Universities: Anti-Semitism

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 7:28 pm on 12th June 2007.

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Photo of Baroness Deech Baroness Deech Crossbench 7:28 pm, 12th June 2007

asked Her Majesty's Government what action they will take to secure implementation of their response to the report of the All-Party Parliamentary Inquiry into Anti-Semitism concerning anti-Semitism on university campuses.

My Lords, I am grateful for the opportunity to raise this important issue. I thank your Lordships in advance for contributions to what, I am sure, will be a timely and constructive discussion, for which I wish we had more time.

I declare an interest as the Independent Adjudicator for Higher Education, tasked with reviewing student complaints against all English and Welsh universities. I am content to report that we have received no cases of this nature. The legal points that I am about to make apply equally to Islamophobia and any other religious hatred on campus, all forms of which are to be deplored.

The All-Party Parliamentary Inquiry into Anti-Semitism was commissioned by John Mann MP, chairman of the Parliamentary Group against Anti-Semitism. Its terms of reference were,

"To consider evidence on the nature of contemporary anti-Semitism ... To evaluate current efforts to confront it", and to consider further measures. The inquiry reported in September 2006 with, sadly, many chapters, but it is right for your Lordships to focus on one. The issues in it are localised and can readily be tackled if the will is there; the means are to hand. I refer to the chapter on anti-Semitism on campuses, from which I shall quote:

"Jewish students are being intimidated or harassed", and they,

"have become increasingly alarmed by virulent and unbalanced attacks on the state of Israel and the failure of student bodies and organisations to condemn anti-Semitism when it occurs".

The report recommends that universities should record all examples of anti-Semitic incidents, that there should be support for combating the proposed boycott of Israeli academics and that vice-chancellors should take action to tackle campus anti-Semitism, which manifests itself in attempts to delegitimise Jewish student societies and attacks on students and their halls of residence.

The Government's response was to welcome the recommendations and to refer to the guidance that had already been given by Universities UK and the Department for Education and Skills. Yet, apart from calling on UUK to meet the committee on anti-Semitism, the response presents no substantive plan of action to meet this serious problem or to work with UUK to do so.

I shall put the issue in proportion. It is thought that there are 7,000 to 14,000 Jewish students. Black and ethnic minority students number some 131,000, and there are an estimated 90,000 Muslim students. I will give your Lordships a few examples from the many that have occurred to illustrate the serious threat against Jewish students. The home page of a Birmingham lecturer contained links to anti-Semitic material, such as the site of David Irving, the Holocaust denier, and to sites equating Israelis and Nazis. The university, to its credit, blocked it off. Andrew Wilkie, the Oxford professor, denied a student consideration for a doctoral place solely because of Israeli nationality. The university took action. Bricks were thrown through the windows of a Jewish student house in Manchester, and a poster placed on the door saying "Slaughter the Jews".

Before anyone reacts with the frequently voiced sentiment that criticism of Israel does not equate to anti-Semitism, let me hasten to agree but point out that the antagonists of the Jewish students are failing to make that distinction. "Zionist" has become a word of opprobrium, and all Jews are so labelled. Attacks on Jews rose with the occurrence of the Lebanon war, attacks on them—in this country and elsewhere—not attacks on Israelis or Israeli buildings. Once the equation is made between Zionism and Jews, anti-Semites feel free to attack all Jewish students without distinction. Protests start as attacks on Israel and conclude with threats to all Jews. Israel "apartheid weeks" have been held at Oxford, Cambridge and SOAS. To show just how demeaning this analogy is to the real victims of apartheid, one need only mention inter alia that 20 per cent of the students at Haifa University are Arabs and 11 universities have been established in the Occupied Territories since 1967.

The National Union of Students has been staunch in defending Jewish students and in recognising that anti-Zionism can be a cloak for anti-Semitism. However, individual college student unions are not so well informed. Often, their condemnation of whatever is labelled as the far right clouds the recognition that left-wing discourse can be manipulated and used as a vehicle for anti-Jewish language and themes.

Some vice-chancellors have failed to promote good relations by failing to take responsibility for the student unions, claiming that they are autonomous, and misunderstanding their own legal responsibilities as vice-chancellors for freedom of speech. I have the impression that the freedom of speech codes required of universities by law are outdated and are insufficiently enforced to protect vulnerable students. By and large, they have not kept up with changes in race hatred and other relevant legislation. The legal requirement of university codes of freedom of speech was introduced by the Education (No. 2) Act 1986. Universities have to take reasonable,

"steps...to ensure that freedom of speech within the law is secured for members, students, employees...and for visiting speakers".

However, since 1986 a great deal of new legislation has been introduced that impacts directly on freedom of speech, giving protection from harassment and racially or religiously motivated hatred. For example, the Race Relations (Amendment) Act 2000 places a duty on universities to promote good relations between persons of different racial groups, building on the public order bans on abusive and insulting words and behaviour. The codes need to be updated to take account of those laws, of the Protection from Harassment Act 1997 and of the offence of incitement to terrorism in the Terrorism Act 2000. The student unions need to be brought into the Race Relations (Amendment) Act formally. Article 17 of the European Convention on Human Rights, set out in Schedule 1 to the Human Rights Act 1998, gives no right to do anything that is aimed at depriving others of their convention rights. So, racist speech designed to harass is not protected as a human right. All the students, including the unions, should be told of their rights and responsibilities in this area and told that they can complain to their universities. They must have that channel.

There is hope in dialogue, nowhere more so than on campus. Campuses should be a major focus of attention for the improvement of Muslim-Jewish relations, by co-operation and understanding. If the Department for Education and Skills is granting new scholarships to students from the Middle East, that is to be welcomed. However, students cannot be expected to act in a spirit of dialogue and tolerance if their lecturers do not do so. There are ongoing attempts by the University and College Union to initiate a UK-wide boycott of Israeli academics. Such a biased and unhelpful response cannot be tolerated or supported. There is no justification for punishing some of the world's finest intellectuals and academic institutions. Disengaging from debate with Israelis could not be more inappropriate for a profession dedicated to debate and discussion.

British lecturers claim the dubious distinction of launching the first campaign for a boycott. The revived UCU has gone on with this anti-intellectualism, so damaging to the world-wide reputation of British universities. But nobody other than Israeli professors is threatened for how they think; no other nation pays the price for its Government's decisions. No Chinese academics are boycotted or Egyptian universities for imprisoning bloggers. British academics who support the boycott vent their hatred in a way that costs them nothing, without even any promise of success in changing the policies that they object to. The boycott is contrary to the 70 year-old principle of the universality of science, and every learned academy that I know of has objected. It is not morally justifiable to hold all Israeli academics collectively responsible for the actions of their Government. This is bigotry, which has no place in our world-class British universities.

Four initiatives are required of Ministers and the UUK. First, they must ensure that the codes of freedom of speech are instituted, as required by law, at all universities and are updated to protect freedom of speech within the law and not hate or extremism. Secondly, student unions must be brought firmly within the requirements of the Race Relations (Amendment) Act, so that they promote good relations. Thirdly, the problem must be acknowledged and addressed by vice-chancellors, who should lend their support to freedom of intellectual action. The Russell group of universities immediately condemned the boycott, and I trust that your Lordships will hear confirmation that UUK has followed suit. Fourthly, the department should invite all universities to adopt a policy of non-discrimination, which should be built into funding, research and fund raising.

Academic freedom is the first target of tyrannies, and those who ignore attacks on academic pursuits are co-operating with tyranny. They must ask themselves why Jewish students and Israelis, alone in the world, are chosen as the targets. As my father sadly bore witness, as early as 1923 Vienna University was the focus of assaults on Jewish students and of curbs on Jewish professors and on the right to learn, followed by Warsaw University. Universities are like the canary in the mine when it comes to bad indications. British universities have to learn from the history of pusillanimity in the face of racism.