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UCU response to the Parliamentary report into antisemitism
Added by David Hirsh on January 18, 2007 12:54:40 PM.
UCU response to the Parliamentary report into antisemitismSee Engage responses to this document (above) - the short version in the Times Higher Education Supplement and the long version, sent to the UCU Transitional Arrangements Committee - both endorsed by 76 members of the Union.

We are writing on behalf of the many members of UCU to restate this union’s unremitting opposition to anti-Semitism. This has been a guiding principle for us in our industrial, equality, educational and international policy-making.

Both predecessor unions have an established track record of opposition to anti-Semitism.

NATFHE was the first union to produce detailed guidance on religion or belief, based on the principle of tolerance, and taking into account the needs for members of minority religions to have their particular modes of religious observance accommodated in the workplace. NATFHE also produced a paper in 2003 on ‘NATFHE and its Jewish members’. In 2005 it condemned the desecration of cemeteries and the destruction of religious books.

NATFHE’s officers met with representatives of the Board of Deputies on two occasions and the general secretary met with officers from the Union of Jewish Students to hear their concerns. NATFHE changed its rules at its Annual Conference to remove the requirement that Regional Meetings be timetabled for Saturdays. NATFHE circulated to all branches Board of Deputies’ advice on good employment practice in relation to ending discrimination against those who wish to practise their religion. A Conference motion in 2005 specifically challenged anti-Semitism in all its forms.

We have also specifically advised that it is important, in arguing for the union’s policy of justice for Palestinian people, for offensive emblems and slogans not to be used (for example placards equating the Star of David with the swastika.)

NATFHE was a founding members of Unite Against Fascism, has provided it with premises in its London Head Office and ensured that the issue of anti-Semitism is consistently addressed in its opposition to the policies and practices of the BNP.

Much of this information was given to you in a submission made by Paul Mackney, General Secretary of NATFHE, which has been ignored in your report.

The AUT was involved in guidance issued by the Equality Challenge Unit on “Promoting good campus relations: dealing with hate crimes and intolerance” and through JNCHES, was represented on the steering group of this project. The guidance sets out the ways in which Higher Education Institutions should deal with hate crimes and intolerance through a framework of promoting good relations and ensuring that academic freedom is not used to damage the legitimate freedom of others. It focuses on the key principle that all staff and students have the right to work, study and live without fear of intimidation, harassment and threatening or violent behaviour.

Between 2003-2006 AUT Council also passed seven motions opposing racism and fascism and the AUT was also active in supporting Unite Against Fascism.

We were therefore surprised, concerned and not a little disappointed by the critical references to academic staff and their unions in the recent report on anti-Semitism. These sections of the report seem surprisingly unbalanced in their analysis and conclusions. Indeed, welcome though the overall inquiry is, it could be argued that, at a time when racial and religious intolerance generally is on the rise on campus, to inquire into anti-Semitism alone was misconceived and unhelpful.

The University and College Union was formed by merger of NATFHE and the AUT on 1 June 2006. UCU has made clear that it is not bound by the policies of its predecessor organisations, and that it will make its own policies in due course. However, UCU necessarily must respond regarding the positions its predecessors took, and its members will have expectations of it based on those prior positions.

Both unions took a strong line in opposing all forms of racism, and this is a clear inheritance for UCU. NATFHE was one of the first unions in the UK to have an articulated policy in opposition to anti-Semitism. We have been equally outspoken in attacking Islamophobia and have argued that neither anti-Semitism nor Islamophobia have a place on campus.

Both predecessor unions had a history of supporting Palestinian teachers and their unions and the building of a civil society in Palestine; both recently had high profile debates within their democratic structures which supported these objectives with regard to the Palestinian people, and which necessarily involved criticism of the actions of the Israeli government.
While acknowledging that some groups in society may make criticisms of Israel an excuse for anti-Semitic activity, we emphatically reject the suggestion that criticism of the Israeli government is itself anti-Semitic any more than criticism of the British government is ‘anti-British’. Indeed the ancient prophets made something of a career of criticizing the state of their days.

Our experience shows that, unfortunately, defenders of the Israeli government’s actions have used a charge of anti-Semitism as a tactic in order to smother democratic debate, and in the context of higher education, to restrict academic freedom. This view is borne out by a piece of research by two Israeli journalists, published in the ‘Guardian’ in June 2006, into the e-mail storm whipped up by organisations largely based in the USA, at the time of the last NATFHE conference’s debate on the issue of boycott. (See attached)

UCU is continuing to work on these issues, in the knowledge that its members will expect it to develop a policy which reflects the articulated views of its members. NATFHE contributed a substantial body of evidence to your inquiry, based on the thoughtful debates which had taken place in recent years.
We note that no reference is made in the text to the detailed evidence which NATFHE submitted to your Inquiry, nor were we called to submit oral evidence, whereas an individual UCU member with a particular view appears to have been influential in the findings of the chapter on universities, and particularly paragraphs 206 to 213 on academic boycotts.

Given the criticisms of the democratic decisions of our two unions - it would have been not only courteous but helpful to your deliberations, to have called us to give oral evidence.

Having now seen the results of your inquiry we are concerned at a number of features. First, it seems inappropriate to have taken anti-Semitism as a topic in isolation at a time when Islamophobia is also on the increase and when the two issues surely need a balanced joint approach. From our own point of view, we are deeply disturbed at the section and recommendations on Anti-Semitism on Campus, which appears to have been written without regard to our thoughtful and experience-led evidence.

The key issues arising from the section of your report concerning the universities, are whether it is legitimate to criticize the actions of the state of Israel and whether this in some way leads to or promotes anti Semitism. These are serious issues which we have tried to address in our own debates, and which are reflected in our actions. The criticisms in your report have been a distraction and a negative contribution to this serious debate. If you wish to meet us to discuss our position, we remain happy to do so.

Anti-Semitic discourse: recommendations 10 – 11

‘10. We conclude that ethnically and religiously motivated hatred, violence and prejudice, wherever they occur, should earn unconditional condemnation; sympathy and support for the victims should not be conditional on their alleged behaviour or political convictions. It is increasingly the case that because anger over Israel’s policies can provide the pretext, condemnation is often too slow and increasingly conditional. Regardless of the expressed motive, Jewish people and Jewish institutions are being targeted.’

We would generally concur with this statement, but as throughout the report the recommendations need to be even-handed. It must be recognised that on the highly charged issue of the politics of the Middle East, emotions run high on both sides. Activists and members of staff of NATFHE and AUT, whatever their own positions regarding the unions’ policies, have been targeted in letters and emails, attributing anti-Semitic views to them and with abuse up to and including wishes for harm or death to them. Many of the 70,000+ emails attributable to the email mills we have mentioned above, contained abusive or aggressive language. This is equally unacceptable.

‘11. We conclude that the correlation between conflict in the Middle East and attacks on the Jewish community must be better understood if the problem is to be tackled and would welcome academic research on this issue.’

We would concur with this proposal, and make the point that such research would need to conform to the highest standards of independence and inclusiveness. There is a continuing danger that studies of these issues too often lead to thinly disguised polemic. For example, arguably the history of the foundation and early years of Israel itself is probably one of the most disputed areas of academic discourse, in which it is extremely difficult for a baseline of widely agreed facts to be established, including within the Israeli academic community itself.

In the body of the report, paragraph 215, in a section titled, ‘Good practice’, reference is made, apparently approvingly to limitations imposed by one major university on academics’ work web pages, which would appear to be a potential serious breach of academic freedom.

Anti-Semitism on Campus: recommendations 22 – 26

There is much in this long report which we would agree with, provided it is set in the broader context. However, we believe that the section on Anti-Semitism on Campus is flawed. We would now like to comment on each of the recommendations in that section.

‘22. We recommend that Jewish organisations like the CST and the UJS set up reporting facilities that allow unchallengeable, evidenced examples of abusive behaviour especially on universities. University Authorities should also record all examples of students reporting behaviour, statements, speeches, or acts which they consider to be anti-Semitic.’ (Paragraph 205)

It should be the responsibility of the authorities in each university or institution, in collaboration with student and staff representative bodies, to develop policies on all aspects of racism, and for them to implement these policies. While particular student organisations can have a role, it seems invidious to single some out for particular special treatment. For example, it would be clearly inflammatory to give Jewish student organisations a privileged role in policing perceived anti-Semitism, and not accord a similar status to Islamic students’ organisations with regard to Islamophobia. There is also the danger of witchhunts and vigilantism. The institutional systems need to be transparent and patently fair if they are to contribute positively to the fight against racism, and not exacerbate the situation.

‘23. We conclude that calls to boycott contact with academics working in Israel are an assault on academic freedom and intellectual exchange. We recommend that pro-democracy lecturers in the new University and College Lecturers Union are given every support to combat such selective boycotts that are anti-Jewish in practice. We would urge the new union’s executive and leadership to oppose the boycott.’ (Paragraph 213)

We find this recommendation highly improper, constituting an interference in the democratic processes of our union. The UCU and its predecessors are and were democratic organisations. The implication that ‘pro-democracy lecturers’ – whatever that means in this context – need to be ‘supported’ (by whom? how?) to ‘combat’ (by what means?) particular policies is polemical and offensive, and should have had no place in a parliamentary report. The report itself struggles and fails to satisfactorily resolve the issue of whether a policy which is critical of the actions of the Israeli government is anti-Jewish in practice’ and this is likely to remain a highly subjective issue.

We reject any suggestion that our democratic bodies cannot be critical of a foreign government – whether it is the US, Columbia or Israel, because of perceptions about the possibility that some people in this country might cloak their bigoted actions by mis-using such criticism. Your report fails to demonstrate a causal link. The mechanisms are in place to catch and prosecute people who desecrate Jewish graves or attack people wearing Muslim dress. It is on catching the bigots that society’s efforts should be concentrated, not on stifling free speech or academic freedom.
‘24. We conclude that consistent attempts to boycott and delegitimise Jewish Societies and their activities on campus have diverted the attention and resources of Jewish students away from opportunities to conduct internal debates on Jewish issues, including of Israel. These discussions should be encouraged and facilitated.’ (Paragraph 218)

We support this recommendation but it must be even-handed – we are aware of one university where the Palestine Society has been delegitimised on the grounds that the term ‘Palestine’ is racist. We support the NUS ‘’No Platform’ policy, opposing extreme right wing groups on campus, and would encourage its adoption at institutional level. There is clearly a need for consistency (paragraph 202) in the handling of these issues. Such consistency needs to be both between institutions and between faith groups.

‘25. We conclude that Jewish students feel disproportionately threatened in British universities as a result of anti-Semitic activities which vary from campus to campus. Attacks on Jewish students and their halls of residence, and a lack of respect shown for observant Jewish students and their calendar requirements amount to a form of campus anti-Semitism which Vice Chancellors should tackle vigorously. While criticism of Israel - often hard-hitting in the rough and tumble of student politics - is legitimate, the language of some speakers too often crosses the line into generalised attacks on Jews.’ (Paragraph 219)

Recommendation 25 appears to be based on anecdotal evidence. It is clear that Muslim and other student groups also feel disproportionately threatened. Obviously threats and attacks on Jewish or other students are unacceptable and it is for the institutions to set up appropriate mechanisms to ensure that the culture and environment are civilised and supportive. As far as adjustments to meet students’ religious and cultural requirements are concerned, institutions in an increasingly diverse, international customer-oriented academic marketplace are generally very pro-active to meet students’ needs. We would willingly work with institutions, for example on timetabling and examination arrangements, to ensure that all achieve a high standard in this regard.
‘26. We conclude that lecturers and university authorities have in some cases reacted firmly to examples of anti-Jewish activity on campus but we agree with the CRE Chair, Trevor Philips, that the response of Vice Chancellors is at best ‘patchy’. We recommend that Vice Chancellors take an active interest in combating acts, speeches, literature and events that cause anxiety or alarm amongst their Jewish students. We recommend that Vice Chancellors set up a working party to make clear that British universities will be free of any expression of racism, and take robust action against anti-Semitism on campus.’ (Paragraph 220)

We would support a consistent approach provided that charges of anti-Semitism, or for that matter, Islamophobia, are not used to stifle legitimate debate and inquiry, or academic freedom.

Our comments on the key recommendations relating to our sector demonstrate that there is a need to engage in a fuller and more in-depth debate than the report allows for, and that there is a need for a more sensitive approach to the academic community at large than is demonstrated in the report.

UCU is utterly opposed to anti-Semitism in whatever form but do not believe the elements of the report we have concerns about assist in combating it. We remain willing to meet with the committee to discuss these matters further, with a view to developing constructive proposals which reflect this wider view.