A hard-hitting feature by Rosamund Urwin in London’s Evening Standard has exposed to London’s public the sad truth that most British Jews have long known: that SOAS, the School of Oriental and African Studies, might just as well be named the School of Antisemitism.
Noting SOAS students’ reputation for championing civil rights, and its proud tradition of nurturing future activists from 133 countries around the world, Urwin calls out the festering antisemitism that stains SOAS’s image with hypocrisy. Urwin is scathing in her analysis, pointing out that SOAS Students’ Union has a People of Colour Officer, two Anti-Racism Officers and an Equality and Liberation Co-President.
Urwin calls out the festering antisemitism that stains SOAS’s image with hypocrisy.
In December the cross-bench peer Baroness Deech told the Daily Telegraph’s Education Editor, Camilla Turner, that “amongst Jewish students there is gradually a feeling that there are certain universities that you should avoid — definitely SOAS”.
Incidents at SOAS have been causing serious concern, and those concerns centre around the activities of SOAS Palestine Society. Urwin notes that the Palestine Society is a dominant force on campus: “The Israel-Palestine conflict dominates discussion of global affairs at many universities but nowhere more so than at SOAS. In 2015 the union held a referendum where it voted to boycott Israel. And last year, it held an Israeli Apartheid Week ‘to raise awareness of Israel’s apartheid policies over the Palestinian people’.”
Campaign Against Antisemitism can reveal that the Palestine Society receives more funding than all but two of the 187 other non-sport societies at SOAS, receiving approximately 8% of the funds spent on non-sport societies every year.
It seems unlikely that the current leaders of the Palestine Society will face any consequences for arranging an antisemitic lecture on their campus.
In November, Campaign Against Antisemitism filed a complaint over an antisemitic event lecture organised by SOAS Palestine Society and the response we received showed little urgency. SOAS told us that the Students’ Union — a separate body — had investigated and was now in discussions with the Charity Commission. We found that the Students’ Union had declared the event not to have been antisemitic and that is what they told the Charity Commission. We wrote to the Charity Commission to set the record straight, but now it seems that nobody at SOAS intends to do anything to right this wrong until the Charity Commission has investigated, which is likely to take until after the protagonists have graduated and left SOAS for good. It seems unlikely that the current leaders of the Palestine Society will face any consequences for arranging an antisemitic lecture on their campus.
Shortly after the antisemitic lecture, in response to criticism, the Palestine Society planned a new event. SOAS’s Jewish students discovered that the Palestine Society planned to hold an event defining antisemitism, telling Jews what they are allowed to find offensive, and attempting to justify certain forms of Jew-hatred. It is hard to imagine SOAS inviting a speaker to tell black or gay students that they are no longer allowed to be offended by certain types of racism or homophobia — such an event would trigger a national outcry. In this case, there was only a Jewish outcry, and Palestine Society was quietly pressed to cancel the event, which they did.
“Some students tell me they are too scared to wear the star of David, or speak Hebrew”
Intimidation of Jewish students at SOAS is not difficult, mainly because the Jewish student population is small: Urwin discovered a 2016 Freedom of Information request which found that only 39 of the 5,900 students at SOAS admitted to being Jewish on their signup forms, and Avrahum Sanger, President of SOAS Jewish Society says that only about seven are active in Jewish life on campus, such that it is. “Some students tell me they are too scared to wear the star of David, or speak Hebrew, and Israeli students don’t want to attend Jewish events because they’re afraid of being singled out,” Sanger tells Urwin. He continues: “Even I feel uneasy when I go into the student union. And yet someone from the student union told me that the anti-racism officers didn’t have a mandate to address antisemitism as it wasn’t in their manifesto. Anyway, the only form of antisemitism people think of here is Hitler.”
It is no surprise. Graffiti found at SOAS in April last year threatened “BDS or else”, referring to the campaign to sever all ties with Israel. But Israel is the place from which Judaism originates and where half of the world’s Jewish population lives. Since its establishment it has been the one country that offers persecuted Jews from around the world unconditional safe haven. It is the religious and cultural heart of Judaism. To tell Jews that they will be treated as pariahs unless they renounce all connection to Israel and Israelis is antisemitic. Yet not only is that what SOAS’ few Jewish students are expected to do according to their Students’ Union, this graffiti appears to be threatening violence if they fail to comply. Few incidents are recorded in graffiti however, and we hear of too many incidents in which Jewish students are told, for example: “Why don’t you and your family f*** off to Israel?”
It is sobering to imagine for a moment that you are a Jewish student returning from lectures, and you stumble upon a vigil held for terrorist thugs who killed Jews for being Jews at the behest of genocidal antisemitic terrorist organisations like Hamas.
The influence of extremism on campus is also clear, though rarely highlighted. One such glimpse came in November 2015, when the Palestine Society organised a “vigil” commemorating the deaths of 72 Palestinian “martyrs” despite the fact that some of the “martyrs” were Islamist terrorists who had been killed attempting to murder Israeli Jews for being Jews, and who had declared allegiance to terrorist groups proscribed under EU and British terrorism laws. The absurd coverage of the resulting controversy in SOAS Spirit, a student newspaper, shows the nature of discourse on campus. It is sobering to imagine for a moment that you are a Jewish student returning from lectures, and you stumble upon a vigil held for terrorist thugs who killed Jews for being Jews at the behest of genocidal antisemitic terrorist organisations like Hamas.
Sanger feels that the situation is desperate. He revealed to Urwin that he has proposed an emergency motion at the Students’ Union, calling for equality for Jewish students. Having to propose such a motion at a major British university in 2017 should be the stuff of nightmares, not reality. Sanger’s motion highlights the disappearance of kosher provision and the withdrawal of a Jewish prayer area. He also wants the Students’ Union to appoint a Jewish Officer to work with the Anti-Racism Officers and to help to organise a workshop on antisemitism in Freshers’ Week.
Campaign Against Antisemitism continues to pursue its complaints with SOAS and the Charity Commission. We are extremely grateful to Rosamund Urwin for her coverage of this issue, and to Avrahum Sanger for his bravery in standing up to antisemitism at SOAS.