University antisemitism is a serious and growing problem. Jewish students increasingly say they fear being on campus because of anti-Jewish vilification or harassment. Last year, an NUS study found more than a quarter of them had been subjected to personal abuse on social media or other channels.
The universities minister, Jo Johnson, made an important speech last week at Limmud, the acclaimed Jewish learnathon. While the universities had to defend free speech better than they were doing, he said, there could be no place on campus for antisemitism.
A welcome statement; but the implications are unclear.
The dividing line between obnoxious speech that must nevertheless be protected and speech that is truly beyond the pale is a difficult one to draw.
Antisemitism isn’t just a campus problem. It courses through the Labour Party and the broader political left. Tackling it is bedevilled by the fact that much of it takes the form of anti-Israelism.
The left shelters behind a convenient distinction. While antisemitism is considered beyond the pale, anti-Israelism is deemed entirely legitimate. In fact, the two are joined at the hip.
Antisemitism is not just a prejudice but a unique derangement of mind: singling out the Jews alone to meet standards expected of no one else, accusing them of being a malign global conspiracy, holding them responsible for crimes of which they are not only innocent but are the victims.
Exactly the same unique deformities are characteristic of the anti-Israel discourse found on campus and the left. Which is why obsessive anti-Israelism is a modern mutation of the oldest hatred. The specious distinction between anti-Israel and anti-Jewish activity is becoming ever more threadbare. Jews are being targeted for explicit anti-Jewish abuse and barred from pro-Palestinian meetings just because they are Jews.
Jew-hatred also comes from the far-right. The all-party parliamentary group on antisemitism heard last November that the swastika has become a “casual symbol of fun” on campus. The majority of such attacks, though, come from those promoting the Palestinian narrative on the left and in the Muslim world.
Jo Johnson pledged to do more to fight all this, including asking universities to adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s working definition of antisemitism and spending millions to fight harassment of Jewish students.
That would be helpful in stopping the most egregious antisemitic bigotry, which should be as unthinkable as speakers insulting or defaming black people. It is shocking that university authorities stand by while thugs disrupt pro-Israel speakers, as happened in 2016 when Hen Mazzig, a gay IDF veteran, was prevented from speaking at University College London by a violent mob.
But much obnoxious activity takes the form of falsehoods about Israel’s behaviour or Jewish history. These may be anchored in antisemitism but they are not in themselves irrational. They are simply lies and distortions. Trying to prevent them from being expressed, at all, risks crossing the line into censorship. Academic debate, after all, involves testing possible falsehoods to destruction in order to arrive at the truth.
The core problem lies not with the students putting on these vile meetings but the professors and lecturers who teach courses in which the narrative of lies about Israel is presented as academically sound — and then stand by while Jewish students are abused.
Irrational prejudice is immune to reason. False claims, though, can be disproved and those who promulgate them can be held up for public scorn. The focus, therefore, should be on universities and teachers who facilitate this. Instead of protesting from the back foot against these meetings taking place, defenders of the Jewish people need to go on to the offence.
They should be staging their own meetings setting out the facts that these universities are denying. They should be calling out specific universities and named professors and lecturers for incompetent scholarship, discriminating against students for telling the truth about the Middle East, substituting falsehoods for facts, facilitating incitement against Israel and Jews — and sometimes being funded thus to subvert academic standards by huge donations from Saudi Arabia and other Arab states.
The universities are temples of reason which, on Israel among other issues, have been hijacked in order to deny rational thought and promote instead hate-mongering lies, propaganda and prejudice. We therefore need not less but more and different speech which can turn this bigotry into a boomerang.
Melanie Phillips is a Times columnist