Sunak ‘weaponising antisemitism’ over Gaza, Jewish scholars warn

As Pro-Palestinian encampments spread to more than 20 UK universities, a new organisation of Jewish academics has formed over concerns around the rise of antisemitism on campuses, and another warning against ‘dangerous rhetoric’ from government 

May 22, 2024
Anti-racism activists attend a Stop Islamophobia Stop The Hate rally outside the Home Office to illustrate Sunak ‘weaponising antisemitism’ over Gaza, Jewish scholars warn
Source: Mark Kerrison/In Pictures/Getty Images

The UK government’s “weaponisation” of antisemitism on university campuses will make it harder to prevent real danger and violence, a network of Jewish academics has warned.

Prime minister Rishi Sunak recently told vice-chancellors that they must take “immediate disciplinary action” against students found to be inciting racial hatred or violence amid ongoing Pro-Palestinian encampments.

But the UK Jewish Academic Network (UKJAN) has warned against the increasingly “dangerous and misleading tendency” of those who are conflating criticism of Israel with antisemitism. Around 150 Jewish scholars have so far signed a letter warning of the dangers of weaponising antisemitism, Jewish safety and the memory of the Holocaust.

Katherine Lebow, associate professor of modern history at the University of Oxford, said that all of the group’s members were concerned about antisemitism, but felt that the “current rhetoric muddies the waters in dangerous ways”.

“The government’s threatening posture is an infringement of academic freedom and also deeply patronising and cynical,” she said.

“It creates a moral panic that distracts from the legitimate activism of students and staff, while simultaneously making it harder to identify and prevent actual antisemitism.”

UKJAN objects to the adoption of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition of antisemitism, which it says does not adequately distinguish between criticism of the state of Israel and its actions, and actual antisemitism.

Dr Lebow said it could cause more students and staff to be disciplined for their political views, which ultimately makes it much harder to educate people on what antisemitism really is.

“It also contributes to a toxic atmosphere in which Jewish safety and Palestinian rights are treated like a zero-sum game, and Jewish people are conflated with the Israeli state,” she added. “In the long run, this makes Jews less, not more, safe.”

Pro-Palestine encampments, which have spread to more than 20 UK institutions, have mainly been much less tense than those in the US, but the University of Birmingham has become the first to threaten students with legal action.

Dr Lebow said UKJAN aims to inject a “voice of nuance and sanity” into the discussion, and make it clear that Jewish opinion is not homogeneous when it comes to Israel-Palestine.

“Antisemitism is a genuine problem across the political spectrum, but feeling uncomfortable because someone challenges your views on Israel is not the same as being unsafe,” she said.

report by the Community Security Trust found that the number of antisemitic incidents recorded in UK higher education tripled last year, mostly as a result of the war in Gaza.

Separately, the Intra-Communal Professorial Group (ICPG) was recently formed to research, record and analyse the experiences of Jewish students, academics and other staff on British university campuses amid this rise in attacks.

Anthony Julius, chair of the ICPG, said British universities reacted to the 7 October attacks with a mixture of indifference and celebration, which was so “profoundly shocking…that it calls for some kind of response”.

Professor Julius, who is also chair of the faculty of laws at UCL, said some of the antisemitism on campuses has been “exceptionally painful” for Jewish students and staff who are directly faced with it.

“This is a matter of tremendous concern to us, and we all work in the university space,” he said. “We’re not outsiders, we’re all academics and [the] university is our home, so obviously it’s a matter of huge concern if our home becomes an uninhabitable place.”

The group, which comprises more than 25 academics, aims to make recommendations to government and vice-chancellors on how life can be made safer for Jewish students and staff.

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Reader's comments (3)

Why no reference to the JDA? Universities which adopt the IHRA definition are allowing a misconstruction as Stern himself has suggested.
This reminds me of the where people critical of Diversity, equity and inclusion policies and critical of political movements such as BDS, BLM and ideologies such as critical race theory are conflated with anti-black or people of colour racism. In addition, those who have medical arguments against children getting gender transition treatments are called hate mongers. We have been warned by many great academics like Jordan Peterson against the increasingly “dangerous and misleading tendency” of those who are conflating criticism of the ideologies with racism and hate speech.
We need to spend more time listening to other people's points of view, seeking to understand them before engaging in any kind of criticism of them. Apart from anything else, how do you present a coherent argument in refutation of an opinion until you know what it is and how it was derived? Of course, that makes the rash assumption that this opinion you don't agree with HAS a rational argument and evidence to back it up, but I prefer to think that other people have actually thought their views through and know why they hold the views that they do.