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Israel Apartheid Week events cause turmoil in UK universities

Universities Minister Jo Johnson, has written to Universities UK to reaffirm the body's obligation to tackle antisemitism on campus

    Universities Minister, Jo Johnson
    Universities Minister, Jo Johnson

    A British university has cancelled an Israel Apartheid Week event because it was deemed to have contravened the government’s newly adopted definition of antisemitism.

    The University of Central Lancashire blocked an event scheduled to feature prominent anti-Israel activists after deciding it was “unlawful” under the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s definition of what constitutes antisemitism.

    The panel session, which was scheduled to take place next Tuesday, was to included anti-Israel activist Ben White, who once said he could “understand” why people are antisemites.

    Other universities — including Essex, Liverpool and Sussex — are also giving active consideration to similar bans, with numerous events scheduled to take place on campuses over the next two months under the annual Israel Apartheid Week banner.

    Last week the Universities Minister, Jo Johnson, wrote to Universities UK reminding the official representative body of its obligation to tackle antisemitism on campus ahead of Israel Apartheid Week following the adoption of the IHRA definition.

    A spokesperson for the University of Central Lancashire confirmed it had decided that the event, entitled ‘Debunking Misconceptions on Palestine’, “contravenes the new definition and furthermore breaches university protocols for such events, where we require assurances of a balanced view or a panel of speakers representing all interests.”

    He added: “In this instance our procedures determined that the proposed event would not be lawful and therefore it will not proceed as planned.”

    The JC has learned of serious concerns over Israel Apartheid Week events at many universities. In previous years, Jewish students have complained of intimidation, threats and abuse during activities which run for a week at a time at different locations.

    A University of Essex spokesman said it was looking at events, which include discussions with titles such as ‘The Palestinian Right To Return’ and ‘Imperialism and Apartheid and A Short History of Israel’, to assess whether they violated the IHRA definition. “We are making sure the event organisers understand the university’s policies in relation to events and external speakers and the impact of the government’s recently adopted definition of antisemitism on free expression within the law,” the spokesman said.

    The University of Liverpool said it was conducting a “risk assessment” of forthcoming anti-Israel events.

    Adam Tickell, the Vice-Chancellor of Sussex University, said he had written to all students and staff recognising “the language of apartheid is deeply upsetting to many members of the Jewish and non-Jewish community”.

    Mr Tickell said he was having meetings with the Union of Jewish Students on campus about forthcoming Apartheid Week events. He added that while he would protect freedom of speech and was not seeking to prevent any events taking place, “any behaviours that go beyond reasonable debate and into the realm of intimidation will be subject to disciplinary sanctions”.

    Sir Eric Pickles, the government’s special envoy for post-Holocaust issues, warned last Sunday at a Board of Deputies meeting that it would be unwise of any university chancellor to think it was “business as usual” following the government’s adoption of the IHRA definition of antisemitism.

    According to that definition, antisemitism includes “denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, eg, by claiming that the existence of a state of Israel is a racist endeavour.”

    It also says antisemitism includes “using the symbols and images associated with classic antisemitism (eg, claims of Jews killing Jesus or the blood libel) to characterize Israel or Israelis” and “drawing comparisons of contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis.”

    But a spokesperson for Cambridge University refused to condemn a wall erected by its Palestine Society, which claims to mimic Israel’s security wall — and has been daubed with slogans comparing the Jewish state to that of apartheid-era South Africa.

    The spokesman said the university was aware of concerns but that it “respects the rights of societies and its members to peaceful protest” and the wall was small enough not to obstruct anyone.

    Board of Deputies President Jonathan Arkush said: “While promoting free speech, universities should remember their duty of care to all students and be mindful of the government’s adopted IHRA definition in assessing the appropriateness of individual events.