Opinion |

Free Speech on U.K. Campuses Is Under Attack as Never Before – and Jews Are Prime Targets

British universities are rife with hatred, closed minds, ignorance, stereotyping and, yes, anti-Semitism.

Baroness Deech
Ruth Deech
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A screenshot of anti-Israel protesters at Kings College London.
A screenshot of anti-Israel protesters at Kings College London.Credit: YouTube
Baroness Deech
Ruth Deech

Free speech on U.K. campuses is under attack as never before.

"First they came for the Jews" (pace Niemoller) and silenced them, and the university authorities did not speak out, because they were frightened of the violent protesters, and anxious to raise money from wealthy Arab states.

Then they came for the students who wanted to discuss the reform of Islam, or limits on free speech or gender issues, and disrupted their talks. And the university authorities did not speak out because they sheltered behind the autonomy of student unions.

Then came the extremist Islamist speakers promoting the subjugation of women, and extinction of apostates and gays. And the university authorities did not follow the U.K. government's Prevent policy, designed to counter radicalization on campus, because the lecturers' union and the national student union sided with radicals and Palestinian activists.

There were student protests against government policy, sometimes violent, in the 1960s and 70s. But never have campus protests been so widely or indiscriminately launched, and never have the university authorities been so complicit in allowing the free exchange of ideas to be closed down.

Nor have students ever been so self-censorious, in my experience. They claim a right not to be offended. But we cannot secure freedom of expression if we all also maintain a right not to be offended. Any idea that has the potential to upset students or cause discomfort is seen as problematic. Some beliefs are branded as dangerous and to be repressed. Currently the ever-fluid list includes, but is not limited to, any reform of Islam, any right-wing views, any issue that could be regarded as in any way colonialist. So the protection of safety for some students means that others are labelled as dangerous and hateful.

Attacks on Jewish and Israeli speakers, of whatever complexion, are at the centre of the silencing strategies. It does not matter whether the speaker is an Israeli Beduin (Ishmael Khaldi, Israeli diplomat, was prevented from speaking to the University of Edinburgh Jewish Society in 2011 by pro-Palestinian protesters), or an Ambassador (Ron Prosor received similar treatment at the same university) or a peace activist (Ami Ayalon at King's College London, last week). The mere fact that there is a Jewish gathering or an Israeli theme is seen as provocation by pro-Palestinian activists and therefore to be blocked.

On 19th January the protests plumbed new depths. At King's College the police had to be summoned when an anti-Israel mob threw chairs, smashed windows, and activated fire alarms. Some students in the audience feared for their physical safety. Although the event has received national publicity and the perpetrators are known, the King's authorities have done no more than issue a statement announcing the setting up of an investigation and reminding students that violence is unacceptable.

There is a whole raft of U.K. laws designed to promote legal free speech on campus. British universities have a statutory duty to promote good relations between different groups at universities; to ensure that students' unions observe charity law by not taking up political causes but working only for the benefit of their members; to prevent harassment and breaches of equality and human rights. The criminal law was clearly also involved at King's: criminal damage, trespass and assault.

But the individual Jewish students who are affected are often too timid to complain to the university authorities or to the police (unsurprisingly), and the university authorities are supine. BDS is a popular movement, powering ahead by avoiding outright violence. The latest non-violent technique for intimidating Jewish students is the celebration of martyrs, that is, terrorists, who were killed while attempting to murder Israelis. The London School of Economics (LSE) held such a photographic exhibition, and the reaction of the administration was no more than that they were "deeply troubled".

It is not only regarding Jewish and Israeli meetings that this terrible attitude prevails. Whether it is a movement to obliterate the legacy of Cecil Rhodes in Oxford, or to block and harass any woman speaker who questions attitudes to women in Islam or to transgender people (the latter to which Germaine Greer can attest), U.K. universities are rife with hatred, closed minds, ignorance, stereotyping and, yes, anti-Semitism.

The peaceful Jewish student who only wants an enjoyable three years at university would do well to avoid those colleges where there is a sizeable Palestinian movement (often a cover for anti-Zionism, anti-Semitism and sometimes misogyny). London colleges and Scottish universities are amongst the worst.

Of course, Jews are also prone to complain when there is a speaker who is virulently anti-Semitic or anti-Zionist or plain unpopular, but their reaction is limited to complaints, not violence. Therefore I disagree with the opinion piece written by Hannah Weisfeld in which she highlighted the similarities between attacking an event and complaining about it. Her false analogy brings to mind the reactions to the Charlie Hebdo slaughter a year ago. There were many who said afterwards that they 'had it coming' to them by publishing cartoons offensive to Islam; the act was too provocative, although legal, enabling the step to legitimating a violent response that much easier, and ensuring self-censorship for all. Contrast that to the annual International Holocaust Cartoon competition, designed to repudiate and ridicule the Holocaust and hosted by Iran: but we Jews do not murder cartoonists, so there's no fallout.

This is the wrong debate. It is the law that controls freedom of speech and expression, and it is to the law that we must resort when the mark may have been overstepped, not violence.

It is a sad world when violence is tolerated as a protest in universities, and Jews (let us be clear, in this context the term Zionist or Israel targets all Jews) are the victims. There has been nothing like it since Germany and Austria before the Second World War.

Baroness Deech is an independent peer in the House of Lords. A lawyer, she was formerly Principal of St Anne's College Oxford, a governor of the BBC, chair of the Human Fertilisation & Embryology Authority and a trustee of the Rhodes Scholarships.

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