Is academic freedom still honored in British universities?

ByJONATHAN SACKS
March 23, 2011 23:25

The anti-Israel campaign has added further weight to the evidence that British campuses have become centers of anti-Western radicalism.

Is academic freedom still honored in British universities?

(photo credit:Courtesy)

Jewish students in Britain have been bracing themselves for the annual Israel Apartheid Week assault. This time, though, there was a difference. Twenty-four Israeli students have come to British campuses to mount a counter-campaign called Israel Awareness Week. Their presence has been good for Israel, good for British Jewish students and good for universities that once were places where we put prejudice aside and pursue truth.

Truth has been the first casualty in the vicious campaign against Israel. The charge of apartheid, which began with the notorious United Nations 1975 resolution identifying Zionism with racism, and continued with the equally notorious Conference against [sic] Racism in Durban a week before 9/11, is both outrageous and untrue. Given all the pressures Israel has been subjected to since its birth, its record in the field of ethnic and religious tolerance has been commendable.



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You have only to visit an Israeli hospital to see how people of all faiths and ethnicities are treated alike. All have the vote. All can attend universities. All can be elected to the Knesset. A Druse Arab, Majallie Whbee, briefly served as president after Moshe Katsav’s resignation while acting head of state Dalia Itzik was out of the country. A Christian Arab, George Karra, headed the panel of judges that found Katsav guilty. Are any of these conceivable in an apartheid state? Israel is one of the most religiously diverse societies in the world. Only under Israeli rule have all three Abrahamic religions enjoyed unrestricted access to their holy sites in Jerusalem. It is the only place where an Arab Muslim can freely criticize the government on national television. Israel is not perfect, but its ethnic and religious minorities have greater rights – vigilantly defended in the courts – than anywhere else in the Middle East.

Meanwhile, in December 2010 Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas declared: “We have frankly said, and always will say: If there is an independent Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital, we won’t agree to the presence of one Israeli in it.”


If this vision of a judenrein Palestine is not apartheid, what is? As soon as the anti-apartheid campaigners start working against Palestinian racism, the intimidation and murder of Christians throughout the Middle East, and the brutal denial of human rights that is leading to civil protests in Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Bahrain and Syria, then they will have earned the right to be taken seriously. Until then, they should be seen for what they are – political pawns in a very dangerous game.

THE ANTI-ISRAEL campaign has added further weight to the accumulating evidence that British campuses have become centers of anti-Western radicalism. Often it is moderate Muslims who have raised the alarm, saying university authorities are not doing enough to counter the extremists.

In 2007 Ed Husain, an ex-member of Hizb ut Tahrir and now a fighter against extremism, published a book called The Islamist. The first 70 pages are among the most terrifying I have ever read. They tell of how a tiny handful of radical students instituted a regime of intimidation across an entire campus, and show how easy it is to scare the academic authorities into silence and inaction.

That intimidation seems to have worked. With some shining exceptions – Manchester is one – university authorities have not acted when radical, hate-inciting, anti-Israel speakers are invited to address students, nor when pro-Israel speakers are abused or banned. Challenged on the first, they tend to invoke freedom of speech. Challenged on the second, they tend to invoke security concerns. So freedom of speech exists for some, but not for others.

It is not Jewish students alone who are concerned at the failure of university heads to take action. So is the government. Fifteen individuals implicated in terrorist plots and attacks have had some link to British universities. Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, charged with attempting to blow up a passenger plane in the US, was president of the Islamic Society at University College London.

University vice chancellors, in their recent review of the situation, concluded that universities should “engage, not marginalize” extreme political views. Lord Carlile, the government’s independent reviewer of terror laws, said the report represented “a total failure to deal with how to identify and handle individuals who might be suspected of radicalizing or being radicalized while within the university.”

MY OWN grave concerns come from a sense of history. In 1927 a French-Jewish academic, Julian Benda, published a book whose title became famous: Le Trahison des clercs, “The treason of the intellectuals.”

In it he says that academics had historically been guardians of the truth, but had been drawn into politics with potentially devastating consequences. The academy had become the arena for “the intellectual organization of political hatreds.”

That phrase has resonated in my mind for close to a decade now, as university lecturers have sought to boycott their Israeli counterparts while failing to protest some of the most antidemocratic, anti-free society, anti-Israel and anti-Jewish speakers ever to speak on British campuses.

This is not academic freedom. Academic freedom means the freedom to hold and express views without fear, even when they run against the consensus, even when they are the views of a minority. It means the willingness to let all sides of an argument be respectfully heard.

Like all freedom, academic freedom requires restraint, so that the freedom of one group is not won at the cost of another’s.

When restraint is not self-imposed, it must be ensured by the university authorities.

Which is why it is important that this week Israeli students have visited British universities to present the other side of the case. Whether they are respectfully heard will be the best test as to whether academic freedom is still honored in British universities.

The writer is chief rabbi of the United Kingdom.

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