We have met with the Director of the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), Baroness Amos. The meeting did not go well.
On 8th February, Campaign Against Antisemitism met with Baroness Amos, along with SOAS’s Registrar, Paula Sanderson, and its Secretary, Dr Chris Ince. While Baroness Amos recognised that the School has “a lot of work to do” to make Jewish students feel welcome on her campus, she balked when asked to accept the International Definition of Antisemitism adopted by the British government. She said that she would do “whatever is necessary to make Jewish students feel safe”, but not that.
We pointed out that SOAS has a particular problem with antisemitism, and that the House of Commons Home Affairs Committee had recommended the adoption of the International Definition. Baroness Amos countered that no law had been passed. We pointed out that the Office of the Independent Adjudicator for Higher Education had censured Sheffield Hallam University for failing to consider adopting the definition. She told us that SOAS cannot adopt a definition as it is bound by the Equality Act. We pointed out that the government and the College of Policing and countless other bodies are also bound by the same Act, but they had adopted the definition.
Baroness Amos said that she would welcome a debate on campus about a definition of antisemitism but that it was a contentious issue, it “would take five years” to actually adopt any definition, and it would be an exercise in “navel gazing”. Just hours after we met with Baroness Amos, the London Assembly became the latest body to unanimously adopt the International Definition of Antisemitism following a very straightforward vote.
It is an established principle that you cannot address a problem until you have identified what it is, and adopted criteria, in this case a definition of antisemitism. That Baroness Amos refuses to even consider SOAS adopting the International Definition of Antisemitism for its disciplinary proceedings tells us all that we need to know about how serious SOAS is about addressing its antisemitism problem.
SOAS has long been nicknamed “The School of Antisemitism” for its long history of victimising Jewish students. Baroness Deech recently declared it a university Jewish students “should avoid” and Campaign Against Antisemitism has lodged complaints with SOAS and the Charity Commission over an antisemitic lecture. SOAS Palestine Society recently proposed to define what Jewish students could take offence to and Jewish students have been threatened, as detailed in a hard-hitting Evening Standard exposé last month. When the Jewish Society took their complaint to SOAS Students’ Union last month, they were stripped of their right to define what they find antisemitic.
Instead of taking the principal action requested by Campaign Against Antisemitism and students, SOAS has promised to review its Respect Policy, improve awareness of its Respect Policy, discuss equality with SOAS Students’ Union, and ensure that campus security liaises better with the Community Security Trust about safety at contentious events. In other words, they will do as little as possible, short of doing nothing at all.
It is intolerable that in 2017, in Britain’s capital, Jewish students are being victimised and their university is refusing to begin to act by accepting the International Definition of Antisemitism as used by the government and the College of Policing.
What happens next must be left up to the students who are affected by this situation. They may wish to continue negotiating with Baroness Amos, they may wish to explore official complaints and litigation, and they may wish to protest. We have offered our full support and resources to help the students with any negotiations, litigation or demonstration that they would like us to help them to pursue.