Step up fight against antisemitism, universities told

A “renewed and concerted” effort is required across all UK universities and colleges to make Jewish students safe and feel safe on campus.

Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe

That’s the main recommendation for the sector in Lord Mann’s report on “Renewing the Commitment” to tackling antisemitism in the UK – although the detail is a little less straightforward.

Mann was appointed as the government’s independent adviser on antisemitism as far back as 2019 by someone you may remember called “Theresa May”, having chaired the All Party Parliamentary Group Against Antisemitism.

The bulk of coverage for his report has focussed on his call for secondary schools to teach pupils about contemporary antisemitism, rather than just the history of the Holocaust – largely because while the Holocaust is a compulsory part of the curriculum in secondary schools, learning about modern manifestations of antisemitism is not.

That’s to be done via the various curriculum review bodies, but for the higher education sector it is Universities UK that is put in the driving seat, the complexities of regulation and coordination around the devolved nations deftly avoided.

Progress – specifically around the adoption of the IHRA definition of antisemitism – is noted, but a group of examples of remaining issues justifies more detailed recommendations.

Jewish students, it is argued, feel disproportionately threatened, according to Jewish representative bodies, and believe that “some of our leading universities” do not take their complaints seriously enough.

And the report argues that the growth in antisemitism has largely occurred “under the guise of anti-Zionism or criticism of the Israeli government”, where the atmosphere can become “particularly toxic” when conflict in the Middle East arises.

Alongside traditional religious observance concerns like timetabling around Shabbat and Jewish festivals, we also learn that comments on social media “continue to cause harm” with Jewish students sometimes finding antisemitic posts from students whom they “considered to be good friends” – and calls to boycott contact with academics working in Israel are described as an “assault on academic freedom and intellectual exchange”.

Jewish students, we are told, have to expend too much time keeping Jewish societies free from boycott rather than focusing on other debates.

Timetabling, campus catering and academic discussion and debate around the middle east are one thing, but the extent to which student activism can amount to antisemitism is a particularly complex question – and the report doesn’t really assist those attempting to navigate or even regulate it.

As I’ve argued on the site before, if the argument is that anti-Israel (government) and/or pro-Palestinian activism can tip into antisemitism, we do need to decide how to ensure we address that risk specifically with the groups involved – rather than just strengthening the powers of authorities to punish if it happens – lest we generate the very “chilling effect” on debate that many warn against.

Later in the context of the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill, the report argues that “in line” with the legislation, Boycott Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) must never be used to “specifically disadvantage” Jewish students, academics or staff by preventing them from purchasing goods and services including Kosher products.

Again, you can make an argument that the practical implementation of BDS has specific equality impacts, and both its implementation and the debate around it carries risks both to Jewish students and staff – but linking the restriction of BDS discussion and activity to the freedoms in the Free Speech Bill is at least an in-principle example of the fine line that the legislation is about the dump on the Office for Students between protecting speech in general, and introducing restrictions that enable groups that face discrimination to speak.

Finally, in the context of the forthcoming conversation of the OfS statement of expectations on harassment to formal regulation, universities are reminded of the five recommendations made by the Community Security Trust in its report Campus Antisemitism in Britain 2018-2020:

  • Third party reporting on behalf of students
  • Using the IHRA definition of antisemitism
  • Clearly understood timeframe for responding to complaints
  • Review of “unfair burden” of proof placed on students in some universities making complaints
  • Ensuring impartiality in the handling of complaints

I should add that both in relation to acts of harassment and discrimination in general, antisemitism is an area which the Office for Students has tended to urge action and reach a standard regardless of any impact on outcomes for Jewish students. It’s right to do so – although there is no reason to suggest that it shouldn’t adopt that sort of approach more generally to EDI work if it was really serious about “equality of opportunity” rather than just “equality of outcome”.

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