UCU's 'chilling' vote

By Eric Pickles, June 30, 2011
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Even the most harmonious society is not immune to irrational hatreds. The Holocaust was designed in the home of Mozart, Goethe and Schiller. A nation's defence against prejudice is not its cultural achievements, but the attitudes and actions of its citizens.

That is why I was concerned about the recent resolution on antisemitism passed by the University and College Union. On the surface, it says that the definition of antisemitism adopted by the National Union of Students and other local university unions "is being used to silence debate about Israel and Palestine on campus."

It is not, by definition, antisemitic to criticise the state of Israel. I would defend anyone's right to express such criticism, however much I might disagree, provided they do not incite violence or hatred.

The UCU, however, is a most unlikely champion of free speech. It has been boycotting visits by Israeli academics for a number years. Much like the
Scottish councils which have banned the purchase of Israeli books in
municipal libraries, their actions suggest that their true goal is not, and cannot be, to secure freedom of speech, but to silence dissenting opinion.

In fact, this is only the most recent decision by the UCU that has left many Jewish academics and students feeling uneasy. In 2006, it rejected the findings of the groundbreaking All-Party Parliamentary Inquiry into Antisemitism, putting it at odds with every one of Britain's main political parties. In 2009, the UCU invited a trade unionist, who had called for Jews in his native South Africa to be stripped of their citizenship, to speak at a conference.

When seen in this context, the latest resolution is in fact sending out a chilling message. It says that Jewish academics and students who perceive that they are being harassed or bullied should understand that they will be held to a different standard. It says that they should expect to be fair game for invective, and learn to live with feeling more vulnerable. Little wonder that the UCU has already seen many members of the Jewish faith, other faiths and none, vote with their feet and leave.

No-one's education should come at the cost of intimidation. I am calling on the Equality and Human Rights Commission, as the national champion for equality and good relations, to investigate.

Eric Pickles is the Communities and Local Government Secretary

Last updated: 1:22pm, June 30 2011