Jewish students told they 'do not have the right to define anti-Semitism' at SU meeting

'This was, once again, a room full of students who do not identify as Jewish, explaining to Jewish students how to define their own oppression,' says Jewish Society student

Rachael Pells
Education Correspondent
Friday 27 January 2017 12:20 GMT
SOAS has more than 5,000 students from 133 countries on campus, and just over 50 per cent of them are from outside the UK
SOAS has more than 5,000 students from 133 countries on campus, and just over 50 per cent of them are from outside the UK (Rex)

A row has broken out at a London university after Jewish students were told they did not have the right to define what constitutes anti-Semitism.

Debating at a SOAS Student’s Union (SU) meeting this week, university members passed a new motion for a “Jewish Equality Act”, ensuring prayer spaces for religious students and kosher food was made available on campus.

It also included a commitment to account for Jewish holidays when scheduling events.

As part of the debate of the motion, however, members voted to remove a line stating “Jewish students should be given the right to self-determination and be able to define what constitutes hatred against their group like all other minority groups”.

An amendment to the motion was passed instead, ruling that union members must abide by a pre-existing set definition, put forward by Professor David Feldman from the Pears Institute for the Study of Anti-Semitism.

Union representatives said the amendment was proposed by a Jewish student and agreed by the majority of those present.

But the Union of Jewish Students (UJS) criticised SOAS SU for its “appalling treatment” of a minority group.

A spokesperson from the UJS said: “This was, once again, a room full of students who do not identify as Jewish, explaining to Jewish students how to define their own oppression.

“This is in contrast to the way that other forms of oppression are defined, as per the Macpherson principle, allowing the victim to define their own oppression.”

The Macpherson principle was adopted from the 1999 report into the Metropolitan Police’s mishandling of Steven Lawrence’s murder.

It defines racism as “any incident which is perceived to be racist by the victim or any other person”, but does not dictate that the incident will be found to be racist upon investigation.

SOAS SU has made headlines already this week for its efforts to address racial inequality on campus.

In its newly published 'Degrees of Racism' report, the union asked that “all academics must be prepared to acknowledge… they are capable of racism”.

Speaking to the Evening Standard, Avrahum Sanger, president of SOAS’s Jewish Society said members of the Jewish community were not able to express themselves at the university for fear of anti-Semitic hate.

“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,” he added.

Regarding SOAS’s general meeting on Tuesday, Josh Nagli, UJS Campaigns Director, said the comments made while debating the motion were “outrageous”.

Pro-Palestine protest turns violent at UCL student Israeli society

“Not only were Jewish students told that they did not have the right to define their own oppression, but they also heard that Zionists are not welcome in their Students’ Union,” he said.

SOAS is no stranger to the Israeli-Palestinian debate. The Government’s Charity Commission are currently investigating an alleged anti-Semitic talk held at SOAS last year.

Speaking at a talk hosted by the university’s Palestine Society in November, Thomas Suarez described the creation of Israel as a "racist", "fascist" endeavour, and linked the "cult" of Zionism to the Nazis.

In 2015, the SOAS SU held a referendum where members voted to "boycott" Israel.

Regarding Tuesday's debate, a spokesperson from the union said remarks about Zionism had been made as part of a separate motion about external organisations that was debated for some time, with a number of students arguing each side.

In a statement, they said: “A comment was made by one individual student which was not part of the motion itself and did not play a role in shaping the outcome of the motion… No organisation was banned from speaking on campus.

“We look forward to working on the outcomes of the 'Equality for Jewish Students Act' motion in the months to come and continue in the proud tradition of anti-racist struggles here at SOAS.

"The student body at SOAS remains united in fighting against all forms of racism and bigotry including anti-Semitism.”

Last month the Governent’s Holocaust envoy, Sir Eric Pickles, said British universities had shown “grave cowardice” over dealing with anti-Semitism on campus, and that he was “looking into” new legislation to protect Jewish students.

“The classic definition of dealing with racism and anti-Semitism is those who stand by and do nothing,” he added.

His comments come after universities minister Jo Johnson urged academic institutions to “act swiftly” to investigate claims of anti-Semitism and other hate crimes on campus.

Mr Johnson said universities had a “clear responsibility” under the 2010 Equality Act “to ensure they protect their staff and students and act swiftly to investigate and address hate crime, including anti-Semitic related incidents reported to them.”

He added: “There is no place in our society for any form of harassment or discrimination“.

​SOAS released the following statement: "We have been actively working with our students' union and with our students' Jewish Society to continue to find ways to ensure that Jewish students feel welcome on campus.

"We regret that any students at the students union general meeting found any views being expressed offensive. Freedom of speech does not mean the expression of views which are anti-semitic or which are otherwise illegal or incite racial hatred.

"We understand that the general meeting of the students' union on Tuesday a motion proposed by the Jewish Society which was supportive of the place of Jewish students at SOAS was passed.

"We have welcomed this and will be working with the students' union and the Jewish Society to take the recommendations forward.

Responding to claims from Jewish students that Zionist speakers would be banned from campus, the university said: "SOAS rejects any suggestion that representatives of external organisations should be banned from speaking on campus.

"We note that no motion was passed by the students' union to put in place such a ban. Rules are already in place which prevent the expression of views which are illegal or promote racial hatred."

Join our commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in