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Addressing root causes of rising antisemitism – revisiting academic ‘freedom’

One of the important outcomes from polling on the ongoing Gaza conflict shows an inter-generational difference in views about Hamas and the atrocities it perpetrated against Israeli civilians on October 7th.

For older generations, the polling shows more clearcut understanding of the true nature of Hamas as an unrepentant terror group, with low levels of sympathy for its actions.

For younger generations, on the other hand, large numbers of youth are not only sympathetic towards the Palestinian cause, which is not problematic in and of itself, but also to Hamas as a terror group prohibited in most democracies, and most scarily of all, to the specific atrocities that took place on October 7th.

In this climate, it has also been widely reported how university campuses worldwide have increasingly become hotbeds of antisemitism. Jewish students have been abused, attacked and isolated. Shows of support by sympathetic non-Jews are often met with similar treatment, creating a wider climate of silence and fear.

The usual rules that require freedom of speech, tolerance and non-threatening behaviour on campus do not seem to apply when Jews are the victims. And even the usual virtue signalling from ‘right-thinking people’ – celebrities, influencers, etc – has been, at best, strangely mute when Jews are the victims.

To many, this is not a surprise. Academia has for a long time appeared captive to the far left. Under the misguided banners of ‘anti-colonialism’ and ‘intersectional solidarity’, the far left has in effect partnered with Islamists who on so many issues strongly oppose the social justice agenda.

A groupthink has pervaded over academia. Those willing to stand outside this partnership are wrongly labelled as ‘colonisers’, ‘fascists’, ‘racists’, and even these days ‘genocide-supporters’. They are duly cancelled.

In this kind of climate, it is hard to argue that academic freedom truly exists on many campuses in the US and Europe, let alone elsewhere.

Yet it is ‘academic freedom’ that seems to be the principle that allows for the reproduction and sustaining of the far left/Islamist ‘consensus’ among the younger generation.

Specifically, it is ‘academic freedom’ that grants an almost unlimited right for university professors to indoctrinate students and enforce the far left/Islamist consensus, curtailed only in the case of extreme hate speech, a threshold which unfortunately has been crossed on multiple occasions. (Yet even then, the briefest of apologies without any sign of real underlying change seems sufficient to appease university administrators.)

It is time to revisit what ‘academic freedom’ means and how it is applied.

It is appropriate that academic freedom is invoked to enable university professors to freely choose, structure, perform and publish research projects. Research is otherwise held accountable, at least for the most part, through the criteria and processes used to allocate public and private funding, and also through peer-review of outcomes against relatively transparent and objective academic standards. Even if this research leads to poor outcomes that fail to meet criteria or fall below the standards, academic freedom means that other academics can come in to challenge and debunk the flawed or biased research which in turn may also reduce scope for future funding opportunities of poor performers.

There are some who would disagree with this conclusion. However it is important to also understand that academic freedom, in its bona fide sense, brings many advantages – the resistance and resilience of academia to political interference and manipulation, the freedom to challenge previous research without fear or favour, and the value of pluralism in the production of academic output.

When it comes to teaching, however, be it at under- or post-graduate level, the situation is very different. When ‘academic freedom’ is abused as the basis to bring indoctrination into the lecture theatre, there is little that students can do to challenge or debunk the professors, especially as the professors hold great power over students through the scoring of their academic performance and in many cases, acting as the gateway to future career opportunities. There are few accountability mechanisms that can restrain professors, especially those with tenure.

The sacking of Professor David Miller, formerly of Bristol University (UK), is the exception that seems to prove the rule. Despite the apparently egregious repetitive examples of abuse in the lecture theatre, his removal only took place after a huge national campaign sustained over several years. He now presents for Press TV, the propaganda arm of the Iranian regime.

Undergraduates, and even many post-graduates, are young and impressionable. There is no doubt that at university they should be exposed in an uncensored and unfiltered manner to a range of viewpoints, trained to think critically, and reach their own conclusions.

However, ‘academic freedom’ seems to be used as the basis for many professors to enforce the far left/Islamist groupthink in the lecture theatre, restricting the viewpoints to which students are exposed, with alternative viewpoints systematically downgraded, abused or cancelled. This results in uncritical acceptance – a lack of critical thinking – with the professors’ own conclusions, opinions and prejudices forced onto the students.

Accordingly, just like high school teaching requires curricula that meet basic standards of impartiality and balance (even if many seem to be failing in this respect), the principle of academic freedom should also require balance and presentation of all sides of the story in teaching at the under- and post-graduate levels. It should not be used as the basis for indoctrination or one-sidedness.

How to structure and enforce these requirements needs significant thought and introspection. There are dangers that need to be avoided that could make the situation worse not better.

However, it is clear that the current approach no longer works and that university students and democratic society as a whole needs, and deserves, better, especially if government and society are serious about challenging rising antisemitism and other forms of intolerance and discrimination.     

About the Author
Adam Gross, an Oxford-educated strategist, has over 20 years' experience solving complex problems in the international arena for United Nations agencies, international financial institutions, private sector, NGOs and social enterprises across Europe, Africa and Asia. Adam made aliyah with his family in 2019 to live in northern Israel.
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