A recently released Home Affairs Select Committee report on anti-Semitism in the UK has raised questions about the existence of such behaviour at UK university campuses.
Southampton itself has been caught in this controversy on occasion, ultimately cancelling an academic conference on the legitimacy of Israel, which had been deemed as ‘partisan’ and ‘anti-Semitic’ by some observers.
Accusations have been levelled at several other universities and student-led organisations. Notable recent cases include that of Alex Chalmers, who stood down as co-chair of Oxford University Labour Club after it voted to endorse Israel Apartheid Week – accusing a large proportion of the group’s membership of having ‘some kind of problem with Jews’. The President of the National Union of Students (NUS), Malia Bouattia, has also come in for criticism after her controversial election in April, accused by the Select Committee report of ‘outright racism’ and an ‘apparent unwillingness’ to listen to the concerns of Jewish students.
For Jonathan Sacerdoti, a prominent anti-Semitism commentator and analyst and one of the founding trustees of the Campaign Against anti-Semitism and also the UK Correspondent for Israel-based international news channel i24news, such events show a problem which has been persistent at UK universities ‘for some time’. He recounts the opinion he has heard from many Jewish students in Britain- that they are not totally safe and are often forced to keep a ‘lower profile’.
This has sometimes amounted to more than just words. Sacerdoti notes an ‘eruption of violence’ at some events associated with Israel, which he says has led to a feeling of danger among Jewish students and the risk of harassment or physical harm. He highlights recent examples of this, including a recent ‘horrific mob attack’ against visiting Jewish Israeli speaker Hen Mazzig at University College London (UCL), which was interupted by protesters chanting ‘murderer’ and thumping on the doors and windows. Police were called, and UCL security had to brief attendees on how to leave without endangering themselves, a chain of events which according to Sacerdoti constitutes ‘intimidation’ of a ‘mostly Jewish’ group.
The cause of such tensions? In Sacerdoti’s view, both students’ unions and university authorities have ‘ignored’ the efforts of those trying to intimidate Jews or silence the views of those they disagree with. He condemns the ‘anti-Semitic’ statements and rhetoric of NUS President Bouattia, such as the description of Birmingham University as a ‘Zionist outpost’ due to its high number of Jewish students.
Such comments have, he says, created the impression that student leaders are ‘unrepentent and uncaring’ on the issue, thereby giving others the impression that they can act against Jewish people with ‘impunity’.
This has, in his view, led to the disguising of anti-Semitism as a form of ‘political activism’ relating to geopolitics. The result? Although Sacerdoti believes such moves are ‘transparent’, many Jewish students no longer feel represented by organisations meant to cater for their needs as much as those of other students, a potential reason he says for some students wanting disaffilliation from the NUS.
Sacerdoti does recognise that this is not necessarily indicative of increasing national hostility towards Jewish people. In his opinion, most Britons are ‘not hostile’ towards the Jewish religion or its followers. He is, however, conscious of a ‘growing tolerance’ of anti-Semitism itself in some quarters, which he claims will only worsen the problem, explaining that allowing Jewish people to be ‘threatened, persecuted, and even attacked’ portrays the UK as a ‘society in decline’.
The Select Committee report also highlights the role played by social networks such as Facebook and Twitter in reacting to anti-Semitic abuse, condeming Twitter for taking too long to respond to complaints. On this point, Sacerdoti underlines the role played by libel and slander laws in limiting freedom of speech. He states his belief that those using social networks in an illegal manner should expect the same level of punishment as if they were breaking laws by other means.
On Twitter’s policy in particular, Sacerdoti highlights the site’s successes in filtering and regulating pornographic material. He suggests that it could also successfully filter the ‘sustained and very nasty abuse’ aimed in ‘huge volume’ at some Jewish people. Explaining the ‘sad situation’ encountered by some Jewish people, he says they can feel a platform such as Twitter is too ‘scary’ for them to use due to the abuse they receive there.
I conclude with a question on the Select Committee report and the suggestion that it should be reviewed as it apportions too much blame on the NUS and the Labour Party. Sacerdoti acknowledges that report is by no means a ‘comprehensive assessment of all anti-Semitism’, but said it focuses on a few problems which were being ‘ignored or mishandled’. In his belief, the report placed signficant focus on both the NUS and the Labour Party as they had ‘invited scrutiny’ through their ‘failure’ to deal with high profile incidents of anti-Semitism in recent months.