As the Union of Jewish Students visits parliament today to raise concerns over antisemitism on campus, Danny Stone explains why progressives must speak out
03 February 2010 (Progress Online)
Jews have been back in the news this week, as Sir Martin Gilbert – distinguished historian and panel member of the Chilcot Iraq Inquiry – accused newspapers of publishing antisemitic allegations relating to his Jewish heritage and supposedly consequential pro-Israel bias. Sir Martin rightly asked whether articles would also focus on the religions, characteristics or ethnic backgrounds of the other members of the panel. Gilbert is right to be outspoken. Antisemitic discourse is but one manifestation of a wider problem.
This week the Community Security Trust will publish their annual incident figures – and they are expected to be higher than ever. In the first half of 2009, there were some 609 incidents – a record level related mostly to the Israeli operation in Gaza. Jews, regardless of their views on the Middle East, were the focus for attacks.
Since the All-Party Inquiry into Antisemitism in 2006, members of parliament – led by All-Party Group chair and Labour MP for Bassetlaw John Mann – have been at the vanguard of the fight to combat all forms of antisemitism. Of particular and continuing concern have been campus antisemitism and the fight against hate speech. This week, in the shadow of Holocaust Memorial Day, Jewish students have come to lobby parliament about this very matter.
There is some evidence to suggest that Jewish students are not choosing their university places on academic grounds but on their perception of antisemitism on different campuses. Whilst the manifestations of this antisemitism are different, in particular, hate speech is amongst the most long-standing and problematic.
Following the failed attempt by former UCL student Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab to detonate explosives on board a Northwest Airlines flight to the USA there has been an increased focus on campus radicalisation and inappropriate speakers. As Gordon Brown related to the Public Liaison Committee yesterday, this matter is a key concern for government.
There is a long history of invitations to and presentations from extremist speakers on campus. Among presenters to UCL students have been members of Hizb-ut Tahrir, supporters of Hamas and those that have spoken in support of domestic violence. Sheikh Riyadh ul-Haq, for example, was invited to speak at UCL and has spoken openly of his belief in Jewish control of the world economy. Whilst at SOAS, jazz musician Gilad Atzmon reportedly said: “I’m not going to say whether it is right or not to burn down a synagogue, but I can see that it is a rational act”
Whilst there is a historic and appropriate pride in free speech amongst universities and their student unions, hate speech is, of course, contrary to good campus relations, community cohesion and in some cases may breach the legal duties of universities and student unions. As the Union of Jewish Students puts it, rights come with responsibilities, and freedom of speech which is freely given must not be abused by those intent on preaching hate.
The Parliamentary Committee Against Antisemitism has set a progressive agenda for ministers, HE bodies and campus leaders on this issue. The ask is relatively straightforward. We are calling for a wide-ranging policy or guide for universities on how to deal with campus hate speech. We are encouraging universities to sign up to the attorney general’s ‘Race for Justice’ declaration which includes clear operational expectations and appropriate grievance procedures. We want to see universities adopting the EUMC working definition of antisemitism which sets clear boundaries to demarcate between legitimate debate and hate speech and we would like to see student unions organising Speaker Request Processes to allow for objections to be launched by concerned students.
The HE Sector is fiercely independent – and rightly so – but government needs to be leading the field, and action needs to quicken given the consequences of failure to act.
Unfortunately, progress has been slow. Perhaps this could be attributed to fear. Also unfortunately, as battles continue and intensify across the Middle East, there is increasing nervousness from the HE sector as to how to properly answer the question of when uncomfortable criticism turns to unacceptable hate talk. A similar problem is occurring in relation to academic boycotts of Israel – people are scared to speak out for fear of being tainted as supportive or not of a particular view on Middle East politics. Perhaps then, Sir Martin Gilbert and our All-Party Group can be taken as role models of sorts. When things are wrong, we must speak out and act. Things are wrong on campus – it is up to progressives to speak out and to act
Read the full article here.