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Fighting back against disruptions of Israeli performances and lectures in the UK

A guest post by Jonathan  D.C. Turner, Chair of UK Lawyers for Israel

As many readers will know, performances and lectures by Israelis in the UK have frequently been disrupted in recent years. In one serious example, a concert by the Israeli Philharmonic Orchestra at the Royal Albert Hall was interrupted by shouting and singing to such an extent that a simultaneous broadcast on BBC Radio 3 was taken off-air.

Videos show the threatening atmosphere and the risk of a serious breakdown of order which could have resulted in mass casualties and this was also confirmed by eye-witness accounts.


A BBC report quoted music reviewer:

“The whole hall was groaning and trying to slow clap them out. It had the atmosphere of a riot”.

Another eye-witness wrote:

“This created a most tense and hostile atmosphere throughout the several disruptions. Each time the chanting and shouting broke out, my eleven-year-old grandson became very upset, and kept saying he wanted to go home. The reaction of the vast majority of music-lovers, who wanted to hear the music in peace, created an understandable sense of frustration and anger throughout the Hall and posed a significant threat to public order. From where I was sitting in the circle, it occurred to me how easily an enraged member of the audience could have pushed one or more of those protesting in the front row over the balcony.”

Another “witnessed elderly gentlemen who wished nothing else, but to enjoy an evening of music by one of the most prominent orchestras led by its distinguished maestro, having to argue with Neanderthals to such extent that one of them felt the need to physically try to remove them from the seats resulting in slaps on the heads.” Another “felt extremely intimidated by the whole experience”.

Performances by the Jerusalem Quartet, Batsheva and Habima have also been disrupted, as have lectures by the Israeli Ambassador, HE Daniel Taub; the former Deputy Ambassador, Talya Lador-Fresher; and law lecturer Solon Solomon.

The problem is not confined to Israelis. Other victims have included Mohamed El-Nabawy, whose lecture on the challenges faced by Egypt to a meeting of the SOAS Palestinian Society was stormed by Muslim Brotherhood thugs; David Willetts MP, talking to students at Cambridge; and Professor Alex Callinicos, whose lecture at Warwick University was abandoned due to disruption by an unusual combination of neo-Nazis and feminists.

Those who wish to criticise Israel or anyone else have an important right of freedom of expression. However, when they disrupt performances and lectures by others, they are interfering with the freedom of expression of those performers and speakers, and the rights of those who wish to hear them. Preventing such disruption is not abridging freedom of expression; it is protecting it.
But can anything be done about it?

Disrupting a performance or lecture in the UK is normally a criminal offence, called “aggravated trespass”. This offence is committed when a trespasser carries out acts intended to disrupt a lawful activity. Even if the disrupters had tickets to the performance or lecture, they are trespassers because they are admitted to hear and watch, not to disrupt.

However, prosecutions are rare. The Police have other things to do and limited budgets. They also take the view that they should not prosecute unless requested by the “victim”, and seem to think that the victim is the owner of the premises, not the audience, performers or speaker. In practice, owners are usually not too concerned: they simply avoid similar bookings in future, which achieves the objective of the disrupters.

Private prosecutions are difficult and onerous. The elements of the offence have to be proved to the criminal standard and in accordance with criminal procedures, resulting in disproportionate expense.

Civil remedies are also problematic. Owners of venues could sue for trespass but in practice they are not sufficiently interested.

Members of the audience, performers and speakers do not appear to have any right of action in civil proceedings against the disrupters. They cannot claim for causing loss by unlawful means, because the House of Lords has held that the unlawful means must interfere with the freedom of a third-party to deal with them. Nor can they claim for conspiracy to cause loss by unlawful means, even if there was (and they can prove) a conspiracy, since the authorities appear to say that the loss must be financial, rather than loss of enjoyment or damage to feelings. Nor can they argue that the disrupters have procured a breach of their contracts, because their contracts have not been broken.

In these circumstances, the disrupters rightly reckon that they will not be called to account, and so they continue.

However, there is a simple answer which UK Lawyers for Israel is urging the UK Parliament to adopt: a three-line amendment to give those affected by an aggravated trespass a civil right of action for damages and an injunction. If this is passed, it will be possible for members of the audience, performers and speakers to bring straightforward claims against disrupters in the small claims court.

To be sure, some of the disrupters live on benefits and think they have nothing to lose. But others do have jobs and money, and will think twice if they have to pay several hundred pounds compensation in total to a number of those affected.

Government ministers have said that this amendment will not add to the existing remedies. They are wrong, for the reasons summarised above. And even if they are right, the amendment will do no harm; it will merely add three lines to the many extant volumes of UK legislation confirming the rights of those affected to bring civil claims against those who disrupt performances and lectures.

Readers who wish to support this amendment should contact their MPs.

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9 replies »

  1. A few hundred pounds is not enough. The fine should be higher, and there should be an associated ban from attending similar performances. They can heckle outside if they want.

  2. Greatly encouraged by leading figures such as Emma Thompson who lobbied most vociferously for the cancellation of Habima’s performance at London’s Globe theatre. Why has there been no effort to boycott Thompson for surely to hire her means that the individuals responsible are turning a blind eye to one of the most vicious forms of anti-Semitism?

    Fight fire with fire. Boycott the boycotters.

    Boycott Emma Thompson.

    • Good piece Jonathan. The lacuna in the law needs to be addressed to redress the balance of rights of those have differing views. What you are saying to the so-called boycotter: “You are here to ruin my evening. I have as much right as you to be here, but you have no right to upset me. You have upset me. You can protest, but it will cost you a great deal if you are here to upset me when you do so. Go outside to protest for free.”

      I say so-called boycotter, because such people are mistaken into thinking that their actions will improve anyone’s lives. And that is the best attribute one can give such a person. The fact that the activity borders on antisemitic discourse is clearly the likely intention for many of those engaged. To illustrate the point:Not all UKIP supporters are racists, but too many racists are UKIP supporters.

      A means tested damages might put a stop to this.
      From a different Joshua

    • Why would people boycott Emma Thompson for standing against Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian territory since 1967? Countless Israeli and Jewish artists also oppose the occupation and the illegal settlements.

      • Freedom of hate speech against Jews, jail for criticizing Islam. Freedom of speech is really a very little thing in the UK.

  3. A very interesting and thoughtful article by Jonathan D.C. Turner.

    I was under the impression that in English law if someone needlessly and maliciously shouted ‘FIRE’ or some similar warning in a crowded theater or cinema or using public transport or maybe a packed store, that the person responsible could be charged with causing any damage, injury or death resulting from such irresponsible behavior.

    You only have to look at the seating arrangements at the Albert Hall to imagine what a panicking audience might do if fighting or mayhem broke out in the upper tiers.

    I don’t think that it could be a defense in a court of law that the culprit was merely exercising their right to free speech. I know that people have been charged in England when the police have been trying to prevent someone from committing suicide by jumping off high buildings or bridges and cretins down in the street have been shouting ‘Jump’.

    I am not an English lawyer so I am unsure what the actual charge is in these cases, but I remember one case where imbeciles were shouting ‘Jump’ and the unfortunate young man jumped from the top of a multi-level car-park and was killed while a police officer was trying to talk him out of it while another officer was edging towards him to grab him.

    Surely deliberate disruptive and provocative behavior in a crowded place which could result in injury or death is a crime? If someone causes injuries or death in a concert hall it isn’t a defense to say it was in a privately owned space.

  4. I don’t see how shouting slogans against Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian territory since 1967 and the illegal settlements could lead to “injury or death”.