LONDON – Jewish students have condemned the decision by the University of Oxford to accept multimillion-dollar donations from the charitable fund set up by the son of notorious British fascist Oswald Mosley.
The Alexander Mosley Charitable Trust was established by Max Mosley – the youngest son of the leader of the British Union of Fascists, whose supporters were referred to as “blackshirts” – and commemorates his own son Alexander, who died of a suspected drugs overdose in 2009.
Max Mosley, who died earlier this year, was found to have backed his father’s right-wing activities during the 1960s and courted controversy throughout his life, most notably when a British tabloid falsely accused him of taking part in a “Nazi orgy.”
The trust has donated substantial sums of money to Oxford and other British universities over the past decade. The latest gifts, amounting to more than $16 million, include a $6.8 million donation to build student accommodation at Oxford’s St. Peter’s College, which was initially reported to be called Alexander Mosley House.
Another donation includes the endowment of a chair in biophysics named after Alexander Mosley.
In a statement, the university said the donations had undergone rigorous scrutiny via “a robust, independent process taking legal, ethical and reputational issues into consideration.”
However, Jewish students said the university had failed to reach out to them for consultation or to address concerns about the source of the money.
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A spokeswoman for the Union of Jewish Students said it was concerning that U.K. institutions were even accepting money from the Mosley trust, let alone “using the money to memorialise the Mosley family name.”
She continued: “The absence of any communication and consultation with Jewish students is inconsiderate and inappropriate, as it will be these students who have to experience daily reminders of what their family members and the entire U.K. Jewish community fought against in 20th-century Britain. We encourage these institutions to reflect on the impact these donations will have on their Jewish students and the wider student body.”
Lord John Mann, the U.K. government's independent adviser on antisemitism, said he had informed the Union of Jewish Students of the issue, as the university had failed to reach out to its Jewish students about the implications of the donation.
The university “clearly didn’t think it was going to be a problem,” Mann said, noting that it had then taken two months to persuade Oxford to drop the idea of using the Mosley name for the student building.
“Oxford has been bedeviled by problems over statues and it’s very disconcerting that with this contemporary issue that has parallels, they were ready to set themselves up for a future problem,” Mann added. “Not for the first time, this shows us that antisemitism is not recognized for the problem it is.”
Michelle Donelan, the government’s universities minister, said Monday that when accepting donations, “universities should consider ethical and reputational risks, and the views of any relevant student and staff communities.”
‘Predictable and justifiable reaction’
Born into the British aristocracy, Oswald Mosley rose to notoriety in the ’30s when he led Britain’s virulently antisemitic fascist movement. After World War II, and after various failed attempts to reestablish fascist movements in Britain, he moved to France with his second wife, Diana Mitford, and died there in 1980.
Dave Rich, head of policy at the Community Security Trust, the body that monitors threats to U.K. Jews, said it was remarkable that the University of Oxford had not anticipated what he called “a wholly predictable and justifiable” reaction.
“It is completely understandable that many people would object to Oxford University accepting such a large donation from the Mosley family fortune, especially if it involves naming a building after the Mosley family name,” Rich said.
The move comes at a time of much public discussion of so-called cancel culture and high-profile attempts to “decolonize” British academia.
The University of Oxford has been at the heart of this debate, with ongoing demands for the removal of a statue of Cecil Rhodes, a leading figure in the colonization of Africa. This summer, the university finally ruled that Oriel College would not remove the statue.
Leaders of the Rhodes Must Fall campaign group have also called for the renowned Rhodes scholarship, founded in 1902 and awarded to more than 8,000 foreign students, to be renamed and reformed.
“The whole Rhodes scholars program isn’t so different to a ‘Mosley College,’” said academic Keith Kahn-Harris, an associate fellow of the Institute for Jewish Policy Research, adding that he thought the latter would be “a pretty bitter pill to swallow.”
The University of Oxford did not respond to comments about the potential naming of the student accommodation, but the Alexander Mosley Charitable Trust said it had “invited the college to choose a name for the building in close collaboration with their students and hopes that this will an interesting and rewarding project for the college community.”
Kahn-Harris said it was “inevitable” that Jews were “going to be most invested in this, just as it is inevitable that people of color will be most invested in Rhodes.” The key thing, he added, “is that, even if one minority takes the lead, they find solidarity once alerted to the issue. But there’s a lot of suspicion in some Jewish quarters about anything that smacks of ‘woke.’”
He noted that Oxford and Cambridge colleges had previously accepted donations from sometimes unsavory sources, including countries with heavily criticized human rights records or legacies from imperialist figures.
Kahn-Harris said he believed the best way forward would be to use the donations “for purposes that would make those who supplied them turn in their grave. Provided there are no naming rights, accepting money can also be a way of subverting their legacy. How about using the funding to support a special anti-racist education program at the college? Or support for Jewish students?”