Amid Ongoing Parliamentary Campus Free Speech Probe, UK Jewish Community Highlights Challenges Faced by University Students
Leading communal representatives and advocates in the United Kingdom are drawing attention to difficulties faced by Jewish students on campus — particularly surrounding the subject of Israel — amid an ongoing parliamentary probe into free speech regulations at universities.
Baroness Ruth Deech, formerly a principal of St Anne’s College, Oxford, and the UK’s first independent adjudicator for higher education, told the Joint Committee on Human Rights last week that she encountered “many instances where unlawful speech” — including “antisemitism, often served up in the guise of criticism of Israel” — “goes on and is not stopped.”
“Hundreds of extremist speakers [are] arriving on campuses all over the country and not being stopped,” Deech said, echoing a report published by the Henry Jackson Society think tank in September, which found that several major British universities hosted Islamist speakers with a history of endorsing terrorist groups and making hostile remarks about Jews and Israel during the 2016-17 academic year.
“Universities are simply overwhelmed,” she explained. “There are hundreds of speeches going on every week, and it is very hard for them.”
Deech — a member of UK Lawyers for Israel (UKLI) — indicated that these speakers can help foster a toxic climate on campus, which ultimately limits the free exchange of ideas. “My organization has just received a complaint that a lecturer was denied a sabbatical because he proposed to go to Israel,” she said, “and a graduate who wanted to do research was not given any support because it involved Israel.”
The parliamentary committee — which is reviewing challenges to free expression at some universities, including student unions’ no-platforming policies and the government’s counter-terrorism Prevent strategy — also drew input from the Board of Deputies of British Jews, the chief representative body of local Jewry.
“Free speech is being curtailed in the name of pro-Palestinian activism by shutting down through violence speakers who originate from Israel,” the Board cautioned in a submission to the committee.
In other cases, however, “it is being abused by universities permitting extremist or antisemitic speakers to speak at their campus.”
Jewish students have witnessed “antisemitic and extremist speakers being given platforms by universities and student unions, and their events being subjected to aggressive protests,” the Board wrote.
It pointed to a November event at University College London (UCL), which featured Miko Peled — who tweeted in 2016 that “Jews have reputation 4being sleazy thieves — and Azzam Tamimi, who said at Queen Mary’s University in 2012, “I have a great honor to be close to Hamas.”
When Jewish students, academics, and community leaders registered their concerns about this event with campus administrators “at the highest level,” the university defended it on free speech grounds, the Board wrote.
In light of such incidents, the Board encouraged universities to adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s (IHRA) definition of antisemitism — which includes “denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination” — to help administrators “make considered judgements about what is and is not considered antisemitism.”
Tamimi’s recent presence at UCL was also cited in the UK’s Union of Jewish Students (UJS) report to the committee, which noted that while there has been “a sharp fall in the number of hate speakers” on campus, those with “a history of supporting terrorist activity against Israeli civilians” can still be given a platform.
UJS — which represents some 8,500 students in the UK and Ireland — issued four policy recommendations to address these concerns. These include supporting no-platform policies “for fascists and racists,” improving coordination between the universities and students’ unions, implementing a “three-stage model” for managing external speaker requests, and issuing guidance on the prevention and response to alleged hate crimes.
UJS campaigns manager Liron Velleman indicated in testimony before committee members last month that such reforms could help Jewish students, who “for the most part have a very positive time on UK campuses,” but do not always “feel they can freely express themselves.”
Velleman pointed to some universities’ failure to protect the rights of Jewish students who wanted to host events related to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, including by “not putting in the correct security procedures and allowing for violent protests that mean the police have to be called to the campus.”
“We have had instances at events of people throwing chairs or jumping through windows,” he said. “That, for sure, means that some Jewish students feel that their freedom of speech is impeached.”
This view was emphasized in several other accounts shared with the committee, including by UKLI, which argued in written evidence that campus events organized by Jewish or pro-Israel clubs “have been deliberately closed down by violent riots organised by Palestinian societies on a number of occasions in recent years.”
The group pointed to the disruption of a January 2016 event at Kings College London (KCL) with Ami Ayalon, a former head of Israel’s Shin Bet security agency, and an October 2016 gathering at University College London (UCL) featuring Hen Mazzig, an ex-IDF soldier who helped facilitate humanitarian projects in the West Bank.
To lessen the risk of such interruptions, administrators and students unions have imposed certain restrictions on events with pro-Israel speakers, UKLI wrote. These range from limiting public advertising and permitting entry only to ticket holders with a valid ID, to requiring the presence of security personnel, which Jewish and pro-Israel societies are sometimes asked to pay for.
“Thus the current position tends to be that meetings with Israel-supporting speakers can go ahead at British universities, but often only under onerous conditions which make it unlikely that they will be attended by students who are not already sympathetic to Israel,” UKLI wrote. “By contrast, there are rarely any similar restrictions on anti-Israel speakers, who often deliver highly misleading propaganda, inflaming hostility towards Israel and those who support it.”
Yet other testimonies to the committee rejected these accusations, and contested that supporters of Israel conversely help foster a climate of intolerance against pro-Palestinian activists on campus.
Free Speech on Israel (FSOI) — which describes itself as a “predominantly Jewish campaign group” formed in 2016 “to counter the manufactured moral panic over a supposed epidemic of antisemitism in the UK” — argued that there are “growing limitations on the freedom to criticise Israel on UK campuses, resulting from unsubstantiated allegations of antisemitism.”
“The origins of this pressure lie outside the university system,” FSOI asserted, “but the responses of some university authorities limit or even threaten to extinguish the freedom to make a range of legitimate criticisms of the state of Israel.”
The group further criticized the UK government for adopting the IHRA definition of antisemitism — arguing that it has “substantially muddied the water” about what anti-Jewish hatred constitutes — and discouraged universities from following suit.
These calls were endorsed by the Palestine Solidarity Campaign (PSC), which supports the boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israel, and expressed concern in written testimony that students and staff who advocate in favor of Palestinian human rights on campus are being targeted by “a concerted external campaign.”
“It is our view that to criticise the actions of Israel as settler colonialism, to describe Israel as an apartheid regime and to call for [BDS] until Israel complies with international law are all a legitimate freedom of expression,” PSC wrote, “as guaranteed under the European Charter of Fundamental Rights and in the Human Rights Act.”
Yet advocates for the Jewish community have long warned that efforts to singularly target Israel on campus — notably by proponents of the BDS campaign — may create a hostile environment for Jewish students. Britain’s former chief rabbi, Lord Jonathan Sacks, observed in 2016 that while BDS is not “inherently anti-Semitic,” it has become “a front for the new anti-Semitism, an unholy alliance of radical Islamism and the political left.”
In remarks before 70 British university students last week, Joan Ryan MP — chair of Labour Friends of Israel — condemned BDS for “demonizing and delegitimizing the only Jewish state.” She also called anti-Zionism “the new antisemitism.”
Launched in 2005, BDS seeks to isolate Israel until it meets a number of demands set forth by Palestinian groups. Advocates promote it as a human rights movement aimed at pressuring Israel to comply with international law. Critics argue that BDS aims to end the country’s continued existence as a Jewish nation-state, a position repeatedly acknowledged by the campaign’s leading supporters.