Monday, 30 November 2015

Freedom of speech and antisemitism on Campus

Britain's Universities have a long standing commitment to freedom of speech within the law for their students, employees and visiting speakers. But what do we mean by freedom of speech? - Whose freedom? -Does one person's freedom of speech impinge on another person's freedom of expression? 

Last Thursday the House of Lords held a two hour debate on this very topic, freedom of speech in our universities.  The debate was initiated by  Baroness Deech  and the speakers included a number of a number of University professors and a former Secretary of State for Education. Although their discussions took a wide ranging approach to the current problems on campus, several speakers used the opportunity to highlight the problems facing Jewish students on campus and the academic boycott  Israel.

Over the years my freedom of speech has been threatened  several times and as a result I have had to deal with a great deal of criticism and harassment. It was therefore very pleasing to read Lord Leigh's positive comments about the Academic Friends of Israel in the Lord's debate. When talking about the conference at University of Southampton which questioned Israel’s right to exist he said:

..."the Academic Friends of refusing to call for the conference to be cancelled or even for balance to be added to the programme. Instead, they simply chose to exercise their own right to free speech, to publicly criticise the one-sided nature of the programme, and to expose the questionable biographies of some of the speakers." 

Opening the debate Baroness Deech said that:

"Free speech is under attack because of a widespread culture of victimisation and grievance. People are fearful of the consequences if they express unpopular views and so they stay silent. Academic freedom and freedom of speech are the poorer for it. There is a pincer movement between students blocking speech they disapprove of and the operation of the many laws imposed on universities to promote and control speech." 

She continued that although our Universities legally have to provide external speakers a platform:

"Extreme but lawful views should not be repressed but challenged. But extremist speakers are not being challenged because the students themselves are silencing the challengers."

She then had harsh words for the National Union of Students (NUS) which she said:

"have invented a safe space policy, the gist of which is that students should always feel, “comfortable and safe”. Any idea that has the potential to upset students or cause discomfort is seen as a problem. Some beliefs are branded as dangerous and to be repressed. So the protection of safety for some students means that others are labelled as dangerous and hateful. The NUS wants all campus speech to be empowering, non-judgmental and non-threatening. If it is not, it will be shouted down, obstructed or banned."

The main thrust of her argument was that there are many examples of students closing down academic freedom and that lecturers and the University managements are bowing to students’ whims. In particular she noted that:

"some Israeli or Jewish students do not get to enjoy the safe space that the NUS guarantees to others."

While Jewish students are being denied the right of reply we know that University authorities are failing to block or even question the suitability of extremist  speakers. StudentRights logged 132 of these events in 2012, 145 in 2013, and 123 in 2014. The speakers featured have suggested that there is a Western war against Islam; supported individuals convicted of terrorism offences; expressed intolerance of non-believers and minorities; and espoused religious law as a method of socio-political governance – opposing democracy in the process.

What has happened the concept of learning respect for other people’s views, even when one strongly disagrees with what is being said, why is this  principle no longer acceptable on campus?

To quote  David Cameron, our Prime Minister:

“It is absolutely right that in Britain's universities, students and faculty should be able to criticise Israel, just as they can criticise any country … But it is absolutely wrong that in any of our universities there should be an environment where students are scared to express their Judaism or their Zionism freely”.

This is not a new problem as back in 2008  the then Chief Rabbi,  Lord  Jonathan Sacks urged University Vice-Chancellors:

“to take greater action to defend Jewish students who are made to feel like pariahs on campuses around the UK.”  
Rather than things getting better things are worse as Britain's University campuses have become a breeding ground for contemporary antisemitism as some student societies who identify strongly with the Palestinian cause, express their opposition to Israel by using anti-Israel rhetoric which often invokes and perpetuates antisemitic tropes. Although they may not intend to be antisemitic, the effect of their rhetoric is often to harass those students who support Israel, many of whom happen to be Jewish and closes down debate.

The trend over the last 12 months has been for some anti-Israel speakers to make outrageous and unsubstantiated claims about Israel and Jews, some which cross the line into antisemitism yet when Israeli activists complain they are accused of attempting to shut down  discussion of Israel. Academic freedom on these terms is a one way street; it's okay for me to criticise Israel but it's not acceptable for you to defend the state. 

When the issue of antisemitism is raised, boycotters and anti-Zionists are inclined to respond  by accusing the person who raises the issue of antisemitism of doing so in bad faith, not because they are really concerned, but in a dishonest attempt to frighten people and stop them from criticising of Israel. This is known as the Livingstone Formulation.

One of the criticisms of the academic conferences at Exeter and  Southampton was that there was a lack of balance amongst the speakers. Although two pro-Israel activists were parachuted into Exeter, Universities do not have a legal obligation to provide balance at an academic conference. Although the authorities at Southampton were assured by the organisers  that it was going to be quality academic and balanced conference it turned out to be nothing more than a thinly veiled attempt to give academic approval to the Palestinian narrative that the Jewish people have never had a connection with the land of Israel. That tenured academics could seriously suggest that the anti-Israel fest that was proposed had the credentials to be considered as a serious academic conference is a misuse of academic freedom.

Our Universities have a legal duty to take all reasonable steps to prevent campus rhetoric and freedom of speech not to be polluted by antisemitism. One of the problems  facing both Jewish students and University authorities is understanding when freedom of speech crosses the line into antisemitism? When does criticism of Israel cross the line into antisemitism

We all know when the line into antisemitism is crossed. The Community Security Trust, pro-Israel activists and the Jewish community all know but cannot agree on a definition. Ten years after its inception the EUMC working definition antisemitism may be the best that is available but unfortunately is not the answer.

Why is it so hard to convince people this latest form of antisemitism, a mixture anti-Zionism and anti-Israel sentiment is the real thing?  Why are  people, especially those on the Left not willing to accept our word for it when we tell them that they have crossed that line? Is it because it's not against the law to be an antisemite and there is no definition to stop them?

One of the irony's of campus life is that the National Union of Students (NUS), whose actions have created an environment of hostility and intimidation towards Jewish students by supporting BDS, adopted the EUMC definition of antisemitism at their 2007 Annual Conference and reaffirmed their support for it at their 2010 and 2013 Annual Conferences. At their  Conference in 2015, NUS pledged to fight antisemitism on campus. The reality is that it is a worthless pledge because NUS cannot on the one hand support BDS directed at Israel and on the other hand say this action is not directed at British Jews. The outpouring of hatred directed at British Jews over Israel's actions the 2014 Gaza war make a nonsense of this claim.

Trying to fight antisemitism on campus without the use of an accepted definition of modern antisemitism  only makes the job harder than it needs to be.

I would suggest that if Anglo-Jewry had a definition which it was comfortable with then the government, the media, the Universities and  the unions, would be aware what we consider to be modern antisemitism. We would then be entitled to say that if you cross that line and it must be reasonable for us to consider that you are an antisemite.

Since there isn't a consensus on what constitutes modern antisemitism how do we persuade University authorities what antisemitism is? In the meantime the anti-Israel activist will continue to say that I am not an antisemite because I say so, and I should know because I oppose antisemitism and I also know that anti-Zionism and anti-Israel sentiment are not antisemitic.

Dr. Ronnie Fraser


Academic Friends of Israel 

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