Universities: Anti-Semitism

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 8:07 pm on 12th June 2007.

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Photo of Lord Anderson of Swansea Lord Anderson of Swansea Labour 8:07 pm, 12th June 2007

My Lords, of course criticism of Israel is legitimate and not necessarily anti-Semitic. The fiercest critics of Israel are often to be found in Israel itself, certainly in universities in democratic Israel. But criticism of Israel can be a convenient substitute for anti-Semitic sentiment, which may be the subtext of the resolution referred to, which is, in effect, a call for a boycott of Israeli universities.

My 50-year membership of the Labour Party has given me some experience of how well organised groups on the hard left, such as the Socialist Workers Party, can have a disproportionate influence on policy by exploiting what the old Communist Party called "useful idiots"—often well meaning progressives in wider solidarity groups. The UCU resolution is of course an empty gesture. Serious academics will continue to seek partnerships with Israeli academics. Why? Because they value excellence, and Israeli universities are in the premier league of worldwide universities. There are more than 300 collaborative projects between British and Israeli academics under EU auspices. Is it serious or, rather, gesture politics to expect UK academics to withdraw?

This is like the proposed resolution calling on Unison to boycott trade unions in Israel. The truth is that the Israeli trade unions are by far the freest in that region and often very critical of their Government. The truth is that the Israeli academics are by far the freest in the region and include some of the fiercest critics of Israeli government policy. It is thus absurdity on stilts to promote a boycott of the only free universities and the only free trade unions and, apparently, to ignore the more serious abuses of human rights elsewhere.

The teachers' union leads; it is hardly surprising that many students follow, and not only Islamists, hard-left groups and BNP supporters.

Academic freedom and open intellectual exchange are part of the idea of a university. Surely, notwithstanding this glaring example of the trahison des clercs in the union resolution, vice-chancellors should be vigilant, robust and consistent in combating examples of anti-Semitism on campuses, and the Government, in the spirit and letter of their response to the report, should give them full support when they do so.