The arrival of American-style anti-Israel encampments at many British universities has brought increased attention to anti-Semitism on campuses. That is not to say that all criticism of Israel is anti-Semitic but there have been clear instances of anti-Semitic activity. The effectiveness of attempts to tackle it will depend on the quality of leadership at student and university management levels.

In response to the establishment of encampments the prime minister called university chancellors to a meeting in Downing Street. There he emphasised the need to ensure these encampments did not lead to anti-Semitic incidents on their campuses. New guidelines will be issued shortly 

But the issue was already gaining traction, if less public attention, before the establishment of the encampments. In April the central National Union of Students (NUS) leadership made a clear attempt to defuse conflict related to Israel at its annual conference. Its programmed session entitled “centering our humanity” was designed to encourage a joint effort in combatting anti-Semitism and anti-Muslim hatred on campus. There were also workshops on the Israel/Palestine issue put on by Solutions Not Sides (SNS) and Parallel Histories  . Both are educational organisations which try to get people to engage with contested issues in a spirit of dialogue rather than confrontation, including the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians 

However, the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty (AWL), a left wing organisation which supports Israel’s right to exist, reported that there were attempts to have SNS and Parallel Histories removed from the conference. Proceedings were disrupted by simultaneous, pre-planned demonstrations held at strategic locations in the hall.

According to the AWL the Union of Jewish Students was heckled from the floor. Some reportedly called for it to be expelled on the ludicrous grounds it was “a Zionist organisation that normalises genocide and doesn’t represent all Jews”. Outrageously the chair of the NUS’s Democratic Procedures Committee took an informal poll as to whether the room agreed. Fortunately it apologised for this motion. Pejorative terms such as “Zio” and expressions such as “f**k the Zionists” and “kick the Zionists out” were repeatedly heard. The Council for Christians and Jews wrote an open letter  to the NUS highlighting anti-Semitic graffiti and a swastika found in one of the toilets. It urged the NUS leadership to follow through on its promise to sanction those responsible.

The pressures university management will face should not be underestimated either. The Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Act comes into force in August. It will place a duty on universities to uphold the rights of anti-Israel protesters. At the same time they will be aware of the backlash from Jewish donors to events on American campuses. There is no evidence of that happening in Britain. However, donors have recently shown themselves prepared to withhold funds because they disapproved of actions taken by university authorities on other matters, for example, transgender ideology in the case of Cambridge and Edinburgh university’s renaming of the David Hume Tower. It is possible that Anglo-Jewish donors will follow the example set by their American counterparts.

A feel for the sorts of situations that university management have to deal with can be gained by listening to the BBC broadcast Conflict on Campus (only available to listeners in Britain) presented by Anwar Akhtar of Samosa Media Charity. 

He visited Leeds University to try to gauge how students were experiencing campus life in the weak of Hamas’s 7 October atrocities. The programme refers to the vandalisation of the Hillel House where Jewish students live. It also highlights death threats which have forced the Jewish chaplain, who served in the Israeli army, and his family into hiding. A Jewish student openly admited to filming anti-Israel protesters with the explicit intention of sending pictures to the Community Support Trust (CST). An encampment started while the programme was being recorded. It is possible to hear a fragment of a demonstration in which pro-Palestinian protesters and counter-protesters shout slogans at each other through megaphones. 

Such protests have the potential to turn violent. However, the most depressing
feature is that the various student groups did not seem able to get beyond
cliched arguments. A particularly poignant voice is that of Dani Abulhawa, the
head of the School of Performance  and the Cultural Industries at Leeds university, who is of Palestinian descent. She expressed her frustration at her inability to cultivate a more productive dialogue. Any attempt by chancellors or vice-chancellors to solve the problem of students encampments or anti-Semitism in general by dialogue seems doomed to fail.

It is possible that some British encampments will disassemble voluntarily. This could happen with no obvious concession on the part of university authorities other than waiving sanctions for breaches of university policy. That is what happened at Cornell  and Tufts in America. However, the Cornell protesters claimed this was just to end the encampment on what they described as “their own terms”. They also insisted “the fight continues”.

More likely universities will have to resort to threatening to send in police to dismantle encampments to avoid unacceptable levels of disruption or to enforce protest guidelines as Birmingham University has done. It should be noted that in some cases American police have refused requests by university authorities to clear encampments. They did not want to be dragged into lawsuits likely to emerge in the aftermath of the protests. Also, unlike some American universities, British universities do not have their own police forces.

Alternatively they might negotiate a deal along the lines of that struck by Goldsmiths, University of London. It has agreed to rename a lecture theatre occupied by protesters after the Shireen Abu Akleh, a Palestinian journalist allegedly shot by the Israeli army. It has also agreed to introduce scholarships for Palestinian undergraduates and a fully-funded Palestinian postgraduate scholarship. Other measures include a review of its policy on the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of anti-Semitism. It will also divest from a company with close connections to the Israeli prime minister.

The NUS has clearly taken on board the damning report by Rebecca Tuck, a senior lawyer, into anti-Semitism in its ranks. Equally obviously individual student union branches have not. All student unions should be forced to read it. The NUS should also look appropriate sanction to deter student unions from sending disruptive delegates to conference. There might even be a case for forcing delegates to sign a contract committing them to non-violent and non-disruptive debate.

Heads of British universities should have been studying events on American campuses closely. That would have allowed them to learn lessons from the various approaches taken by American university heads. They should have thought about places on their campuses likely to cause disruption to university life if an encampment were to spring up there. This would have enabled them to introduce measures calculated to prevent outside agitators intent on causing trouble. They should have policies in place outlining key aspects of how protests should be conducted. These could include, for example, restrictions on noise amplification.

Consultation between the Board of Deputies, the CST, the NUS and university management is vital. Above all student and staff leadership need to be aware of the risks associated with the approach taken by Goldsmiths. The concessions it has made do not amount to a boycott of the whole of Israel proper which would be immoral, hypocritical and irrational. But the real significance of events at the NUS conference is that most anti-Israel agitators are not interested in compromise. If university leaders give an inch in the hope of a quiet life, protesters will take a mile. Once university heads lose their authority they will not be able to get it back.

The AWL, NUS, Parallel Histories and SNS all failed to respond to requests for comment for this article.

Guy Whitehouse is a member of the Academy of Ideas and the Free Speech Union. His views do not necessarily reflect those of those organisations.

The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect those of the Radicalism of fools project.

PHOTO: "Parkinson Building, Leeds University" by Tim Green aka atoach is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

The aftermath of the 7 October Hamas pogrom in Israel has made the rethinking of anti-Semitism a more urgent task than ever. Both the extent and character of anti-Semitism is changing. Tragically the open expression of anti-Semitic views is once again becoming respectable. It has also become clearer than ever that anti-Semitism is no longer largely confined to the far right. Woke anti-Semitism and Islamism have also become significant forces.

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