Is Academic Freedom still Honoured in British Universities?

March 24, 2011
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Article published in The Times on 24th March 2011

Jewish students in Britain have been bracing themselves for the annual assault of Israel Apartheid Week. This time, though, there was a difference. Twenty-four Israeli students have come to British campuses to mount a counter-campaign, Israel Awareness Week. Their presence has been good for Israel, good for British Jewish students and good for universities that once were and should always aspire to be places where we put prejudice aside and engage in the collaborative pursuit of truth.

Truth has been the first casualty in the vicious campaign against Israel. The charge of apartheid, which began with the notorious United Nations 1975 resolution identifying Zionism with racism, and continued with the equally notorious Conference against [sic] Racism in Durban a week before 9/11, is both outrageous and untrue. Given all the pressures Israel has been subjected to since its birth, its record in the field of ethnic and religious tolerance has been commendable.

You have only to visit an Israeli hospital to see how people of all faiths and ethnicities are treated alike. All have the vote. All can attend Israeli universities. All can be elected to and take their place in Knesset. A Druze Arab, Majalli Wahabi, briefly served as President of Israel after Moshe Katsav’s resignation while acting head of state Dalia Itzik was out of the country. A Christian Arab, George Karra, headed the panel of judges that tried and found guilty Israel’s President Katsav. Are any of these conceivable in an apartheid state?

Israel is one of the most religiously diverse societies in the world. Only under Israeli rule have all three Abrahamic religions enjoyed unrestricted access to their holy sites in Jerusalem. It is the only place where an Arab Muslim can freely criticise the government on national television. Israel is not perfect but its ethnic and religious minorities have greater rights, vigilantly defended in the courts, than anywhere else in the Middle East.

Meanwhile in December 2010 Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas declared: “We have frankly said, and always will say: If there is an independent Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital, we won’t agree to the presence of one Israeli in it.” If this vision of a Judenrein Palestine is not apartheid, what is? As soon as the anti-apartheid campaigners start campaigning against Palestinian racism, the intimidation and murder of Christians throughout the Middle East, and the brutal denial of human rights that is leading to civil protest in Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Bahrain and Syria, then they will have earned the right to be taken seriously. Until then they should be seen for what they are, political pawns in a very dangerous game indeed.

The anti-Israel campaign has added further weight to the accumulating evidence that British campuses have become centres of anti-Western radicalism. Often it is moderate Muslims who have raised the alarm, saying that university authorities are not doing enough to counter the extremists. In 2007 Ed Husain, an ex-member of Hizb ut Tahrir and now a fighter against extremism, published a book called The Islamist.  The first 70 pages of this book are among 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 show how easy it is to scare the academic authorities into silence and inaction.

That intimidation seems to have worked. With some shining exceptions – Manchester is one – university authorities have not acted when radical hate-inciting anti-Israel speakers are invited to address students, nor when pro-Israel speakers are abused or even banned. Challenged on the first they tend to invoke freedom of speech. Challenged on the second they tend to invoke security concerns. So freedom of speech exists for some but not for others.

It is not Jewish students alone who are concerned at the failure of university heads to take action. So is the government. Fifteen individuals implicated in terrorist plots and attacks have had some link to British universities. Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, charged with attempting to blow up a passenger plane in the U.S., was President of the Islamic Societyat University College London.

University Vice Chancellors in their recent review of the situation, came to the conclusion that universities should “engage, not marginalise” extreme political views. Lord Carlile, the Government’s independent reviewer of terror laws, said that the report represented “a total failure to deal with how to identify and handle individuals who might be suspected of radicalising or being radicalised whilst within the university.”

My own grave concerns come from a sense of history. In 1927 a French-Jewish academic Julian Benda published a book whose title became famous: Le Trahison des clercs, “The treason of the intellectuals.” In it he says that academics had historically been guardians of the truth, but had been drawn into politics with potentially devastating consequences. The academy had become the arena for “the intellectual organisation of political hatreds.”

That phrase has resonated in my mind for close to a decade now, as university lecturers have sought to boycott their Israeli counterparts while failing to protest against some of the most anti-democratic, anti-free society, anti-Israel and anti-Jewish speakers ever to speak on British campuses.

This is not academic freedom. 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. It means the willingness to let all sides of the argument be respectfully heard.

Like all freedom, academic freedom means restraint, so that the freedom of one group is not won at the cost of another’s. When restraint is not self-imposed it must be imposed by the university authorities. Which is why it is important that this week Israeli students have visited British universities to present the other side of the case. Whether they are respectfully heard will be the best test as to whether academic freedom is still honoured in British universities.