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  • Writer's pictureThe Pinsker Centre

Report: Reactions at UK Universities to the Israel-Gaza Conflict

STUDENT unions and faculty bodies in a quarter of Britain’s leading universities published potentially antisemitic statements at the height of the recent conflict between Israel and Gaza, new research by The Pinsker Centre has found, as reported in the Sunday Telegraph.

Despite a surge in on-line and on campus abuse of Jewish students in recent weeks, inaccurate and emotive statements in support of Palestine that appear to breach the international definition of antisemitism have been issued by academics and student bodies.

The statements - which included branding Israel an apartheid state, colonizers, global terrorists, oppressors and even genocidal murderers - were issued even though the majority of leading universities have signed up to the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of antisemitism.

The research has been published by the Pinsker Centre, a think tank which campaigns against antisemitism on campus. Its study concludes these statements put the well-being of Jewish students at risk and recommends a series of reforms to ensure IHRA is enforced on campus.

Jonathan Hunter, Pinsker Centre chairman, said: ‘‘It is increasingly clear that adopting the IHRA definition of antisemitism at universities has limited effect in the absence of strong disciplinary frameworks for its enforcement, and our report calls for universities to take tougher measures to ensure the wellbeing of Jewish students.’’

Since the UK Government signed up to the IHRA definition of antisemitism in 2016 more than half the UK universities have followed suit.

However the report found its adoption afforded little protection to Jewish students who suffered abuse on campus and on-line as a result of recent military conflict between Israel and Gaza.

At one in four of the top 40 universities, emotionally charged, inaccurate and biased statements were published about the conflict. Four of the universities where statements were published – Cambridge, Oxford, UCL and Bristol – have among the highest Jewish student populations in the UK. All but three of the universities cited in the report had adopted IHRA.

There was little to no condemnation of Hamas for its indiscriminate firing of hundreds of rockets at Israeli cities but Israel’s air strikes were roundly condemned, prompting calls for sanctions against the state.

The UCL Student Union, on May 15, issued a statement which incorrectly described Israel as an “internationally recognised apartheid”.

The Jewish Society condemned the UCL, which it said had served to stoke “hatred and abuse of their own Jewish students” which represented a “dereliction of their duty” .

On May 21st, 39 academics at the University of Sussex’s Department of International Relations, signed an open letter condemning ‘‘the on-going state violence and state-sanctioned attacks on the Palestinian people across historic Palestine”.

In what one student described as a ‘‘highly offensive’’ and ‘‘one-sided’’ statement, the letter refers to the conflict constituting ‘‘racial apartheid’’ and ‘‘genocide’’. A position of neutrality would, the letter argues, be to “side with the oppressor over the oppressed, with the colonizer over the colonized”.

City University’s Student Union issued a statement on May 17 attacking Israel as a “colonial force” that “practices apartheid” and called on students to engage with the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Movement.

It even goes on to condemn the Union of Jewish Students (UJS), the main representative body of Jewish students in the UK.

It states: “We condemn the Union of Jewish Students (UJS) for their insensitive statements’’, and demands ‘‘that UJS do not attack students, activists, sabbatical officers, and students’ unions for their pro-Palestine stances”.

City University has yet to adopt IHRA and its Students Union passed a motion in March urging the university not to do so.

King’s College London Student Union (KCLSU) issued a statement on May 20 describing ‘‘ethnic cleansing and recognised apartheid globally’’ and ‘‘indiscriminate bombing’’ perpetuated by a callous ‘‘Israeli regime’’.

On 17 May, the Cambridge Student Union (SU) Council passed a motion which asserted, without evidence, that Israel’s actions ‘‘significantly restrict the delivery of essential [humanitarian] services, including the ongoing COVID-19 response.’’

The motion was passed despite a request to delay the vote because Jewish council members were absent due to Shavuot, a Jewish religious holiday which prevents attendance at any work or meetings.

Following the vote, an open to Professor Stephen Toope, the Vice Chancellor of Cambridge University, reportedly signed by at least 1,500 students, staff, academics and student groups within the university, demanded Cambridge begin ‘‘a formal review of institutional ties…[with] illegal Israeli policies’’ and support ‘‘Palestine student activism on campus’’.

The Cambridge Jewish Society reported an increase in Jewish students reporting harassment and condemned ‘‘social media posts by academics and students glorifying terrorist organisations’’.

The report states: “While firm conclusions cannot be made in the absence of a large data set, there is enough evidence at this stage to suggest an extremely high possibility of a strong correlation between the publication of highly emotionally charged statements on the Israel-Gaza conflict, and reports of antisemitism on campus.

“In the current environment on campus, even when adopted by universities, the IHRA definition of antisemitism appears to have had a minimal affect in creating a safer environment for Jewish students in the absence of a firm disciplinary framework for its enforcement.”

The report makes a number of recommendations “in an attempt to build more tolerant, open and engaging spaces on campus which welcome open exchange on sensitive topics while recognising that antisemitic attitudes can only be dealt with through a ‘zero tolerance’ approach”.

According to the IHRA definition of antisemitism, ‘‘denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, e.g., by claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavour’’ is an example of what could constitute antisemitic language.

Eleven of the statements cited in the report include language which could be construed as a breach – including referring to ‘historic Palestine’ instead of the State of Israel, describing Israel as the product of colonialism and ethnic cleansing, alleging the existence of global ‘‘Zionist terrorism’’ , describing Israel as having been an apartheid regime from its very foundation and alleging the occurrence of genocide and ethnic cleansing in Israel-Palestine.

The IHRA definition of antisemitism describes that ‘‘applying double standards by requiring of it a behaviour not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation’’ is an example of what could constitute antisemitic language or behaviour.

None of the statements acknowledged Israel’s right to defend itself against military attack.

The Union of Jewish Students has reported more than 35 incidents of antisemitism on campus and Jewish students have taken to social media to report their experiences of antisemitic abuse and harassment.

Among its recommendations the Pinsker Centre calls for the Charity Commission to update guidance to Student Unions regarding statements on political issues and universities should offer more training to student union officials.

The report calls on universities that have adopted IHRA to impose a stronger disciplinary framework on how the definition is enforced. This should include strong sanctions for officials found to have contravened the definition.


The full report can be found and read here:

Reactions at UK Universities to the Isra
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