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  • Jonathan Hunter

In Defence of Oxford’s Jewish Students: A reply to Mssrs Shlaim, Rosenhead and Green

It was very disappointing to read the highly questionable article in the previous issue written by Avi Shlaim, Jonathan Rosenhead and Colin Green (‘The Campaign against Ken Loach and St Peter’s College’, Oxford Magazine, No. 433, Fifth Week, Trinity Term, 2021).

While the article ostensibly claims to be a defence of academic freedom, one of its authors have historically voiced public support for the boycott of Israeli academia – and indeed, Rosenhead himself has been described as the ‘architect’ of this boycott – somewhat contradicting the principles they claim to espouse.

Far from seeking to defend freedom of expression, the article grossly misrepresents the nature of the International Holocaust Memorial Alliance’s (IHRA) internationally recognised definition of antisemitism and thereby delegitimises its adoption at Oxford University, seemingly without any care for the enormous harm which this would cause to the Jewish members of Oxford’s community.

In the authors’ words, the IHRA definition of antisemitism is ‘fundamentally flawed’ and ‘grossly partisan’ on the basis that it ‘has been deliberately politicised by Israel’s supporters so that it could be deployed to inhibit free debate and discussion on Israel’. As a result, the authors consequently allege that all complaints made to St Peter’s College by Oxford University’s Jewish Society and the Union of Jewish Students, for its decision to host the controversial filmmaker Ken Loach – on the basis that Mr Loach has allegedly engaged in behaviour considered to be antisemitic according to the IHRA definition – is simply part ‘of a persistent attempt by Israel’s aggressive defenders in this country and elsewhere to conflate anti-Zionism with antisemitism’.

In other words, the authors claim that the complaints made of Ken Loach are purely political, without any real basis, and originate from a conspiracy of aggressive pro-Israel activists to silence Israel’s critics. Such a ludicrous proposition, without any evidence put forward in its support, is to decry and dismiss the very real concerns of Jewish students at Oxford University, who have in recent months reported a significant increase in antisemitism, including reports in national media that Oxford students have made shockingly repulsive comments such as ‘why don’t they just wipe out those rich Jews?’

Such arguments unfortunately echo a grotesque and very obviously antisemitic conspiracy theory that seeks to paint Jewish students as agents of the Israeli government, prominently implied by Bristol University academic David Miller, who has recently been condemned by over 200 academics for ‘undermining community relations in the UK’ for making exactly these kinds of baseless statements.

More worryingly, the prima facie and wholesale dismissal of allegations of racism made by Jewish students flies in the face of the now universally accepted principle of the 1999 Macpherson report of the Metropolitan Police: that if somebody says they are the victim of racism, then authorities must investigate these claims on the preliminary assumption that the complainant is telling the truth. It is disappointing that Shlaim, Rosenhead and Green do not extend this principle to Oxford’s Jewish students. Mr Loach has made highly controversial statements in the past, and if Oxford’s Jewish students believe those statements to be antisemitic, then they must be taken seriously, as students from any other minority would if they made complaints of racism of any other visiting speaker.

Still, even more distressing than the authors’ dismissal of the IHRA definition of antisemitism is their shameless attempt to blame the victim. The authors write ‘if there was indeed a spike in antisemitic abuse, it is more likely to have come as a result of the students’ attempt at no-platforming’. In other words, they blame Jewish students for bringing antisemitism on themselves – for Shlaim, Green and Rosenhead, if only these students had not opened their mouths to rightly make a complaint relating to racism, then they would not be the object of severe abuse from racists. Such arguments – which so blatantly blame the victims of racism for the oppression and harassment which they experience – are outdated at best, and the effect of which is to defend the perpetrators and culprits of racism at worst.

Ironically, despite the article’s incessant condemnation of the IHRA definition, it offers few if any arguments substantively critiquing particular aspects which are allegedly problematic. Taking the article as a whole, it would appear that the authors are primarily dismissive of the IHRA definition of antisemitism as several of its non-exhaustive list of examples of antisemitism refer to Israel, which the authors single out for particular criticism. One of these examples is ‘holding Jews collectively responsible for actions of the state of Israel’.

The Community Security Trust, the main communal body responsible for the physical security of the Jewish community, reported 116 antisemitic incidents during the recent conflict in Gaza. These incidents have included a convoy of motor vehicles in London waving Palestinian flags while making rape threats to Jewish women. In social media, in communities and even in the university lecture theatres, it now simply cannot be denied that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is cynically being used to make truly horrific antisemitic statements – and this is clearly damaging to Britain’s Jews. The UK’s Jewish community and the foreign policy of the State of Israel are two separate entities – and the IHRA definition rightly points out that grotesque antisemitic activism seeks to conflate the two in order to malign and victimise British Jews.

If the authors’ article has but one valid lesson, it is to remind academic communities of the need to enshrine and protect the IHRA definition of antisemitism. More than ever, British Jews face vitriol, incitement and even physical attacks as a result of a rise of antisemitism. There can never be a perfect definition of an ever-changing phenomenon such as antisemitism – but the IHRA definition must be considered a rigorous, fair and thorough instrument to protect Jews from antisemitic hatred, and the authors themselves point out that it has been adopted by 85 institutions of higher education.

The claim that the IHRA definition infringes on freedom of speech is unfortunately all too often used as an excuse to defend individuals and groups who have made antisemitic comments, and is ironically most often put forward by those who have a history of supporting boycotts that totally dismiss the principle of free speech.

Freedom of speech is not a license to target and abuse vulnerable minorities. While the authors cite Article 10 of the European Convention of Human Rights (ECHR), they would benefit from reading this article in its entirety:

‘The exercise of these freedoms [of speech], since it carries with it duties and responsibilities, may be subject to such formalities, conditions, restrictions or penalties as are prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society, in the interests of national security, territorial integrity or public safety, for the prevention of disorder or crime...’

In the dreadful shadow of genocide and mass persecution, the draftsmen of the ECHR recognised that freedom of expression is a privilege which can manipulated and abused. In a democratic society, minorities require protection and solidarity – and Oxford must never be allowed to become a hub for those who seek to disparage this principle for Jews or any other minority.

This article was published in the Oxford Magazine edited by members of the University of Oxford. Jonathan Hunter is a trustee of The Pinsker Centre, and a graduate of the University of Oxford. The views in this article are the author's own.

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