UK Universities Regulator Strikes Blow Against Campus Anti-Semitism

The UK’s leading universities regulator has ruled in favor of a Jewish student’s complaint concerning harassment by pro-Palestinian activists at Sheffield Hallam University in the north of England.

The regulator, called the Office of the Independent Adjudicator (OIA), cited the European Parliament’s Working Definition of Antisemitism in determining that material circulated by Sheffield Hallam’s Palestine Society “crossed the line” from criticism of Israel into anti-Semitic invective. The Working Definition lists a number of ways in which attacks on Israel can be construed as anti-Semitic—for example, by comparing Israeli policies towards the Palestinians to the Nazi genocide of the Jews, or by holding all Jews collectively responsible for Israel’s actions.

Palestinian solidarity activists in both Europe and the U.S. have loudly opposed this definition, complaining that it conflates anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism and hate speech. But the OIA found the definition to be pertinent as it investigated not only the substance of the student’s complaint, but the circumstances that led to its original rejection by the authorities at Sheffield Hallam University in 2014.

The complaint was grounded in anxiety generated by the Palestine Society’s social media posts. “I started to see Jewish caricatures on Twitter, as well as claims that Israel was an apartheid state and references to blood libel,” the student, who does not wish to be named, told the Jewish Chronicle. “I knew this kind of vitriol was out there, but I had never seen anything like it before.”

The student, who is disabled, added that he felt “vulnerable” on campus. Whenever he wore a Star of David or a kippah, he said, he felt that “people were giving me dirty looks or trying to block my wheelchair.”

The student’s initial complaint was referred by the university authorities to the student union, which dismissed it outright. Following that outcome, the student approached Lesley Klaff, an expert on anti-Semitism and a senior lecturer in law at Sheffield Hallam. Together with another law colleague, David Lewis, Klaff took the case to the OIA.

Explaining its conclusions in the case, the OIA criticized the university for not treating the complaint with appropriate seriousness. The Sheffield Hallam authorities were also censured for referring the complaint to the student union, which did not treat it formally and did not produce a written report. The university “failed to properly turn its mind to the question of whether [the student] had experienced harassment as a result of certain aspects of PalSoc’s social media activity,” the OIA said.

The OIA has now urged the university to pay the student £3,000 (about $4,000) in compensation for both the complaint and the delay in responding to it.

“David Lewis and I believe this decision could really help Jewish and pro-Israel students to complain effectively to their universities about some of the worst abuses by anti-Zionists on campus,” Klaff told The Tower in an email.

Klaff cited many of the Palestine Society’s social media posts, which accused “Israel and Israelis of genocide, deliberately killing Palestinian children, deliberately killing other Palestinian civilians, war crimes, atrocities, using chemical weapons, ethnic cleansing, inhumanity, cruelty, behaving like Nazis, sexual and other abuse of Palestinian children (including abduction and human trafficking), stealing Palestinian organs, being racists and fascists, and rejoicing in Palestinian deaths.”

While the OIA has not itself adopted a position on when anti-Zionism becomes anti-Semitism, its recognition that Jewish students can feel harassed and threatened by pro-Palestinian activity is of enormous significance in an academic environment that treats complaints about anti-Semitism as a rhetorical device to mute criticism and condemnation of Israel.

[Photo: Sheffield Hallam University]