Universities: Anti-Semitism

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

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Photo of Baroness Walmsley Baroness Walmsley Spokesperson in the Lords (Education & Children), Education & Skills 8:12 pm, 12th June 2007

My Lords, there is no doubt that as tensions in the Middle East have risen, there has regrettably been a recent increase in anti-Semitic behaviour. However, we must remember that verbal attacks on certain things done by certain people of Jewish background are not all anti-Semitic in nature. I believe that where people are doing the wrong thing, we should be free to say so without fear of being called anti-Semitic if those people happen to be Jewish. We should criticise the behaviour, not the person or their background. But as the report said,

"it is never acceptable to mask hurtful racial generalisations by claiming the right to legitimate political discourse".

People, including student bodies, should mind their language. The noble Baroness, Lady Ramsay, quoted one of the most important statements in the report:

"While criticism of Israel is legitimate, the language of some speakers too often crosses the line into generalised attacks on Jews".

I support the recommendations of this valuable report and hope the Government can find ways of implementing them. However, we should remember that vice-chancellors are not in full control of everything that goes on in their campuses. Many speakers are invited or refused a platform by student organisations, not the university, and it can be difficult to know what goes on behind closed doors. This is where the NUS can help, as the noble Lord, Lord Patten, said.

We on these Benches firmly condemn genuine anti-Semitism, indeed all racism. We are opposed to the UCU's proposed boycott of Israeli academics. I agree with UUK, which states in its briefing for this debate:

"The principles of academic freedom are central to the work of higher education institutions, which were established to be places where there is free debate and the exchange of ideas".

I abhor the idea of limitations on legitimate academic freedom within the reasonable limits I have already mentioned. Academic campuses must provide the fora for critical thinking and the exchange of ideas, but with that freedom comes the responsibility for all academics to make measured and accurate assessments of the actions of governments and to avoid gratuitous attacks and extreme language that may offend or inflame. Universities should teach people to think critically, not criticise unthinkingly.