January 5, 2021

However awful 2020 was, there was at least one upside: the end of Jeremy Corbyn’s tenure as Labour leader. Not that this means the party’s anti-Semitism crisis is over. If only.

The new leader does seem sincere in his desire to decontaminate the party. But however committed Keir Starmer and his allies may be to expelling members, it’s a bit like painting the Forth Bridge. Kick one out and another will emerge.

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The problem runs deep. But the problem isn’t Labour per se. The party was never the origin of anti-Semitism in British politics. Members didn’t wake up one morning and decide that because Jeremy Corbyn was leader they would start to hate Jews. The anti-Semitism was latent. It was within them, inculcated and maturing over years. Mr Corbyn gave them a feeling that it was ok to say certain things publicly, but the real issue is why they harboured such anti-Semitism ideas in the first place. And the blame for that lies with academia.

Campus anti-Semitism is the hidden story of the past few years. A Community Security Trust report published last month recorded 123 university incidents in the past two years. Indeed, such is the scale of the problem that, as editor of the Jewish Chronicle, I constantly hear parents and prospective students saying that they will not consider some universities because of their reputation for anti-Semitism.

This is anti-Semitism that hides in plain sight; it is recorded and is a major topic of discussion within the Jewish community. But there has, until very recently, been little focus on it from elsewhere — as if somehow those responsible are merely overgrown kids getting a bit too overheated in debates over the Middle East.

But this is a complete misunderstanding of the real problem. Far from it being the preserve of students, campus anti-Semitism often emanates from, is propagated by and is defended by academics and the university authorities themselves. When examining problems on campus the focus should be primarily on academics, not students.

Take what happened at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS). It was reported last week that the university has agreed to pay £15,000 — the cost of his tuition fees — to Noah Lewis, a former student who had to withdraw from his course because of what he called a “toxic, antisemitic environment on campus”.

SOAS’s first ‘investigation’ recommended that Mr Lewis be paid £500 to cover a few expenses. Mr Lewis appealed, and the independent panel set up to consider his appeal was withering in its judgment, arguing that the first panel had simply ignored the student’s broader complaint about the environment at SOAS.

Mr Lewis had complained that there were racist daubings on campus and that criticisms of Israeli policy “often morph into attacks on the State of Israel and then further progress into blatant attacks on Jews in general”. The full account he provided to the appeal is shocking even for those of us used to this sort of thing. That’s probably why the appeal panel recommended setting up a further independent investigation into what it said was prima facie evidence that there was indeed a “toxic, antisemitic environment” at SOAS.

The real importance of the appeal ruling, however, is not that it upheld the accounts provided by Mr Lewis. It’s that the appeal exposed the institutional failure of SOAS’s own academics to treat Mr Lewis’ complaints properly. This is a story that is repeated time after time.

Worse, it is often the academics who are responsible for fostering such an intolerant atmosphere and who are then protected by their colleagues. Fifteen of the incidents described in the CST report were perpetrated by academic staff, including four at the University of Warwick, two at the University of Leeds and two at the University of Nottingham.

In November 2019, for example, a Jewish student at the University of Warwick alerted CST to a lecture on Israel and Palestine by Goldie Osuri, Associate Professor of Sociology. The student reported that the lecturer had said to students, “this idea that the Labour Party is antisemitic is very much an Israeli lobby kind of idea…”.

Warwick’s Jewish Israeli Society then released a recording of these comments and submitted a complaint to the university on behalf of the Jewish student, who wished to remain anonymous. In response, Dr Osuri emailed the entire class informing them of the complaint and recommending that her students look at the website of Jewish Voice for Labour (a notorious Corbynite group set up solely to deny claims of Labour anti-Semitism) which, as Dr Osuri put it, “argue that the claims of anti-semitism against the Labour Party are orchestrated”.

The Jewish student understandably felt targeted and intimidated by Dr Osuri for being involved in a complaint, even before it had been investigated. Then the university said it could not consider the recording and would seek to punish whoever was responsible for it as it breached data protection.

The investigation later dismissed the student’s complaint, ruling that Dr Osuri’s statement was legitimate “within the principles and values of tolerance and freedom of speech”. But — extraordinarily — the president of the Jewish Israeli Society (who had submitted the complaint against Dr Osuri on behalf of the Jewish student) was told by the university authorities that a complaint had been made against him by Dr Osuri and another academic, and that he was being charged with “Violation of the Policy on Recording of Lectures by Students” and “bullying and harassment and a defamation of the academic reputation of Dr Goldie Osuri”.

It took three months for this investigation to be completed, with all charges dropped.

The whole sorry episode reeks of attacking Jews for daring to complain about perceived anti-Semitism. It effectively sends the message to Jewish students and those who represent them that they should shut up and put up with whatever they are faced with, to exculpate the offender and find a way to blame the complainant. To blame the Jew for his own victimhood, in other words — an all too familiar theme in history.

Another example, at Bristol University, is equally revealing. In February 2019, two Jewish students reported to CST what they considered to be anti-Semitic content taught in a lecture in the course “Harms of the Powerful” by David Miller, Professor of Political Sociology at the university. Prof Miller was said to have shown a PowerPoint slide with a diagram featuring a web of Jewish organisations, placed under or subservient to the “Israeli government”.

The topic was ‘Islamophobia’, and the slide was part of Professor Miller’s explanation of his theory that the “Zionist movement (parts of)” is part of a global network that promotes and encourages hatred of Muslims and of Islam. The PowerPoint presentation used by Miller during the lecture included CST and other mainstream UK Jewish organisations and leaders in this diagram, implying that they are part of this alleged Islamophobic network.

A Jewish student in the lecture gave CST a written statement that “as a Jewish student I felt uncomfortable and intimidated in his class. I know and understand what he says is false, it is clear however that a number of students in the class believe him, just because he is an academic”. The same student claimed that “I fear that if he found out that I was Jewish this would negatively affect my experience throughout this unit”.

A different Jewish student in his class further stated that “I don’t think it is right that I should have to sit in a lecture or seminar in fear. Fear that he will offend me personally or for fear that he is going to spread hatred and misinformation to other students who, in turn, can pass on these false ideas”.

Out of respect to the students’ desire to remain anonymous, CST wrote to the university authorities. Their response, in all seriousness, was simply to say that the Head of School had discussed the letter with Professor Miller through his line manager. Indeed, because the students wish to remain anonymous, Bristol still refuses even to consider that there has been a formal complaint.

In a Zoom meeting this August, Prof Miller described CST — a charity which exists solely to examine anti-Semitism and protect the Jewish community from it — as “people who must only be faced and defeated”. He elaborated in a newspaper interview, saying CST “is an organisation that exists to run point for a hostile foreign government in the UK…this is a straightforward story of influence-peddling by a foreign state”.

The University of Bristol authorities responded by seeming to closing ranks, describing CST as an “external third party”, saying that it would therefore not enter into a discussion with it over Miller.

It is quite rightly said that what happens on campus is a prelude to what happens in real life a generation later, as fashionable academic ideas seep out of the academy and as the students influenced by those ideas move into positions of influence in wider society. These are the academics who set the tone and agenda for much of campus life — and for those students who, over the next decades, will be setting the tone for national life.

That is why, quite apart from the facts of these incidents themselves, they matter so much.

Defeating the intellectual cancer that has spread among some academic communities will be a difficult and lengthy process. But there is a more immediate and practical step that can be taken. Last month, Oxford University became the latest to adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of anti-Semitism (which, you may remember, was the cause of a long battle within the Labour Party during the summer of 2019). The vast majority of Russell Group universities have now adopted it — as has Warwick. 

It is helpful because as well as offering a clear definition it provides a series of concrete examples which demonstrate why certain behaviour — such as holding individual Jews responsible for the actions of a foreign government, Israel — is anti-Semitic.

Education Secretary Gavin Williamson may not have many fans, but he has been a tireless advocate of the IHRA definition, even warning that universities could face cuts if they refused to adopt it. The real test will come when one of the institutions that has adopted it has to confront the behaviour of one of its own staff members. We will, I fear, not have long to wait.