Universities told to do more to stamp out anti-semitism

Universities Minister Chris Skidmore has told universities in the United Kingdom they must do more to stamp out anti-semitism on campus following reports of unfair practices in relation to speaker events that could amount to indirect discrimination.

Skidmore has urged the sector to advance its efforts to tackle unacceptable religious hatred in higher education and is calling on all universities to adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of anti-semitism.

Skidmore said: “There is no place in our society for hatred or any form of harassment and it is frankly appalling that the battle against anti-semitism still exists.”

The Jewish Leadership Council, Union of Jewish Students and Community Security Trust have raised reports of unfair practices in which Jewish societies have been asked to pay up to £2,000 (US$2,500) for their own security at speaker events on campuses, which the universities minister is concerned may amount to indirect discrimination.

Skidmore met with students on 16 May to hear about their concerns and experiences of anti-semitism on campus. In a letter being sent to universities last week, the minister called on all institutions to reject such prejudiced practices, challenging institutions to step up and tackle anti-semitism.

He said: “Free speech is vital to the independence and innovation that embodies the higher education sector and it must be protected. Not only does it fuel academic thought, but it contributes to a collective feeling of tolerance and acceptance in our universities that challenge injustice.

“In this context, it is unacceptable to oblige certain groups of students to incur additional costs because of their race or religion, just to counteract the actions of others.”

Skidmore said he expected universities, as vehicles of change, to show moral leadership and accept the IHRA definition of anti-semitism, which shows that an institution and its senior leaders are serious about ensuring their campuses are tolerant environments where ideas and debate can flourish but persecution can never take hold.

The Department for Education said guidance published in February, led by the Equality and Human Rights Commission, clearly states the legal rights and obligations around free speech for all institutions and student unions.

“This sets out that universities, student unions and their societies must ensure they do not discriminate in the way they organise events,” it said.

Welcomed by Jewish leaders

Chief Executive of the Jewish Leadership Council, Simon Johnson, said Jewish leaders welcome the call to adopt the IHRA definition of anti-semitism and the minister’s advice to universities that unfair charges made to Jewish societies on campus for security were unacceptable.

“These actions will ensure that there is a safe, welcoming and tolerant environment on UK campuses, and we are grateful to the government for its continuing support for the welfare of Jewish students,” he said.

Daniel Kosky, campaigns organiser of the Union of Jewish Students, said the union also welcomed the minister’s efforts to tackle anti-semitism and strengthen freedom of expression guidelines.

“Jewish students have long called for institutions to adopt the IHRA definition, and we now expect universities to follow the government’s call,” he said.

The National Union of Students has recommended they do so, and Universities UK has also asked universities to individually consider adoption of the definition.

Last year the Office for Students provided £480,000 for 11 projects tackling religious-based hate crime in higher education.

One of the projects, led by King’s College London, aims to tackle religious intolerance and includes recognising the needs of religious communities within the university, strengthening reporting mechanisms, supporting new facilities, as well as building awareness, understanding and tolerance of different faiths. King’s College London is also one of the first universities to accept the full IHRA definition of anti-semitism.

Universities UK has set up a taskforce to consider what can be done to address violence, harassment and hate crimes on campus, including on the basis of religion. The taskforce published a comprehensive report titled Changing the Culture in 2016 which included a number of specific recommendations for the higher education sector on anti-semitism.

According to the Department for Education, many universities have made good progress on this, but there is still further to go to implement the recommendations of Universities UK fully.

It said all higher education providers should also have robust policies and reporting procedures in place and investigate and swiftly address reports of hate crime, including any anti-semitic incidents that are reported.

Anti-semitic incidents in universities

Changing the Culture, which addresses violence against women, harassment and hate crime affecting students, was published after several incidents pushed anti-semitism at universities up the agenda.

In October 2016 a University College London (UCL) Friends of Israel event drew a noisy group of protesters who took non-violent measures to prevent the event from happening. However, following the event there were allegations of violence and intimidation. UCL conducted an investigation into the incident.

In August 2016 pro-Palestinian protesters disrupted an Israel Society event at King’s College London.

Two Jewish students were subjected to a volley of abuse, including being called ‘Nazis’, as they prevented demonstrators entering a lecture in January 2016 given by Ami Ayalon, a former head of Israel’s Shin Bet security agency who had become a peace activist. Protesters banged on windows, threw chairs in the corridor and set off fire alarms.

One of the protesters, Ivana Bevilaqua, 25, was found guilty of assault by beating and was given a conditional discharge for 28 days and ordered to pay £100 compensation to the victim, as well as court costs of £200.

King’s College London launched a comprehensive investigation into the incidents at the event.

Also in 2016, Alex Chalmers, the co-chair of Oxford University Labour Club, resigned alleging a widespread anti-Jewish feeling among a large portion of members, which he attributed to a “poisonous ideology of anti-semitic anti-Zionism” taking hold, under which activists were pushing “justice” for Palestine rather than “peace”.

The claim triggered a Labour Party enquiry into anti-semitism at the club. The enquiry found a “cultural problem” in which language that would once have been intolerable was now tolerated, but found no evidence of the club itself being institutionally anti-semitic.

Anti-semitism row in Labour Party

The Oxford allegation is one of many that have come to light during a long-running dispute in the national Labour Party in the UK over the perceived failure of the party under the leadership of left-winger Jeremy Corbyn, which began in 2015, to adequately respond to complaints of anti-semitism.

The row, along with disagreements over Brexit policy, led to a group of MPs recently leaving to form a new party.

There was also been a long-running row over the Labour Party National Executive Committee’s adoption in July 2018 of a code of conduct that defined anti-semitism for disciplinary purposes based initially on the IHRA working definition but without using all the examples listed by the IHRA.

Months later, Labour’s National Executive Committee adopted all the examples but added a caveat protecting “freedom of expression on Israel or the rights of Palestinians”. Some people argued that this undermined the international definition, while others said it is necessary to prevent the IHRA definition being used to close down legitimate debate about Israeli policy on and military activity in occupied Palestine.

National rise in anti-semitic hate crimes

The national context is that in 2018 anti-semitic hate crime incidents reached an all-time high in the UK, according to the Community Security Trust, which monitors them.

The highest monthly totals came when the problem of anti-semitism in the Labour Party was the subject of intense public discussion. However, anti-semitism is linked to the rise of the far right and anti-immigrant, nativist politics, as well as disputes on the left.

Of 1,652 incidents recorded in 2018, 456 involved language or imagery relating to the far right or the Nazi period, while 254 involved references to Israel and the Palestinians, alongside anti-semitism, according to the Community Security Trust.