UK campus anti-Semitism and the state of free speech
UK campus anti-Semitism and the state of free speech

“There has been a rise in anti-Semitism on UK university campuses since 2001. In that year the UN World Conference against Racism in Durban, South Africa, accused Israel of racism, apartheid, ethnic cleansing, attempted genocide, and crimes against humanity. 

“Campus anti-Semites cloak their attacks on Israel in a distorted language of human rights. Often they promote the idea that ‘Zionism is racism’ and Israel is a ‘settler colonial state.’ This narrative also includes the equation of Israelis, Zionists, or Jews with Nazis. Besides this, it promotes BDS, a global political program, whose aim is to destroy Israel. Student supporters of the Palestinians frequently label pro-Israeli Jewish students as ‘apologists for racism,’ ‘apologists for apartheid,’ and ‘racists,’ as well as ‘Nazis.’” 

Lesley Klaff is a Senior Lecturer in Law at Sheffield Hallam University and a member of UK Lawyers for Israel, an NGO that provides pro bono legal advice and representation to victims of anti-Semitism. 

“The anti-Zionist narrative on British campuses is particularly acute during armed conflicts between the Palestinians and Israel. The period following the start of Israel’s Operation Protective Edge, in the summer of 2014, was especially bad. Student Palestine societies demonized Israel and Israelis. 
“In the UK there exists an Office of the Independent Adjudicator for Higher Education (OIA). Its purpose is to review complaints against universities, to decide whether any given complaint was justified, partly justified, or not justified. 

“I have been involved in a case against a university, brought by a Jewish student who had been harassed by members of the university’s student Palestine society. The university decided to take no action against the Palestine society. The student then brought the complaint against his university to the OIA. It found, in 2016, that the student’s complaint was partly justified. The OIA recommended that the university compensate the student with 3000 pounds sterling. The rational for the sum divided as follows – 2,500 pounds sterling for failing to address the student’s complaint properly and 250 sterling for the university’s delay in considering the complaint. An additional 250 sterling was awarded because the university had insinuated that the student brought the complaint because he was pushed to by people outside. 

“There is a general problem in that university administrators are illiterate with respect to anti-Semitic language and the typical iconography of anti-Zionist expression. A key issue in all of this concerns free speech on campus. There is a tendency in UK academia to believe that freedom of speech on campus is absolute. Many believe that the university is a ‘marketplace of ideas’ and that this means that views can be freely exchanged, even if they cause offense.  

“This metaphor of the marketplace of ideas is outdated. Free speech is circumscribed by several UK laws designed to promote racial, religious, sexual, and disability equality on campus, to prevent harassment and discrimination, and to promote equality of educational opportunity. Many universities fail to consider these laws, allowing campus anti-Semitism to flourish. 

“Many problems are due to the fact that academics in the UK confuse the principle of freedom of speech with that of academic freedom. Academic freedom means, first of all, the right of universities to be free from state and political interference. Furthermore, university academics are free to test received wisdom and to express controversial views without being fired. Academic freedom also includes the right of universities to appoint staff and admit students, and decide what to teach them and what research to undertake. 

“Yet, the perception of many academics - that academic freedom is the same as absolute free speech - is false. This confusion between academic freedom and free speech means that anti-Semitic views of Israel, Judaism, and Jews are often regarded as merely controversial or offensive. 

“Many UK universities fail to comply with the legal constraints placed on them by the Education (No. 2) Act 1986. Its section 43 requires the university to ensure freedom of speech on campus, within the law, for its members and visiting speakers, as well as for its students and employees. This means that there is no duty to allow known hate speakers onto campus in the name of academic freedom or free speech, and that there is a duty to conduct a risk assessment in those cases. It also means that the university should ensure the security and freedom of speech for a visiting Israeli speaker. 

“Until recently, there was another major problem: no generally accepted definition of anti-Semitism existed. However, in December 2016 the UK became the first country to officially adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition of anti-Semitism. The Government recommended the definition for use by the police, councils, universities and public bodies, to help those bodies decide if an incident is anti-Semitic or not. UK police forces already use it for this purpose. One should hope that if adopted by universities, the definition will make it much easier for Jewish students to bring successful complaints of anti-Semitic harassment on campus. In case of rejection, they can take the case further to the OIA.”