by a Holocaust survivor.

On Friday 16th March, Friends of Palestine hosted Marika Sherwood, described on the Facebook event as a "Hungarian-born Holocaust Survivor, historian, researcher, educator and author of 80 years."

Ahead of the free event in the Stephenson Room of the Richmond Building, Ms Sherwood was quoted as saying "Genocide is genocide, no matter who practices it against whom, or under what pretext" and "I can’t say I’m a Palestinian, but my experiences as a child are not dissimilar to what Palestinian children are experiencing now."

The event description on Facebook for last week's talk

Epigram reported that following the talk "a man carrying an Israeli flag was removed from the Richmond Building" during the subsequent question and answer session. Afterwards Friends of Palestine wrote on the event page that "We are aware that the event may have felt quite tense and hostile due to aggressive behaviour by some members of the audience", explaining that they removed the audience member for shouting at the speaker and interrupting questions.

Friends of Palestine went on to say that "We stand against all forms of discrimination and racism, including anti-semitism. We recognise that certain terminology that Marika used may have made people feel uncomfortable and is not representative of our society. We as a society make a clear distinction between Zionism and Judaism. We would also like to extend our regret towards any Palestinians who felt subject to discrimination and abuse."

"We recognise that the atmosphere was not what we anticipated. Our aims are always to create a safe space for all. Our expectation for the event was for Marika to speak about her personal experience and her journey towards recognising the human rights abuses in Palestine with a peaceful Q&A afterwards, yet this did not fully materialise."

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The banner picture for the event

Shortly afterwards Bristol Jewish Society (J-Soc) responded with a lengthy statement on their Facebook page: "The IHRA’s working definition of antisemitism, accepted by the British Government, the NUS and the Bristol SU includes, “Drawing comparisons of contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis”. Ms. Sherwood’s talk represented a blatant transgression of these guidelines."

J-Soc wrote that "Jews were directly compared to Nazis when Sherwood asked, ‘How could the Jews behave as they do towards Palestinians,’ after they suffered similarly at the hands of the Nazis" and that the speaker "engaged in traditional antisemitic discourse when suggesting a conspiracy between the Rothschilds (a prominent and wealthy Jewish family) and the British Government’s support for the establishment of the State of Israel."

Ms Sherwood had previously spoken at Manchester University in March 2017 as part of 'Israeli Apartheid Week'. Her talk's original title- "You're doing to the Palestinians what the Nazis did to me"- was changed after the university contacted the event's organisers to officially ban them from using the "unduly provocative" form of words.

A Statement from Bristol Jewish Society on Bristol Friends of Palestine event with Marika Sherwood:Bristol Jewish…

Posted by Bristol JSoc on Tuesday, March 20, 2018

J-Soc went on to claim that Ms Sherwood supported an antisemitic trope by her "suggestion that the presence of Jews on the board of the New York City Department of Education was the reason Sherwood was dismissed as an educator" and that "Additionally, Ms. Sherwood downplayed the racism she experienced in the Holocaust."

J-Soc concluded by saying that "Whilst the talk was designated by the Bristol Friends of Palestine Society as a ‘safe space’, the reality was intimidating and threatening atmosphere for Jewish students."

"The antisemitism that took place should have no place on any campus and the entire event represented everything that free speech should not be – hate speech. We are deeply disappointed in Bristol Friends of Palestine’s statement in response to the event."

The SU has received statements on the events hosted in its building

Commenting on the news, President of Bristol University Israel/Palestine Discussion Group Rob Angel said that "I'm personally disappointed at both the speaker chosen and the manner in which the event was conducted. There are far better educated speakers on issues in the Middle-East and it is a step in the wrong direction to have a misinformed speaker come in to attempt to 'educate' students."

"I do strongly believe that discussion and dialogue will be the way forward to peace, but it is crucial that this is constructive, meaning the choice of keynote speakers for these events are important to get right. Unfortunately, I strongly feel that the decision of inviting Marika Sherwood was badly thought out, I'm not sure what exactly the aim of the event was, when inviting a speaker who openly holds anti-Semitic views"

In January, Chief Executive of the Holocaust Educational Trust Karen Pollock warned that "Antisemitism remains a real challenge on campus and tackling it is crucial". Communities Secretary Sajid Javid has pledged £144,261 of government funding for a new programme to support universities in tackling this issue on campus.