Chief Rabbi: full comment on campus extremism

By Lord Jonathan Sacks, December 14, 2010
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An Islamic society protest at City University in London earlier this year

An Islamic society protest at City University in London earlier this year

Two weeks ago a highly inflammatory speaker with known anti-Zionist views was allowed to speak at the LSE. No counter voice was allowed. Jewish students present were intimidated and verbally abused.

This was not an unforeseen outcome. The UJS, which has done outstanding work in recent years, raised its concerns in advance. Assurances were given by the LSE student union. In the event they were not honoured. They proved to be empty words.

If this were an isolated event, I would say no more, but it isn't. It’s part of a process that has been going on now for almost a decade. There has been incident after incident in which Jewish students have been intimidated, and verbally and physically abused. The university authorities, if they have acted at all, have done too little too late.

In 2007 Ed Husain, an ex member of Hizb ut-Tahrir and co-founder and former co-director of the Quilliam Foundation, published The Islamist. The first 70 pages were the most terrifying I have ever read. They tell of how a tiny handful of radical students instituted a regime of intimidation across an entire campus and how easy it was to scare the academic authorities into silence and inaction.

Academic freedom means my freedom is not won at the cost of yours

Why was it terrifying? Because it happened here.

Here is the thought pattern that is being promoted, as it affects Jews: All Jews are Zionists. All Zionists are evil. Therefore all Jews are evil. Substitute for the word “Zionist” the word “Capitalist” or the word “Communist” and you have classic antisemitism of the 19th and 20th centuries at its most blatant and dangerous.

So what if a few Jewish students were upset? But crowd behaviour even among students, as we have seen recently, is unpredictable and can suddenly turn violent. That’s what crowd behaviour is. And Jewish students are never safe. Jews are less than half a per cent of the population. On every campus we’re a tiny minority.

A few weeks ago I did a national tour of University campuses, speaking to Jewish students because over these last few years they have become despondent and demoralised at the failure of University authorities to take firm and decisive action.

But it’s academic freedom, say the authorities. No, it isn't academic freedom. Academic freedom is what I had as a student, when the world was very different.

Academic freedom means the freedom to hold and express your views without fear, even when they run against the consensus, even when they are the views of a minority.

Academic freedom means the willingness to let all sides of the argument be respectfully heard. Academic freedom means that no voices are excluded from the debate.

Academic freedom means separating the view from the person, so that I am not turned into a pariah because of who I am and what loyalties I have.

Like all freedom, academic freedom means restraint, so that my freedom is not won at the cost of yours. And when that restraint is not self-imposed it must be imposed by the university authorities. And that means banning preachers of hate and inciters to intolerance. And that is not happening.

The inflammatory public speeches being allowed to take place on university campuses would, in any other context and directed against any other group, be prosecuted under the law forbidding incitement to racial and possibly religious hatred.

The university authorities are turning a blind eye and a deaf ear.

This is not free speech. It is, if unchecked, the beginning of the end of free speech.

I am not saying this for rhetorical flourish. Antisemitism always was and probably always will be only an advance warning of something wider and deeper. I urge you to urge the university authorities to take decisive and unequivocal action to prevent the intimidation of any students, Jewish, Hindu, Sikh, gay, or any other group at risk, so that academic freedom can return to universities and students express their views without abuse and without fear.

Last updated: 10:44am, December 15 2010