Freedom of speech and anti-Semitism on campus

Our universities have a legal duty to take all reasonable steps to make sure campus rhetoric and freedom of speech are not polluted by anti-Semitism.

Anti-Israel demonstrators march behind a banner of the BDS organization in Marseille, June 13. (photo credit: GEORGES ROBERT / AFP)
Anti-Israel demonstrators march behind a banner of the BDS organization in Marseille, June 13.
(photo credit: GEORGES ROBERT / AFP)
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? Last Thursday the House of Lords debated freedom of speech in our universities. The debate took a wide-ranging approach to the current problems on campus, with several speakers using the opportunity to highlight the problems facing Jewish students on campus, and the academic boycott against Israel.
Opening the debate, Baroness Ruth Deech said: “Free speech is under attack because of a widespread culture of victimization 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 ... 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 also had harsh words for the National Union of Students (NUS), which she said had “invented a safe-space policy ... the protection of safety for some students means that others are labeled 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 with lecturers and university managements 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.”
David Cameron, the UK prime minister, said recently: “It is absolutely right that in Britain’s universities, students and faculty should be able to criticize Israel, just as they can criticize 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 UK 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.”
Britain’s university campuses have become a breeding ground for contemporary anti-Semitism 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 anti-Semitic tropes. Although they may not intend to be anti-Semitic, the effect of their rhetoric is often to harass those students who support Israel, many of whom happen to be Jewish.
The trend recently has been for some anti-Israel speakers to make outrageous and unsubstantiated claims about Israel and Jews, some of which cross the line into anti-Semitism, yet when pro-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 ok for me to criticize Israel but it’s not acceptable for you to defend it. 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? When the issue of anti-Semitism is raised, boycotters and anti-Zionists are inclined to respond by accusing the person who raises the issue of anti-Semitism of doing so in bad faith, not because they are really concerned but in a dishonest attempt to frighten people and stop them from criticizing Israel.
Our universities have a legal duty to take all reasonable steps to make sure campus rhetoric and freedom of speech are not polluted by anti-Semitism. But when does freedom of speech cross the line into anti-Semitism? We know when criticism of Israel crosses the line into anti-Semitism, yet Anglo Jewry is reluctant put its name to a definition. Ten years after its inception the EUMC working definition of anti-Semitism may be the best available, but unfortunately it is not widely accepted.
Why is it so hard to convince people that this latest form of anti-Semitism, a mixture of anti-Zionism and anti-Israel sentiment, is the real thing? Why are people, especially those on the Left, unwilling 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 anti-Semite and there is no definition to stop them? One of the ironies of campus life is that the NUS, whose actions have created an environment of hostility and intimidation toward Jewish students, adopted the EUMC definition of anti-Semitism at their 2007 Annual Conference and reaffirmed support for it in 2010 and 2013. Earlier this year NUS pledged to fight anti-Semitism on campus. The reality is that it is a worthless pledge because NUS cannot on the one hand support the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement 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 nonsense of this claim.
Trying to fight anti-Semitism on campus without the use of an accepted definition of modern anti-Semitism 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 all be aware of what we consider to be modern anti-Semitism.
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 anti-Semite.
Since we don’t have a consensus on what constitutes modern anti-Semitism, how do we persuade university authorities what anti-Semitism is? In the meantime the anti-Israel activist will continue to say they are not anti-Semite because they say so, and that they should know.
The author is director of the Academic Friends of Israel which campaigns against the academic boycott of Israel and anti-Semitism on campus in the UK. He has specialist knowledge of the British trade union movement and its attitude to Israel, the academic boycott and other BDS campaigns in Britain.