There is a darkness descending on universities across Europe.
What should be institutions of lightness and open discussions risk becoming places where Jewish students need to move discreetly, avoiding the attention of their peers. Late last year I talked to Jewish students in France, they spoke of violence on their campuses and a conflating of Israel and Jewish opinion. Just as worrying are the consorted attempts to delegitimize Israel and present it on every occasion as outside the community of nations.
This is not a passive policy; it involves the denial of a platform to speak, and the drowning out of opinions when they are expressed. In some cases, it has become the thinnest of veneers for anti-Semitism.
Last week we saw its latest manifestation at one of London’s leading universities, when an unruly mob of protesters attacked a classroom where the former head of the Shin Bet (Israeli Security Agency), Ami Ayalon, was speaking with a small group of students. Slogans were chanted, fire alarms were set off and windows were broken. A group of bullies set out to frighten those attending into submission, and into silence.
Now the meeting that attracted this unwanted attention was not some political rally or demonstration. It was a discussion, and mere attendance implied nothing about the views of anyone in that room. Maybe attendees went to politely challenge what was being said, maybe to support it.
Such is the way of life in a city like London where free speech is one of the values we hold most dear.
But the thugs who surrounded the venue wanted to stifle any discussion at all. In their bizarre world view, anyone that provides a platform for an Israeli speaker is beyond the pale.
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President of KCL Israel society Esther Endfield put it well when she said: “Protests by KCL Action Palestine at this event was inevitable but it was never inevitable that it would turn violent, not to the point that I have just reported being assaulted to the police [which is also being investigated as a possible hate crime], not to the point that there were chairs thrown at the room and at me, not to the point where they were so violent that King’s College London windows have been smashed.”
As I said in Parliament the protesters must been ignorant of European history to violently break glass at a meeting with many Jewish attendees, with its echoes of Kristallnacht.
Our universities and science minister, Jo Johnson, said in condemning the violence: “Universities should be safe spaces for students to expand their minds, and there can be no justification for violent intimidation that curtails free speech.”
Anti-Semitism has always been present on the fringes of British politics, what is different now is that it is coming from the Left. At the Conservative Party Conference a visibly Jewish delegate was abused by the leftwing mob outside the Conference Hall. The chant went up: “Go back to Auschwitz you f***ing y**.” Unbelievable language that would not have been heard just 10 years ago.
These acts are so shocking because Britain is a place where people of all faiths feel at home. So it’s all the more important that this new coarseness needs to be confronted and defeated.
Thankfully there are plenty of people of good will across the political spectrum to take on this new extremism.
Both the prime minister and the home secretary are determined to ensure that all the communities that make up the United Kingdom feel safe in conducting their daily lives.
There is also a growing understanding that the UK’s relationship with Israel is not just one of a strategic ally in an uncertain world, but of a partner in innovation in biotech, pharmaceuticals and health. It’s fantastic that more Israeli companies are setting up shop in the UK, and Rolls-Royce are selling El Al engines for its new planes.
Disgraceful though the behavior at King’s College London was, it is far from the norm. It speaks volumes that the event was overwhelmed by our commemoration of Holocaust Memorial Day. There were thousands of events across the country leading up to and through the day. Each year the numbers attending grow with more and more events being held around the country.
This year’s Memorial Day was marked by an announcement by Prime Minister Cameron that a permanent monument to the Holocaust will be erected right next to Parliament.
This large and prominent monument with its associated learning center will keep the memory and the meaning alive for countless generations to come.
This year our commemorative events have followed the theme “Don’t Stand By.”
We have been remembering that the Holocaust was not made possible by a small number of Nazi monsters, but by countless individuals across Europe who simply stood by and looked the other way as their neighbors, friends and co-workers vanished, often never to be seen again.
And we have been honoring the individuals who didn’t stand by, those who stood up to evil, often at enormous personal risk. In the UK we think particularly of Sir Nicholas Winton, who organized the transport of hundreds of threatened Jewish children out of Europe and into Britain.
We think of all the others who have been recognized as Righteous Among the Nations. For example the 10 British prisoners of war held in Poland in the closing months of the war, who saved the life of a young girl who managed to flee from a death march.
It was my honor to present their families with the British Heroes of the Holocaust award.
Every time we hear from a survivor who was saved by one of those individuals, we see the true scale of their impact. Not only that individual’s contribution to our country, but their children’s, and often now their children’s children. Whole families that the Nazis never wanted to exist.
So when we see small acts of intolerance and thuggery, we need to remember the examples of those individuals who stood up. We need to say: no, we won’t stand by while you smash windows and interrupt peaceful debate.
I’m very proud that the UK is a world leader in standing up against all kinds of intolerance, including anti-Semitism, the oldest of them all.
We record hate crimes separately, we publicize prosecutions, and we punish the guilty with the full force of the law. Government is in constant contact with members of the community, and parliamentarians from all parties have signed up to keep up the fight against anti-Semitism.
I never cease to be impressed at the lengths Britain’s Jewish community goes to in building links into other communities, for example through the Mitzvah Day initiative where groups of Jewish people partner up with different faith communities to do something positive in the community.
Or in Finchley in north London, where a synagogue offered itself as a venue for a local Muslim group that had lost their community center to hold their Id celebrations.
It works both ways: in my home town of Bradford, the local Muslim community banded together with the town’s small Jewish community to help save a historic synagogue in danger of falling into disrepair.
I believe that this is the true face of Britain, and that this is the experience of most British Jews.
I am sometimes asked why as a non-Jew I think this is important. My answer is always the same: a thriving vibrant Jewish community is an integral part of British identity. Without a strong and confident Jewish community, we would be the lesser. No one, whatever their faith, should feel afraid to walk down their local street. Or for that matter, attend a talk on their university campus.
The incident at King’s College London shows the consequences of an alternative future, a different path. I am confident that Britain will reject it.The author is an MP, former UK cabinet minister and current UK Special Envoy for Post-Holocaust Issues.
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