In a landmark ruling by the Office of the Independent Adjudicator for Higher Education (OIA) last week, Sheffield Hallam University was told to pay a disabled Jewish student, Brian, £3,000 in compensation for failing to properly consider his complaint about antisemitic social media posts by the University’s Palestine Society. The OIA ruling is particularly significant because it recognises that anti-Zionist behaviour on campus can harass Jewish students and because it endorses the use of the EUMC Working Definition of Antisemitism as a guide to determining when anti-Zionist behaviour crosses the line into antisemitism.
Brian’s complaint, which was filed in May 2015, alleged that the University tolerated anti-Israel activity on campus that crossed the line from legitimate criticism of Israel into antisemitism and harassment. It listed appalling Facebook posts and tweets by the University’s Palestine Society which went way beyond the right to free speech and created a hostile environment for him. These posts, inter alia, accused Israel and Israelis of genocide, deliberately killing Palestinian children, deliberately killing other Palestinian civilians, war crimes, atrocities, using chemical weapons, ethnic cleansing, inhumanity, cruelty, behaving like Nazis, sexual and other abuse of Palestinian children (including abduction and human trafficking), stealing Palestinian organs, being racists and fascists, and rejoicing in Palestinian deaths.
Brian complained that these posts contributed to “an intimidating campus climate” and that he felt “intimidated and afraid to mention Israel on campus or to wear my Star of David or my skull cap for fear of being picked on.” He said that “they are based on lies and half-truths about Jews, invoking blood libel motifs, stereotypes and defamations on campus and online, creating a threatening mob mentality.” He explained the EUMC International Working Definition of Antisemitism and invited the University to formally adopt it in order to identify all forms of antisemitic expression on campus and to identify clear protocols for addressing it.
The University took nine months to consider Brian’s complaint and then comprehensively rejected it. Despite an evidence file spanning 154 pages, the University concluded that evidence of antisemitism from Brian’s complaint was “not conclusive” and suggested that Brian was conflating criticism of Israel with anti-Jewish prejudice. It said, “[Brian’s] complaint reflects a tendency to think that those who oppose the policies and actions of Israel as a state or government are antisemitc and prejudiced against Jews …. The complaint appears to conflate being anti-Israel with being anti-Jewish and opposition to Israel on political or moral grounds with hatred on religious and racial grounds”. The University thereby ignored parts of Brian’s complaint that distinguished legitimate criticism of Israel from antisemitism. For example, para 48 of Brian’s complaint stated that: “I do not ask or expect the University to prevent spoken or written criticism of the State of Israel; but the University must not permit such criticisms to be expressed in a form which is or might reasonably be viewed as intending to stir up religious hatred against Jews or adherents of other religions”; and para 26 of his complaint explained that: “An example of a contemporary antisemitic trope is the allegation that Israelis (or Jews or Zionists) behave like Nazis. Such criticism of Israel must be distinguished from legitimate criticism of Israel which is not antisemitic.”
The University concluded that as there was no antisemitism, there was no basis for specific action to be taken to reduce antisemitism over and above its existing policies in support of good relations on campus. In fact, the University thought that Brian’s use of the term “Jew-baiting” in his complaint was itself more likely to “lead to poor campus relations between groups of people” than any of the Palestine Society’s anti-Israel posts.
On the issue of the EUMC Definition, the University said that its formal adoption was a “policy matter” that was beyond the scope of the student complaints procedure and insinuated that David Lewis and I, who as (non-practising) lawyers had assisted Brian throughout the process, had ‘used’ Brian to pursue our own political and campaigning agendas. Accordingly, the University questioned Brian’s ownership of his complaint.
The OIA found, however, that the University ought reasonably to have engaged with Brian’s request that it formally adopt the EUMC Definition in the consideration of his complaint because it is “more nuanced” than the University’s approach and because it is “relevant to the question of whether material which purportedly was criticising the (alleged) actions of the Israeli state ‘crossed the line’ from being merely offensive or inflammatory to [Brian] to amounting (or potentially amounting) to material which might reasonably be perceived as anti-Semitic and likely to cause [Brian], as a student identifying as Jewish, to experience harassment”. This finding, in my view, amounts to a strong endorsement of the EUMC Definition as a guide to deciding when anti-Zionist behaviour on campus crosses the line into antisemitism.
On the issue of harassment, the OIA found that the University had failed to ask itself whether there was evidence of antisemitic behaviour or material and failed to properly turn its mind to the question of whether “as a student identifying as Jewish” Brian was likely to have been harassed as a result of some of the offending material. The OIA listed by way of example seven of the blood libels set out in Brian’s complaint and stressed that the University should have engaged further with this aspect of the complaint because it had not explored adequately whether a hostile, intimidating, offensive or humiliating environment had been created for Brian but focussed too heavily on whether Brian had been personally threatened or whether the Palestine intended to be threatening, abusive or insulting. The OIA also criticised the University for failing to properly take into account “sector guidance” (by which it presumably meant Universities UK: Freedom of Speech on Campus, which Brian had referred to throughout his complaint). This says that “it is often the manner and form in which views are expressed, rather than the opinions themselves, which take the relevant speech or conduct into the area of unlawful harassment.”
For failing to properly consider his claim of harassment relevant to his Jewish identity, the OIA recommended that the University compensate Brian to the tune of £2,500. The OIA also recommended that the University pay Brian £250 for its delay in considering his complaint and £250 for the manner in which it questioned his ownership of the complaint. This means that no university in the future can treat a complaint of antisemitic harassment with the indifference and contempt seen in this case without risking criticism by the OIA and a compensation award.
The OIA also criticised the Students’ Union. In June 2014, Brian had submitted an earlier complaint to the University concerning the social media activity of the Palestine Society. He did this by means of an email, which the University had then referred to the Students’ Union for resolution. Brian was asked to meet with the Head of Student Engagement at the Students Union in late November 2014 and I accompanied him. At that meeting the Head of Student Engagement dismissed Brian’s complaint but gave no plausible reasons and no written decision was ever issued. She merely said that she did not think the content of the Palestine Society’s social media posts about which Brian complained were antisemitc because she had seen similar statements on the internet. I asked her which definition of antisemitism she was using and she did not reply. I asked her to give me a definition of antisemitism and she could not give me one. I asked her to give me an example of antisemitism and she remained silent. I asked her whether she had ever heard of the blood libel and she answered “no”. I asked her whether she had ever heard of the conspiracy libel and she answered “no”. Finally, she admitted to knowing nothing about antisemitism. All this was recorded in minutes taken of the meeting and included with the compliant submitted to the University in May 2015 and the appeal to the OIA in MAY 2016.
Although Brian’s appeal to the OIA in May 2016 treated the Students’ Union handling of his original complaint as a secondary issue and did not ask the OIA to evaluate it, the OIA nevertheless criticised the Students’ Union for failing to treat Brian’s email as a formal complaint and for appointing a decision-maker who was ill-equipped to consider his complaint. It further criticised it for failing to ask the Palestine Society to respond to the complaint, thereby missing an opportunity to persuade the Society to remove the offending social media posts at an earlier stage; for failing to issue Brian with a written decision; and for failing to advise Brian of his right of appeal to the University. The OIA accordingly recommended that the University work with the Students’ Union to review its complaints handling practices in order to ensure that complaints are dealt with fairly. It further recommended that the University work with the Students’ Union to raise awareness across campus of the legal framework governing freedom of speech and the university’s responsibility to ensure that staff and students are protected from harassment.
The OIA has a record of acting fairly and justly in cases brought by Jewish students and this case involving Brian and Sheffield Hallam University and its Students’ Union is no exception. As my colleague David Lewis has said, “This decision could really help Jewish and pro-Israel students to complain effectively to their universities about some of the worst abuses by anti-Zionists” and I agree with him.
People might have noticed that the old Engage website is dead. If anybody wants to find a piece from that old website, they can google it, find the web address and plug it into the WayBackWhen machine. Which is a marvel.
They can then ask me to put it onto the current Engage site, and I might do that, if the piece is worth rescuing.
On the WayBackWhen machine, the first Engage Website is available here:
And the second Engage website is here:
First they came for the Jews
and I said it was a smear,
First they came for the Jews,
and I said it was all a Tory plot,
First they came for the Jews,
and I said it was all a clever ploy to silence debate about Israel
First they came for the Jews
and I said what about other forms of racism
First they came for the Jews,
and I said look at all their crimes
First they came for the Jews,
and I said that may have been true back then, but not now.
First they came for the Jews,
And I said they brought it down on themselves
First they came for the Jews,
and I said they were liars.
The authors of today’s letter printed in the Guardian ask why Walker’s comments are antisemitic. That answer can be found, as so often, in the very origins of modern antisemitism, most notably in the anti-emancipationist arguments of sections of the left.
Here is Bruno Bauer on the subject that Jewish particularism will always trump Universal humanity,
“Very well,” it is said, and the Jew himself says it, “the Jew is to become emancipated not as a Jew, not because he is a Jew, not because he possesses such an excellent, universally human principle of morality; on the contrary, the Jew will retreat behind the citizen and be a citizen, although he is a Jew and is to remain a Jew. That is to say, he is and remains a Jew, although he is a citizen and lives in universally human conditions: his Jewish and restricted nature triumphs always in the end over his human and political obligations. The prejudice remains in spite of being outstripped by general principles. But if it remains, then, on the contrary, it outstrips everything else.”
More recently, the idea that Jews exploit the memory of the Holocaust in their own name and so deny recognition of other sufferings is common among far-right nationalist groups in several Eastern European countries.
Yet, this is not the only debt Walker owes to the tradition of antisemitism.
Just as Bauer argued that as long as Jews remain Jews they will be the enemies of a progressive emancipatory politics, so Walker picks up the same refrain, this time, however, referring not to Jews per se, but to those who raise the issue of antisemitism,
All racism is abhorrent and I’m not saying that anti-semitism does not exist in the Labour party…I am saying that claims of its significance are being exaggerated for political purposes and this has been done at huge cost to our movement,to our communities and to many individual people.
The question, therefore, is not why Walker’s comments are antisemitic, but, rather, how can people argue they are not?
In The Left’s Jewish Problem Dave Rich offers a careful and scholarly (but unfailingly readable) intervention into the highly charged topic of the left’s relationship with antisemitism – a meticulous genealogy of the movements and ideological skirmishes that lie behind the most recent and familiar manifestations of the problem:
As this book will explain, while Corbyn’s rise to the leadership precipitated the Labour Party’s problem with anti-Semitism, the political trends on the left that brought that problem about long predate Corbyn’s leadership, and stretch well beyond the Labour Party. His rise is a symbol of the problem; whether he survives or not, the issue of anti-Semitism on the left of British politics is unlikely to go away.
Rich reminds us that the British left used to view Israel favourably. Zionism was associated with socialism and, through its conflict with a British occupying force, was perceived as anti-colonial in nature. ‘The cause of Israel is the cause of democratic socialism’ asserted a Tribune writer in 1955. What changed? Rich cautions against overstating the role played by active antisemitism, but demonstrates some of the ways in which antisemitic tropes were able to infect the discourse, and the thinking, of people who saw themselves as part of an antiracist struggle.
An important factor in Israel’s perceived shift from socialist underdog to colonial oppressor was the Six Day War. This polarised opinion, exacerbating nascent left wing hostility to Israel, but strengthening an identity with Zionism amongst British and American Jews. Another significant factor was the rise of the New Left, less interested in bread and butter socialist concerns, driven instead by identity politics, single issue pressure groups and anti-American sentiment. Through this lens, Israel began to be seen as a colonial imposition on the Middle East.
Many of today’s familiar anti-Israel tropes began to circulate in the late 1950s and 1960s. The PLO compared Zionism to Nazism and the Algerian National Liberation Front blamed Israel’s creation on the monopoly of finance and media held by ‘magnate Jews’. Rich explains in detail how another trope – the comparison between Israel and apartheid South Africa – gained so much traction. Surprisingly, the Young Liberals play a major part in this story. The relationship between this group and the wider Liberal Party was bizarrely disjunctive in the 1960s. Their vice-chairman Bernard Greaves, for example, ‘dismiss[ed] Parliament as a hindrance to “the revolutionary transformation of society”’.
Some members flirted with Communism and others engaged in violent direct action as part of their campaign against apartheid. Among the key players was Peter Hellyer, Vice-Chairman of the Young Liberals. Through his campaigning he made connections with Palestinian and other Arab activists and this political environment exposed him to Soviet and Egyptian anti-Zionist – and antisemitic – propaganda. As Rich explains, the Soviet Union was a particularly important vector for anti-Zionist discourse. Examining these 1960s networks, and the way ideas circulated within them (rather like tracing the transmission of a virus) helps explain not just the preoccupations of today’s left but the precise arguments and images they instinctively reach for.
The British Anti-Zionist Organisation (BAZO) was seen as one of the more extreme groups. ‘It argued that Zionists collaborated with Nazis during the Second World War and that they encouraged anti-Semitism to the benefit of Israel.’ If that sounds familiar, so will the names of several of its members – Tony Greenstein, George Galloway, Richard Burden. Another significant grouping was Matzpen – but this Israeli anti-Zionist movement was viewed with disfavour by some, such as Ghada Karmi, because it acknowledged a place for a separate Jewish grouping within the socialist federation they proposed for the region. This particular fault line prompted charges of tribalism against anti-Zionist Jewish activists – accusations since nastily amplified by Gilad Atzmon.
While the anti-Apartheid movement functioned as a gateway to zealous anti-Israel campaigning, the NUS’s No Platform policy, intended to repel fascism and racism, became weaponised against Zionism and (in an ironic twist) had a discriminatory impact on university Jewish societies. These were deemed to be racist unless they renounced any expression of a Zionist identity. The impulse to outlaw abhorrent speakers is understandable. John Randall, a former NUS president, insisted:
There are some boundaries that a civilised society adopts, and there are some behaviours that clearly lie outside those boundaries.
But as Rich dryly comments:
As Jewish students would discover, the flaw in the policy is that those boundaries are movable.
This is just one of many moments in the book where the reader may experience an uncanny sense of déjà vu. In the 1971 words of Kate Hoey, vice-president of the NUS we can read a foreshadowing of the stance taken by current NUS President, Malia Bouattia.
Unquestionably the mass media has given no prominence to the Palestinian case which is understandable because of the Zionist influence among the people who control it.
Although much in this book was unfamiliar to me, all too familiar was the sense of disbelief and frustration that so many on the left, sensitive to other forms of prejudice, have a seemingly limitless capacity for glossing over or blanking out antisemitism except on the right. Here’s one example of this selective obtuseness. Jeremy Corbyn (who refused to campaign alongside David Cameron to Remain) shared a platform with Dyab Abou Jahjah, a Hezbollah supporter who posted Holocaust denial material on his website. When complaints were raised, Corbyn’s response was careless and arrogant.
I refuse to be dragged into this stuff that somehow or other because we’re pro-Palestinian, we’re antisemitic. It’s a nonsense.
This is an example of a manoeuvre I see increasingly often – the invocation of Israel/Palestine to shut down accusations of antisemitism that have nothing to do with that topic.
Although the possibility of a left-wing antisemitism just doesn’t seem to compute for Corbyn and his ilk, the problem’s roots can be traced back to the early years of socialism in the nineteenth century. Jews became strongly identified with capitalism and there grew up the idea of ‘a specifically Jewish network of power and wealth that needed to be broken.’ Capitalism and Jewish power become dangerously interchangeable ideas, both perceived as barriers to a just society. The left needs to face up to its patchy record on this front, rather than brush it under the carpet. Here Rich reminds us of just one blot on our copybook.
The Trades Union Congress in 1900 passed a resolution decrying the war as one ‘to secure the gold fields of South Africa for cosmopolitan Jews, most of whom had no patriotism and no country.’
I wholeheartedly recommend this illuminating and timely study – there are so many more examples and observations I’m tempted to quote, but I’ll end with some strikingly prescient words from Jeremy Thorpe, speaking in 1968:
Britain suffers little from the disgrace of anti-Semitism. But the amiable weakness for the underdog, which is part of our national character, can all too easily allow us to become sentimental about political problems, while the perverse British characteristic of preferring our foes to our friends often corrupts our judgment.