When Will UK Universities Wise Up to Anti-Semitism?

As a Brit, I am ashamed of what is happening in my country.

Richard Mather


How long before British universities do something about the safety of their Jewish students? A new survey reveals that Jewish students at one of Britain’s top institutions face a “toxic atmosphere” in which they are forced to hide their identity. According to the Scottish Jewish Student Chaplaincy and the Scottish Council of Jewish Communities, the University of Edinburgh is not a safe place to be Jewish.

Edinburgh is widely regarded as one of the world’s best universities and is the third most popular university in the UK. It is closely linked with important institutions in North America and is a member of the prestigious League of European Research Universities. Historically, the university played a vital role in Britain’s intellectual, scientific and literary development. Naturalist Charles Darwin, philosopher David Hume, physicist James Clerk Maxwell, and writers Robert Louis Stevenson and Sir Walter Scott all studied at the university.

The university has high-ranking royal connections, too. Prince Philip was chancellor from 1953 to 2010, with Princess Anne taking over in March 2011.

So it is a real shame to discover that the institution is failing to ensure the security of Jewish students who are apparently quitting courses “in despair” following recent anti-Israel demonstrations. Jewish leaders accuse the university of a lack of urgency in tackling the problem of anti-Semitism. A leading spokesman for the Jewish community commented that the university “needs to be aware of the international damage that is being done not only to Edinburgh’s reputation, but also to that of other Scottish universities and to the wider nation.”

In response, Edinburgh University said it wants “all of our students to feel safe and supported.” Fine words, but how is the university going to ensure the safety of Jewish students? And will it do anything to curb the antics of pro-Palestinian activists who are making Jewish students’ lives a misery?

These questions actually pertain to all campuses in the UK. Chief Rabbi Lord Sacks has spoken of the intimidation of Jewish students in Britain as “part of a long, slow, insidious process intended to undermine academic freedom and it must not be tolerated."

He’s right, of course, but part of the problem is the attitude of lecturers and other academics, many of whom are incredibly hostile toward the State of Israel.

Take the University and College Union (UCU) for example. The UCU has repeatedly (and obsessively) called for a boycott of Israeli academics. And in May 2011, UCU members voted to disassociate itself from the EU working definition of anti-Semitism. In disgust, four leading Jewish academics in Scotland quit the UCU and the British government called on the Equality and Human Rights Commission to investigate the union. At the same time, the UCU was given notice of the intent of a Jewish UCU member to sue for breach of the UK Equality Act (2010).

So if the UCU is politically biased against Israeli academics and does not even recognize the EU definition of anti-Semitism, what hope is there for Jewish students who complain of anti-Semitic and/or Israelophobic harassment? Perhaps Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis, when he takes over from Rabbi Sacks in September 2013, will impress upon the UCU and individual universities the importance of cracking down on anti-Israel and anti-Semitic activities. But I doubt they will listen.

No, I fear that Britain is undergoing a profound but dangerous cultural transformation, in which sympathy for Israel (and the Jewish people) will continue to recede, leaving the country wide open to an influx of anti-Semitic and pro-Palestinian ideas and discourses.

As a Brit, I am ashamed of what is happening in my country. It is alarming that some Jewish students feel they can no longer study at a UK university. The complicity of British academics and the cowardice of university leaders is largely to blame for this situation. I would like to see Jewish community leaders and Jewish organizations in the UK get a lot tougher with institutions that fail to curb anti-Semitism on campuses. I would like them to speak out robustly and regularly.

At the same time, I think we need to show students that supporting Israel is progressive. After all, Israel has a free press, a trade union movement and several co-operatives. It is a world leader in innovating green technology. Women are guaranteed gender equality, homosexuals enjoy full civil rights and Israeli Arabs have the vote. These values – which are in short supply in the Middle East – are exactly the kind of values which progressive liberals and students usually champion.

Indeed, the Left in Britain and Europe is failing to champion the progressive values it pretends to espouse and has aligned itself with the massive reactionary power bloc that is Islam. Because of this alliance, the Left has abandoned women and other minorities in the Middle East and refuses to lift a finger for the people of Syria, preferring instead to focus its energies on supporting Hamas. And there is nothing progressive about Hamas, which is a neo-fascist organization that publicly executes its enemies and advocates the murder of millions of Jews.

At the same time, Israel advocates must continue to protest against the presence of anti-Semitic guest speakers at university events, and challenge the NGOS, churches and charities that set up their stalls during Freshers’ week and demonize the State of Israel. We must explain to students that it was Islam, not Zionism, that colonized the land of Israel and built a mosque on the Temple Mount. We must explain to them that the Palestinians and the Arab states collaborated with the Nazis and then rejected the UN partition plan because they didn’t want to share the land with Jews (and still don’t).

So, yes, Jewish leaders must do all they can to pressure universities into ensuring the security of Jewish students. But a more sustained campaign is needed – a campaign which highlights the progressive nature of Zionism and exposes the reactionary intolerance of those who wish to dismantle the most forward-thinking country in the entire Middle East.