Professor David Hirsh, a lecturer at Goldsmiths, University of London who was appointed as the Chairman of a panel that oversaw an antisemitism-related complaint at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), has said that SOAS could be institutionally antisemitic.
The incident relates to last year’s complaint from a former student at SOAS who sought to have his fees refunded after he was forced to leave the University due to a ”toxic antisemitic environment”.
Noah Lewis was called a “white supremacist Nazi” and accused of covering up war crimes when he proposed to write a dissertation on bias against Israel at the United Nations. He said that fellow students labelled him and other Jews pejoratively as “Zionists” and left antisemitic slurs on lockers, desks and toilet walls.
The student, originally from Canada, matriculated in 2018 but lodged a formal complaint in May 2019 after finding his mental health adversely affected by the stress and extreme discomfort caused by the “toxic antisemitic environment” which ultimately led him to quit the University and return home.
In July 2019, the University offered an apology for the “emotional trauma…experienced due to the perceived antisemitic discrimination which he had to endure” and recommended compensation of £500.
Mr Lewis appealed the decision with assistance from UK Lawyers for Israel (UKLFI), however, and in March 2020 the appeal panel determined that the original decision “had not been adequate” and recommended an external investigation, even if the University reached a settlement with Mr Lewis.
A settlement was reportedly reached, with Mr Lewis refunded £15,000 in full in December 2020. However, the panel’s recommendation for an external investigation has since been ignored, Prof. Hirsh laments.
In a recent open letter, Prof. Hirsh reportedly stated: “The panel I chaired made clear and unanimous determinations which have so far been completely ignored. This is further prima facie evidence that there is a problem of institutional antisemitism at SOAS. It is clear enough by now that SOAS does not take the claim that it has a problem with institutional antisemitism seriously enough to do anything about it. Good practice requires that an institution is not well placed to make that kind of determination about its own culture, but that is what SOAS has done.”
Prof. Hirsh said that he believed SOAS’ reluctance to carry out the external investigation was due to its belief that the student’s complaint was a “bad faith move relating to politics around the conflicts between Israel and Palestine”.
Professor Hirsh added: “Since the summer of 2019, two new cohorts of students, some of them Jewish students, will have been at SOAS for a considerable period of time. SOAS owes those students a duty of care. It has not been carrying out that duty. It is further true that SOAS has a reputation, deserved or not, in particular amongst Jews, for being a place that has a toxic antisemitic environment that is tolerated and protected by the institutional practice and culture of the School itself…I do not feel that it would be right for me to keep what I know about this issue at SOAS secret.”
The University issued a public response to Prof. Hirsh that both defended its current statement on antisemitism and criticised the lecturer for speaking out. The statement read: “The route we have chosen to take to tackle discrimination goes well beyond the requirements placed on universities and other public institutions. We have spent many months since January engaging with our staff and student community to develop a comprehensive and widely-supported response to these challenges in drawing up our Charter on Discrimination which is formally titled our ‘Charter on Racism, Antisemitism and All Forms of Cultural, Ethnic and Religious Chauvinism’.”
The Charter in question stands in place of the International Definition of Antisemitism, which the University refuses to adopt. The Charter says: “We stand for anti-racism, and against antisemitism and all other forms of cultural, ethnic and religious chauvinism…We therefore welcome the renewed attention to discriminatory practices and the multiple separate calls to take a stand against racism, antisemitism, religious and cultural intolerance, xenophobia and the like.”
However, the Charter also states that “advocates of political causes may use academic freedom to articulate hateful words against other human beings and to advance racism and ethnic and cultural chauvinisms of any kind. Political advocacy may use the legitimate demands of anti-racism and calls against antisemitism, religious and cultural intolerance, to deflect from critical academic and political scrutiny. This occurs across the political, cultural and religious divide. Religious fundamentalists may equate religion and state, and demand not only acquiescence from all those within their nations who oppose their agendas but also silence others including scholars and journalists who subject their actions and words to critical reflection and scrutiny.”
Continuing in its response to Prof. Hirsh, SOAS’ statement said: “This Charter is now a mandatory policy for all individuals and stakeholders at SOAS and it comprehensively addresses the issues which have been raised in relation to antisemitism and other forms of discrimination. We stand firm against antisemitism, as we do against all forms of discrimination. Most importantly, we do this in a manner which is consistent with the principles of academic freedom. Our student community – newly arriving students and returning – can be assured that this charter will be applied rigorously and without fear or favour so that we genuinely address and tackle antisemitism, alongside action to address all forms of racism.”
Addressing Prof. Hirsh’s letter that criticised the University, SOAS wrote: “We note this story has arisen now (August 2021) after the Chair of a complaints panel that was held last year shared publicly with the press an email to a fellow panel member. We are disappointed that the chair of a properly constituted confidential student complaints panel should seek to publicly press for a particular action to be taken forward, and in the process draw into the public domain fellow members of the panel. We have a robust investigation process into complaints which makes recommendations confidentially to be considered by SOAS. This process relies on due confidentiality and respect for the process and for fellow panel members. We are disappointed that the chair of panel has chosen to act in this manner.”
SOAS has long been a hotbed of antisemitism among UK campuses. Last September, a professor at the University labelled Israel as a “virus” and said that it “exploited the Holocaust” for its own political agenda.
If any students are concerned about antisemitism on campus or need assistance, they can call us on 0330 822 0321, or e-mail [email protected]