Geoffrey Alderman
Geoffrey Alderman

Government assault on universities does Jews no favours

Protesters with a sign opposing antisemitism (Photo by Gabriele Holtermann-Gorden/Sipa via Jewish News)
Protesters with a sign opposing antisemitism (Photo by Gabriele Holtermann-Gorden/Sipa via Jewish News)

On 17 May, in the House of Commons, Communities’ Secretary Robert Jenrick made an explicit threat against English universities. He declared that the Conservative government would ‘name and shame’ universities that “fail to act” by adopting a particular, widely contested definition of antisemitism.

This threat must be read alongside the letter sent three days earlier to all registered providers of higher education in England by Mr Jenrick’s colleague, education secretary Gavin Williamson.

In that letter Mr Williamson rightly warned of the dangers of anti-Jewish prejudice spreading in higher-education institutions as a result of renewed conflict in the Middle East. But he then turned his attention to the very definition of antisemitism that Mr Jenrick apparently intends to bully and browbeat HE providers into adopting, namely that sponsored by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA).

On 9 October last Mr Williamson, in an earlier letter to HEI heads, had uttered a different threat: that if by Christmas 2020 he had not seen “the overwhelming majority of institutions” adopting the IHRA definition, then he would “act.” And by “act” he explained that he had asked his officials “to consider options that include directing the OfS [Office for Students] to impose a new regulatory condition of registration”  and suspending funding streams of HEI’s at which antisemitic incidents occur and which have not signed up to the definition.

It is now clear that this particular piece of intimidation has backfired. For in his 14 May 2021 letter Mr Williamson admits that of the 420 HEIs currently registered with the OfS, less than a quarter had adopted the IHRA definition.

This can hardly be regarded as an “overwhelming majority of institutions,” can it?

There are to my certain knowledge two internationally acknowledged definitions of antisemitism: the one drafted by the IHRA and another, also widely accepted in academia, known as The Jerusalem Declaration (JD). I do not intend here to launch into a detailed comparison of these two formulations[1], save to say that whereas the IHRA definition might be said to embrace – in a broad sense – the defence of Zionism and of the right of the State of Israel to exist, the JD seeks to defend in principle from the charge of antisemitism the argument that Jews might not actually enjoy the right of national self-determination.

In considering any instance of apparent anti-Jewish prejudice, context is crucial. Before 1945 anti-Zionism might be said to have been fashionable in certain Anglo-Jewish circles, where it was eagerly argued that Jews most certainly did not constitute a national entity with the right to a nation-state. That past is now – tragically – dead. But it did once exist.

Let me illustrate the supreme importance of context in another way. At the end of March 2021 it was reported that a Conservative councillor in the north-west of England had had the whip withdrawn after he had reportedly told a candidate for a senior officer position that speaking to residents might be challenging “unless you are able to speak Hebrew.”

I do wonder whether the councillor actually meant Yiddish rather than Hebrew. Be that as it may, I see absolutely nothing untoward in the words the councillor is reported to have used.[2]

Bullying and browbeating academic institutions into adopting one specified definition of antisemitism is not only intellectually shameful. It ignores the legal protections for Jewish people currently enshrined in the 2010 Equality Act. And it constitutes an assault on the institutional autonomy of HEIs.

That autonomy  is also, at least at present, guaranteed by statute. Accordingly, any HEI whose name appears on Mr Jenrick’s so-called shaming list should regard it as nothing less than a badge of honour.

[1]  On which see the interesting analysis by the blogger “Elder of Ziyon” : https://elderofziyon.blogspot.com/2021/03/a-new-better-definition-of-antisemitism.html?m=1

[2]  https://www.thejc.com/conservative-councillor-loses-whip-after-deeply-offensive-hebrew-comment-1.513681

About the Author
Professor Geoffrey Alderman is an academic, author and journalist
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