Robert Festenstein

Giving with one hand and taking away with the other

I saw two pieces of news this week, one of which was surprising because it told me something I had known for years and the other which has filled me with trepidation.

The first was the report by the Parliamentary Task Force on Antisemitism in Higher Education.  The report set out examples of Jewish students concealing their Jewish identity, having to endure casual anti-Semitic remarks and actively choosing a university based on it’s reputation for being favourable or otherwise to Jews.  It is no secret that Jewish students have for years avoided SOAS (School of African and Asian Studies) because of the high level of antagonism addressed to Jews.

Other Universities have fallen in and out of favour depending on circumstances at the time.  The report, whilst welcome in highlighting the issue, is not saying anything new, particularly about those working in Higher Education.  Many said they did not trust the University College Union – UCU – to protect their rights in relation to issues concerning anti-Semitism. Again this is not news.

A cursory glance at the UCU current website reveals a policy which states: “UCU reaffirms its commitment to policies in support of the Palestinian struggle against settler colonisation, including supporting the campaign for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions against Israel, and against the IHRA working definition of antisemitism”. This is hardly an approach designed to make Jewish employees at Universities feel welcome and sadly this is well entrenched.

What the report does make clear is the centrality of the IHRA – International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance – definition of anti-Semitism to understanding and combatting Jew-hatred, both in relation to Jewish students and staff.  All this is encouraging in that there is both an understanding of the problem and a structured approach to its solution.

The second piece of news unfortunately threatens to undo all this good work.  In the British Times newspaper of the 29th May 2023 it was reported that the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Act 2023 will very shortly become operational.  There is little doubt that this legislation is intended to assist where previously Israeli or pro-Israeli speakers have been heckled, abused or simply denied access by those who are implacably opposed to the idea of a Jewish state.

For many years now there has been increasing concern over the way in which universities have become no-go areas for anything to do with Israel.  The act is in part a response to this and the ‘cancel culture’ which has seen individuals banned from voicing opinions at universities on subjects which are treated as having only one possible and any alternative view must be prevented from being presented.  A key part of this act is the creation of a Director for Freedom of Speech and Academic Freedom whose role it will be to guide investigations as to how free speech on campus is working in reality.

So far, so good until I read that the Director, whose powers derive from the new act is likely to be Professor Arif Ahmed from the University of Cambridge.

Prof. Ahmed in a blog in February 2021 said: “…I am….strongly against Gavin Williamson’s requirement that universities adopt the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism. This ‘definition’ is nothing of the kind; adopting it obstructs perfectly legitimate defence of Palestinian rights. As such it chills free speech on a matter of the first importance”.   In a debate at the Oxford Union in November 2022, when speaking about free speech, he said: “…the most important topics that we face and let me tell you what they are, for instance, Israel and Palestine, that’s one of the most important topics that we face, globally today…”.

Take a pause here.  On the one hand, the Parliamentary Task Force has recommended that the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism should be at the centre of combatting Jew-hatred.  On the other, the one person who is going to be in charge of dealing with issues concerning free speech on campuses in the UK not only wants to see the IHRA definition abandoned by Universities, he believes that one of the most important topics globally is that of Israel and Palestine.

No mention of the scores of thousands killed in the Russo-Ukraine war, nothing about the increasing threat of nuclear weapons being developed by Iran and nothing about the numbers of people coming to the UK illegally and some dying in the attempt.  No, one of the most important topics globally (his words) is Israel and Palestine.  So there we have it, one of the biggest problems in the world today is with the Jewish state. It has an unpleasantly familiar ring to it and begs the question – how is it someone with these widely broadcast views is going to be in such a position of influence when it comes to attacks on Israel.

Looking at the act I see that it states: “….references to freedom of speech are to the freedom to impart ideas, opinions or information”.  In other words, the opinion that Israel is responsible for the lack of peace with the Palestinians is likely to be protected by legislation, as will the opinion that Israel is an Apartheid State.  So much for the IHRA definition helping to protect Jews in universities.  Prof. Ahmed has made his position very clear and what is also clear is that all the good work of the Parliamentary Task Force on Antisemitism in Higher Education under his watch could easily count for nothing.  As for the new legislation, the well-worn phrase comes to mind – be careful for what you wish for.

About the Author
Robert Festenstein is a solicitor based in Manchester with considerable experience in Court actions. He is active in fighting the increase in anti-Semitism in the UK and is President of the Zionist Central Council, an organisation devoted to promoting and defending the democratic State of Israel.
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