Flicking idly through the newspapers on Shabbat morning, my eye was drawn to a small news story on page four of The Times.
The headline was “Antisemitic university”, casually wedged in between a story on crime bosses and a TV star facing a sexual assault charge. So, nothing to see here. Apparently.
Then I took a closer look. Essex University, said the story, “admitted it has an antisemitism problem but has not apologised.”
How weird, I thought. Surely, if a mainstream university has not apologised over its antisemitism problem, in the light of everything we are currently experiencing, that’s a huge story?
And why hadn’t I heard about it?
I read on. In a few more lines The Times wrapped up this seemingly enormous scandal: “In February more than 200 students voted against establishing a Jewish Society, which was later ratified by the university.
A review by Baroness Neuberger of Abbotsbury found that fewer than 50 students were Jewish. Staff will now take mandatory training.”
Puzzled, I fished out the Jewish News — only to find that “Antisemitic university” appears to be the very reverse of the situation in Essex.
It is indeed true that in February, Essex University attracted presumably unwanted publicity after hundreds of students opposed the creation of a Jewish Society on campus — and the discovery of antisemitic social media posts by a faculty member.
Is it technically true that the university did not apologise?
Perhaps. But in fact, it did something much better, as Simon Johnson from the Jewish Leadership Council and Mark Gardner from the Community Security Trust attested.
Essex University commissioned an independent report, headed by Baroness Neuberger, which took evidence from 85 students and staff.
Messrs Johnson and Gardner were among the external scrutineers of the report, which made 33 recommendations now being put into practice by the university.
Many of the recommendations, covering issues such as complaints procedures, kashrut provision where necessary, and staff training, have already been enacted, and the rest will be put in place over the summer.
The staff member whose antisemitic social media posts caused such hurt to Jewish students was first suspended and then dismissed.
The university authorities took swift action — and that action has been warmly welcomed by the Union of Jewish Students, students at Essex, communal leaders — and none other than the Speaker of the House of Commons, John Bercow, himself an alumnus of Essex University, and today its chancellor.
What does all this prove, other than that a harried sub editor at The Times got the story completely back to front?
In my view, it shows that there are ways of dealing with seemingly intractable situations, of pulling back from the brink, of talking to people before things get completely and utterly out of hand.
Of course, even the toughest of actions can’t change people’s thinking overnight, and it is certain that those who were initially opposed to the creation of a J-Soc at Essex, won’t magically change their opinions.
Just the same, when a university — or a political party, for that matter — makes it clear what will and what will not be tolerated in an open, free and diverse society, then people do come to understand that there are limits.
So well done, Essex, and thank you. Everyone else, take note, please.