The latest war between Hamas and Israel has evoked mixed responses at British universities.
Some statements by various Palestine solidarity societies are all too predictable. The Justice for Palestine Society at University College London (UCL) appeared to endorse a quote of Ismail Haniyeh, the leader of Hamas, saying: “Over the last few days, thousands of fascist and criminal settlers desecrated the shrine of the prophet, and performed their prayers there to impose sovereignty over the area. If the world will be silent, we will not be silent about this aggression.”
Warwick Action for Palestine described Hamas’s atrocities as “Gaza’s resistance against a 75-year-old military colonial occupation”. It went on to say it: “stands in solidarity with Gaza, the martyrs and the resistance to this vile occupation”. Also the women’s officer for the student’s union at Sussex, Hanin Barghouti, called for the Hamas attacks to be celebrated from groups at other universities.
The reference to a 75-year-old occupation is noteworthy. What most people think of as the occupation began in 1967 after Israel’s victory in the six-day war. To call Israel’s entire 75-year existence an occupation is effectively to deny its right to exist at all. Accusations that the founding of Israel was an act of colonialism have been refuted elsewhere on this site.
To call Hamas’s atrocities an act of resistance is obscene. First, it is simply to endorse the biblical notion of an eye for an eye, an outlook we were supposed to have left behind long ago. Secondly, it is bizarre to be unable to distinguish between those who openly endorse the mass-murder of Jews and freedom fighters.
To be a freedom fighter one has to care about the people for whose freedom one is fighting. Paul Mason, a left wing commentator and activist, has documented his experiences during a 2014 visit to Gaza in the Spectator magazine. He described how Hamas runs the Gaza strip as a mafia state. It uses a mix of terror to intimidate opponents and public service provision to win support. It strives to make itself respectable to outsiders so as not to appear merely as a terrorist organisation.
Some university vice-chancellors, in particular those of Birmingham, Sussex and UCL, have responded in a more constructive way to the conflict. They have warned their students that expressing support for terrorist organisations is a crime and they will refer matters to the police if this takes place on their campuses. They also made a commitment to proactively prevent an intimidatory and hostile atmosphere developing on their campuses. Disappointingly the vice-chancellor of Warwick seems to have simply said that matters had been referred to the police and refused further comment.
That Birmingham university should be on top of the matter is not surprising. It has long been home to a thriving Jewish student population. It is encouraging that UCL has taken note of past anti-Semitic incidents on its campus, some of which have been discussed on this website.
However, the fact that the vice-chancellor of Sussex has spoken out is significant. The university has long had a reputation for the woke radicalism that is often associated with anti-Semitism. For example, it is where Kathleen Stock worked before being hounded out of the university because of her gender-critical views
Even the Universities and Colleges Union, whose motion to boycott Israel has been discussed on this site Hamas attacks as barbaric and stopped short of describing its members as freedom fighters. However, some will worry that its statement seems to argue for an equivalence between Hamas’s atrocities and the actions of the Israeli military.
It will be interesting to see whether the central leadership of the National Union of Students (NUS) genuinely has learned the lessons of the Rebecca Tuck report on the anti-Semitism experienced by Jewish students at NUS events. The treatment of Jewish students at next year’s national conference, whether it is hassle free, will also be important to monitor. Worryingly the Times article referred to above reports that Ellie Gomersall, leader of NUS Scotland, shared several posts justifying Hamas’s actions. She did later apologise for doing so and deleted the posts. Sadly the Union of Jewish Students has received reports of harassment and intimidation.
Clearly the situation on campuses will need careful management. That is especially the case with rapidly rising casualty figures in Gaza. That will inevitably lead to people with relatives either in the Israeli military or in the Gaza strip itself experiencing the most intense anxiety. Expressing support for Hamas is a crime even though some free speech absolutists might argue it should not be. Vice-chancellors will be obliged to report such incidents to the police but simply waving a Palestinian flag should not itself be a reason for prosecution.
So there is an uneven picture at British universities in relation to anti-Semitism associated with the current war between Israel and Hamas. Although there are some clear instances of deplorable statements there are others where the adults appear to be back in the room.
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.