Racism (Universities)

29th June 2007

Brooks Newmark leads a debate on tackling racism in universities, with particular focus on the in particular on the proposed University and College Unions' boycott of Israeli academics.

 

2.31 pm

Mr. Brooks Newmark (Braintree) (Con): I am pleased to have secured an Adjournment debate on the important subject of tackling racism in universities, in particular on the proposed University and College Unions' boycott of Israeli academics, although I am disappointed that in this day and age the issue should need to be debated at all. There is no place for racism anywhere in British society, but it is a particular affront to that society that any racism should persist in our universities.

This subject is hedged in by considerable complexity, not least caused by the need to protect academic freedoms from the clunking fist of Government. Nevertheless, the volume of legislation available to prevent racism on university campuses is considerable. The Race Relations Act 1976 obliges higher education institutions to promote race equality and good relations between different racial groups. The Public Order Act 1986 made incitement to racial hatred a crime, and that provision was buttressed in 2001, and again by the Racial and Religious Hatred Act 2006. To those we can add the Crime and Disorder Act 1998, which introduced racially aggravated offences, and the Equality Act 2006, to outlaw discrimination on the grounds of religion and belief. If I have missed out any law, I hope that the Minister will correct my omission when he replies.

However, I question whether that superabundance of legislation has borne any fruit. In fact, it may well be something of a hindrance to universities seeking to form policies to tackle racism. From prodigal law it is an easy step to profligate guidance. In November, for example, the Minister issued guidance on how universities should promote good campus relations and tackle violent Islamic extremism. I hope that when he replies, he will be able to update the House on the reception of that guidance by the academic community and outline any further steps that he proposes to take with regard to monitoring the growth of Islamic extremism on our campuses.

Islamic extremism is just one facet of the threat that racism poses to university life. Another, and one that has captured the headlines in recent weeks, as well as providing the catalyst for this debate, is anti-Semitism in British universities. I feel obliged to say that it has captured the headlines for all the wrong reasons. At the end of March the Government responded to the report of the all-party parliamentary group on anti-Semitism. I pay tribute to all the members of the group that produced that report. They have focused attention on an increasingly worrying issue.

Unfortunately, there have been few if any headlines that focus on the report's concern that police forces are not comprehensively and consistently tackling anti-Semitic incidents; that the Crown Prosecution Service undertakes few prosecutions for racially motivated offences; or that the Home Office does not seem to have conducted dedicated research into the prevalence of anti-Semitism. The headlines have instead focused on the decision by the University and College Union to allow its members to discuss proposals for a boycott of Israeli academics. That shift in focus is unfortunate, because the all-party parliamentary group's report devoted an entire chapter to the rise of anti-Semitism on university campuses. Anti-Semitism is a serious and growing concern for Jewish students.

As the Union of Jewish Students told the all-party parliamentary group's inquiry:

"Jewish students have become increasingly alarmed by virulent and unbalanced attacks on the state of Israel, and the failure of student bodies and organisations to clearly and forcefully condemn anti-Semitism when it occurs."

The UCU's stance on a potential boycott of Israeli academics is the crowning failure of responsible leadership. I agree with the principle that university governance is, rightly, independent of the Government, but there is also the principle that academic freedom rests on a compact in which society chooses not to intrude on universities, and universities in turn do not seek to carry out a foreign policy. The proposed UCU boycott undermines that very principle. Tony Blair went as far as he could while he was still Prime Minister to register his disapproval of the decision that the UCU had taken.

I pay tribute to the Minister for his commitment to countering the harm done by the UCU to the image of British academia abroad during his recent visit to Israel. I am also grateful for his steadfast reiteration of the Government's position at yesterday's Education and Skills questions. I was particularly struck by his observation that

"Education must be a bridge between different peoples, and not a subject of conflict."-[ Official Report, 28 June 2007; Vol. 462, c. 454.]

When he replies, I hope that he will spend a little time developing his idea to hold a seminar in London involving Palestinian, Israeli and British academics. That would be a powerful symbol, and I welcome the idea.

I hope that the Minister also agrees that independence from Government imposes responsibilities on both universities and any organisations that purport to speak for either students or lecturers. If lecturers, in particular, cannot lead by example, then all the guidance and legislation in the world will not make a jot of difference to campus racism. Indeed, as one professor wrote to me recently:

"there should in my view be much more condemnation of academic leaders for failing to assail this movement-Dante on the hottest places in hell being reserved for those who maintain their neutrality in time of great moral crisis comes to mind."

The boycott of Israeli academics has a long and sordid history. Harvard law professor Allan Dershowitz wrote in an article for The Times that

"the academic boycott resonates with earlier boycotts of Jews. The history of anti-Semitism is in part the history of boycotts of Jews."

Both the Association of University Teachers and NATFHE have previously proposed a boycott of Israeli academics. The NATFHE motion two years ago called for a boycott of Israeli academics who did not

"distance themselves from their government",

although how they were supposed to do that without the revival of the Zionist equivalent of the Test Acts was, to the best of my knowledge, left unexplained.

I want to contrast the laudable motion 193 passed at the NATFHE conference in 2005, which suggested inter alia that the union should

"develop programmes with the Commission for Racial Equality and The Board of Deputies of British Jews to educate academics and students about the dangers of anti-Semitism",

with the myopic, morally repugnant and intellectually bankrupt motion 30 from the UCU's most recent annual conference. That motion

"condemns the complicity of Israeli academia in the occupation"

of the Palestinian territories but fancifully supposes that

"criticism of Israel cannot be construed as anti-Semitic".

Those claims are extraordinary, and they are both lazy and dangerous.

As a member of the alumni board of Harvard university, I am acutely aware that the issue has also raised its head on the other side of the Atlantic. In 2002, Larry Summers, the president of Harvard university, deplored the fact that by arguing that Israel should be the target of boycott and divestment policies

"serious and thoughtful people are advocating and taking actions that are anti-Semitic in their effect, if not their intent."

It is just a little too easy and glib to say that anti-Zionism is not anti-Semitism, because the odd terminological inexactitude will swiftly turn one into the other.

I pay tribute to representatives from my other alma mater, Oxford university, for attempting to expunge some of the historical rhetoric with an amendment to the motion, but the fact remains that the whole enterprise was never anything more than an example of gesture politics writ large. It wrongly imposes collective responsibility on academics, it is replete with double standards, and it has the ironic impact of silencing legitimate criticism from within the Israeli academic community. As another Newmark, who is the chief executive of the Jewish Leadership Council, but no relation of mine, has said:

"this is a full-frontal assault on academic freedom"

and it

"damages the credibility of British academia as a whole."

I would add to that sentiment the observation of my own rabbi, Thomas Salamon, who wrote to me:

"boycotts are like book burnings, which indicate the will and force to stifle all debate and thought. Boycotts of this nature endanger democracy and lead to hegemony and suppression of freedoms, only recently thrown off in Eastern Europe. To bunch all Israeli academics together is both against reason and common sense."

As an advocate of wider engagement throughout the middle east, it pains me that an influential group of people should be seriously advocating disengagement with Israel. When the AUT last proposed a boycott of Israeli academics, the philosophical objection was summed up by the 21 Noble laureates who signed a joint letter that averred:

"academic freedom has never been the property of a few and must not be manipulated by them...mixing science with politics, and limiting academic freedom by boycotts is wrong."

I wonder how many Nobel laureates voted in favour of the UCU's motion. That motion is all the more dangerous because it establishes such a poor moral tone for UK academia. When it comes to discouraging racism, intolerance and prejudice in British universities, students have a right to expect strong leadership and high moral tone from their lecturers and their own representatives, as well as from Government.

The proposed boycott by UCU members has cast a long shadow and points to a grave weakness in the architecture for dealing with the difficult interface between legitimate expression and religious discrimination that exists today in UK universities. It has also exposed a failure of leadership which cannot help but strike at the heart of any policy aimed at tackling racism. My hon. Friend the Member for Henley (Mr. Johnson) recently characterised the quality of that leadership, in his usual forthright manner, as

"the vapourings of 158 overgrown student politicians."

He is right. He joined the unequivocal condemnation by my right hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) and my hon. Friend the Member for Havant (Mr. Willetts).

Universities UK, through the equality challenge unit, is committed to the challenge of stamping out racism in all its many forms. I hope that the Minister will be able to reaffirm the Government's commitment to supporting it in that task. Although the unit takes no official position on the UCU boycott debate, it is clearly crucial to the fight against racism and anti-Semitism in our universities. When the question of university anti-Semitism was debated in another place earlier this month, the chief executive of Universities UK, Baroness Warwick, gave a commitment that the unit would publish updated guidance to universities that focused on religion-related hate crimes. I very much hope that that guidance will prove decisive in addressing aspects of racism such as anti-Semitism, which are so often out of the limelight because they are harder to identify and, perhaps, easier to overlook.

The last thing that universities need is more interference from Government. However, does the Minister believe that there is any scope for the new Department responsible for higher education and skills to consolidate the guidance, if not the legislation, that applies to campus racism? On the one hand we have guidance coming from the Government on how to deal with Islamic extremism; on the other, we have forthcoming guidance from the equality challenge unit on religious hate crimes. My concern is that university vice-chancellors are already bewildered by their responsibilities and their powers to combat racism, and that continuing to address the issue piecemeal will do little to improve the situation for students. Perhaps the Minister could also confirm what is being done to bolster the enforcement of existing legislation in order to crack down on campus racism.

As Baroness Deech said in another place during the debate on anti-Semitism,

"Universities are like the canary in the mine when it comes to bad indications."-[ Official Report, House of Lords, 12 June 2007; Vol. 692, c. 1661.]

I encourage colleagues on both sides of the House to signal their support for academic freedom and contempt for anti-Semitism, in all its guises, by signing early-day motion 1603. I also hope that students and lecturers will act decisively to bury this sordid subject once and for all by supporting the "Stop the Boycott" campaign through the website www.stoptheboycott.org.

It appears that there is still something of a bad smell caused by prejudice and racism in British universities, but I hope for a breath of fresh air from the UCU, so that the canary will live to see the light of day.

...

LATER INTERVENTION IN THE SAME DEBATE

Mr. Newmark: Does the Minister honestly believe that Hizb ut-Tahrir promotes racial harmony on university campuses?

Bill Rammell: The hon. Gentleman knows that, across government, we keep the issue of Hizb ut-Tahrir under review; that is the right thing to do. There is certainly a responsibility on university institutions to act in accordance with the law and to tackle racism.

 

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