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IHRA Definition of Antisemitism: Universities

Volume 681: debated on Tuesday 6 October 2020

[Mr Clive Betts in the Chair]

Before we begin, I remind hon. Members as they take their seats that, with the new rules, they should make sure to wipe their microphones and everything else. That is part of the arrangements that we have all agreed to. I have just done mine. Welcome to the debate. Four Members have indicated that they would like to make speeches—please keep speeches very short as the Minister needs to have time to reply. I call Christian Wakeford to move the motion.

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the adoption by universities of the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts, I am grateful to be leading my first Westminster Hall debate on such an important and timely subject, which has been widely publicised in recent days. It is extremely important not only to the Jewish community in my constituency, but to Jewish communities, students and their families across the country.

I wish to start by saying that this debate is not a means of attacking the Government. In fact, I wish to put on record my thanks to the Government for their efforts on this issue, which go back over three years. The former hon. Member for Orpington, the soon to be Lord Johnson, first wrote to all universities in February 2018 to encourage them to adopt the IHRA definition of antisemitism. In May 2019, my right hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood (Chris Skidmore), as Universities Minister, again wrote to all universities, urging them in stronger terms to adopt the definition. More recently, in January this year, the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, my right hon. Friend the Member for Newark (Robert Jenrick), wrote to all universities demanding that they adopt the IHRA definition of antisemitism or face funding cuts.

Following those ministerial interventions and successive freedom of information requests undertaken by the Union of Jewish Students, we are now in a position where 29 out of 133 higher education institutions have adopted the IHRA definition of antisemitism, with half of the Russell Group of universities among that number. Although that number is low, at 21% of higher education institutions, it is a marked increase on where we were three years ago. I thank my right hon. Friends for their part in making that progress. While I am heartened to see that a further 17 higher education institutions are to discuss the IHRA definition and its adoption in the coming months, it is extremely concerning that 80 institutions have confirmed that they have not adopted the IHRA definition, nor do they plan to do so. For those doing the maths, seven institutions failed to respond to freedom of information requests, which is of further concern.

Does my hon. Friend believe that universities have a moral duty to do everything they can to combat antisemitism and that failing to take up the IHRA definition is a dereliction of that moral duty?

I completely agree. All universities have not just a moral obligation but a duty to ensure that our Jewish students are safe on campus.

The main reason that those institutions gave was that they believed their current policies were sufficient. I do not agree. The IHRA definition sets out clear examples of what is or is not antisemitic to defuse any conflation with anti-Zionism and anti-Israel sentiment. Their second reason was that there is no need for a specific definition of antisemitism. Again, I disagree, with my thoughts in line with those on the first reason: it is for Jewish students and the wider Jewish community to define what antisemitism is. With IHRA now having universal acceptance, they have my support in pushing for that definition to be adopted as soon as possible.

The third and perhaps most disturbing reason given for not adopting the IHRA definition is that institutions consider it a threat to academic freedom of speech. That is of particular concern as, where the IHRA definition of antisemitism has not been adopted, that has given academic staff more influence in defining what is and is not antisemitic. Prior to its adoption at the University of Bristol, we saw in July 2019 it refuse first to open any disciplinary action against controversial lecturer David Miller and then to use the IHRA definition once the case was opened. That said, the university has since adopted the definition, for which I am grateful.

The University of Warwick has refused to adopt the IHRA definition of antisemitism and has no plans to change its view. In August, it found that a lecturer who said

“The idea that the Labour party is antisemitic is very much an Israeli lobby kind of idea”

had not been antisemitic, despite that being contrary to the IHRA definition.

This debate—and, indeed, previous requests by Members to universities—is intended not to be a stick with which to beat the higher education sector or its institutions but as a first step in ensuring that our many world-leading institutions across the sector take accusations of antisemitism seriously and do their utmost to protect all Jewish students and staff members. The IHRA definition and its clear examples are indeed a cornerstone in combating antisemitism in a manner in which Jewish students and the wider Jewish community can be confident. Those universities that have not adopted the definition need only to look to their peers to see what benefits there are from doing so. As we approach a point at which we have a greater proportion of football clubs adopting the IHRA definition of antisemitism than higher education institutions, now is the time to act.

To make universities safe for Jewish students, why stop at adopting IHRA? We must go much further, ensuring that no-platforming, whether overtly or through the back door by imposing unreasonable security and higher charges, is brought to an end. When a university has effectively boycotted the Israeli ambassador, stopping him attending and speaking at an event, that is not right.

I have heard further concerning evidence of this nature where pro-Israeli speakers and, indeed, the ambassador have been turned away due to security concerns. Several Jewish students have been in contact about the issues they face just by being a member of a Jewish society, whether that be casual racism along the lines of, “I don’t mean to be Jewish but you owe me money” or having to provide their own security for events because the university refuses to support them. Although I have nothing but praise for the work that the Community Security Trust performs in the community, students should not be put in a position where they have to keep event locations secret or provide security for themselves because their university refuses to support them.

I put on record my thanks to the CST for all the work it does. I certainly hope that, with the work that the Government are doing and what my hon. Friend is saying, we can build a future where our children can go and pray freely and we can speak about these issues without fear.

My hon. Friend makes another excellent point. I am extremely fortunate that the Community Security Trust is based in the neighbouring constituency to mine, and that I have a very good relationship with its directors.

To return to the fact that universities are not supporting their students, I will use this forum right now to speak to my old university, the University of Lancaster: if they expect an alumnus who is pro-Israel to stay away, they should think again. I welcome the work done by my hon. Friend the Member for Chippenham (Michelle Donelan) in her role as Minister for Universities, in ensuring that Jewish students are not discriminated against as timetables are extended to cover Fridays and even Saturdays, so that no student is forced to attend a lecture or seminar if they are observing shabbat.

Public opinion and the views of the Jewish community show that there is a demand for change and swift action to be taken. I call on our world-class higher education institutions to take note before future students vote with their feet.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bury South (Christian Wakeford) on securing this important debate. It is not a theoretical debate about a definition and which words are just about right; it is a real issue. Antisemitism is a very real problem on our campuses.

I will talk about my experience when I was at the University of Manchester between 2005 and 2008. It was just after the Iraq war. A group of students from the Socialist Workers party had seized control of the students union. The atmosphere on campus was absolutely horrendous. A friend who was Jewish and had the temerity to be elected to the students union was subject to death threats. The incident that sticks out most in my mind was back in 2007, when the union voted to twin with the An Najah University on the west bank, a university that is repeatedly linked to Hamas, a terrorist organisation that is openly committed to the genocide of the Jewish people.

Following the union’s successful vote to twin with that organisation, I was standing with a small group of Jewish students while hundreds and hundreds of students stood on the union steps chanting, “2, 4, 6, 8, let’s destroy the Zionist state; 3, 5, 7, 9, death to Jews in Palestine.” That happened in the centre of Manchester, one of our major cities, on our streets, in our lifetime. That was an absolute disgrace.

The situation was so bad that groups of Conservative students, Labour students and LibDem students worked together with a local Jewish society to try to take down the cabal that was running the students union. The irony is that many of those who fought together against antisemitism on the campus have since left the Labour party, and many of the members of Socialist Workers party have found themselves to be big supporters of the previous Leader of the Opposition.

I am pleased to see that the University of Manchester has now adopted the IHRA definition, but I am disappointed that the University of Derby, which I partly represent with the Buxton campus, has so far not done so. I call on it, and other universities, to adopt the definition. Failure to do so is a dereliction of duty and lets our students down.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts, and I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Bury South (Christian Wakeford) for securing this important debate.

I am disgusted that we stand here today, in 2020, to condemn the ways in which universities have not only refused to engage with or listen to students, but, as in the instance of the University of Warwick, have been gaslighting Jewish students and the wider Jewish community. The institutional hijacking of freedom of speech that is currently being used as a façade for universities and professors to scurry behind is appalling.

In May 2019, a previous Minister for Universities sent a letter to all universities in the United Kingdom to encourage them to adopt the IHRA definition. Hot on the heels of the letter was the president of the Jewish/Israeli society at the University of Warwick, who sent his own letter, as a representative of Jewish students at Warwick, further imploring the vice-chancellor Stuart Croft to heed the advice of the Government and adopt the definition. The Jewish/Israeli society president was met with nothing but silence for over six months. When a copy of this letter was hand-delivered to Stuart Croft’s office, the response that came one week later was that the definition offered “no added value.”

Two inconclusive meetings were held, and a promised third in March was delayed initially, but never rescheduled. A further letter was sent in mid-July by Jewish community leaders, which has also gone unanswered.

In November 2019, a lecturer became the epicentre of the university’s apathy when academic Dr Goldie Osuri declared that antisemitism in the Labour party was

“an Israeli lobby kind of idea”,

evoking the age-old trope of malign Jewish power. When a formal complaint was made, Osuri emailed all students on the module to say that they should look at the work of Jewish Voice for Labour which, in her words, believed Labour’s antisemitism problem was “orchestrated”. The investigation was spearheaded by the head of sociology, Professor Virinder Kalra, who had previously expressed public opposition to the IHRA definition. He concluded that Osuri’s comments remained

“within the principles and values of tolerance and free speech”.

An appeal was rejected, and students were left feeling unsafe, attacked and gaslit. The process of complaint has now been exhausted. It is unimaginable and unacceptable, and such people should be removed from our university sector.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Bury South (Christian Wakeford) for securing today’s debate. It is important that we keep pressing universities to adopt the IHRA definition of antisemitism, and I am proud that our Government have been helping the Union of Jewish Students and others such as the Jewish Leadership Council, the Antisemitism Policy Trust, the Community Security Trust, and local champions such as Ruth Jacobs in the west midlands who work really hard to get councils and universities to adopt the definition.

However, I am deeply saddened when the argument is made that in order to protect freedom of speech, the IHRA definition cannot be accepted. What world are we living in where we are more concerned about protecting our right to be racist than the right of minorities to live without fear or intimidation on our university campuses? Too often that argument is made by those concerned about the consequences of their own language. I ask those people to learn, engage, and understand why it is so important to adopt this definition, so that institutions can have the tools genuinely and fairly to distinguish between what constitutes antisemitism and what does not. Adopting the definition harms no decent person, but allows communities to trust that these institutions are doing what is right.

I want to use this opportunity to briefly highlight what more universities can do to tackle this age-old hate crime, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bury South has acknowledged. So many universities are going above and beyond, and I am proud that the Government have provided another three years’ funding for the Holocaust Educational Trust and the Union of Jewish Students to continue their joint venture, educating students about the Holocaust and the consequences of antisemitism. So far, 30 senior leaders and 95 sabbatical officers from 47 English universities have attended the project. As a result, at least 24 universities marked Holocaust Memorial Day in 2019, reaching over 6,000 people. As well as holding commemorative events, participants in the project invited survivors to speak and share their testimony on campus, brought forward motions to combat antisemitism at their student union, and hosted events with speakers highlighting the dangers of antisemitism and hatred.

Thanks to support from the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, the Holocaust Educational Trust and the Union of Jewish Students will be expanding the “Lessons from Auschwitz” universities project for student unions and campus leaders. That will bring together almost 450 student leaders from across English universities through education on the Holocaust, anti-racism work, British values and faith values. I pay tribute to all that HET and UJS do to tackle antisemitism wherever it may appear.

Adopting the IHRA definition of antisemitism is just the start. It is the beginning of universities’ efforts to prevent this age-old hate crime from having a safe space on our university campuses. Universities should be places where all should thrive, and no one should fear not belonging because of who they are or where they are from.

Order. I think we are just about to have a vote, so rather than interrupt the Minister as she is responding, it is probably best if we suspend the sitting for 15 minutes. I will certainly not resume the sitting until the Minister and the hon. Member for Bury South (Christian Wakeford) get back, and then hopefully we can get down in the queue and move forward.

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

On resuming—

It is a delight to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts. I wish to congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bury South (Christian Wakeford) on securing this important debate, as well as my hon. Friends the Members for Meriden (Saqib Bhatti), for Stoke-on-Trent North (Jonathan Gullis) and for West Bromwich East (Nicola Richards) for their contributions. I also acknowledge the very personal contribution from my hon. Friend the Member for High Peak (Robert Largan), who recalled his own experiences of religious hatred during his student days.

It is very good to be back in Westminster Hall, where views can be aired openly. I am grateful for the opportunity to discuss this topic as I stand in for my hon. Friend the Minister for Universities, who has been self-isolating today awaiting a covid-19 test, which I am glad to report has come back negative.

The Government are clear that there is no place for religious hatred in our society. Racism of any kind should not be tolerated anywhere, including in our higher education institutions. Higher education providers should be at the forefront of tackling the challenge of antisemitism and, indeed, all racism and religious hatred, making sure that the higher education experience is a genuinely fulfilling one and a welcoming experience for everyone. Higher education providers have obligations, in particular under the Equality Act 2010, and their policies and procedures must be appropriate to ensure that they are complying with the law.

In 2016, the Government adopted the IHRA definition of antisemitism. We were the first country to adopt that definition and it is an important tool in tackling antisemitism. Universities have a big role to play. We expect them to be welcoming and inclusive to students of all backgrounds, and the Government continue strongly to encourage all higher education providers to adopt the IHRA definition, which would send a strong signal that higher education providers take those issues seriously. However, they are autonomous institutions and that is also set out in law. As such, the decision on whether to adopt the definition rests with individual providers.

The Government have taken action, however. In 2019, the then Universities Minister and the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government wrote to 130 institution heads to outline the importance of the definition and to strongly encourage the providers to consider adopting it. On Holocaust Memorial Day this year, the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government announced new funding of £500,000 over three years for a programme supporting universities in tackling antisemitism on campus. The Government will continue to call on providers to adopt that important definition. It is a decision for vice-chancellors, but I urge them all to listen to their staff and students, as well as to the wider community and, indeed, our proceedings.

Without doubt, the university experience of many Jewish students is overwhelmingly positive. However, the number of antisemitic incidents in the UK remains a cause for concern, including in our universities. The Community Security Trust statistics for 2019 show record numbers of antisemitic incidents. Furthermore, in the first six months of this year, the number of incidents of antisemitism involving universities rose by an alarming 34%, compared with the same period in 2019. That is absolutely unacceptable and shows how much further the sector has to go to tackle the issue. Recent statistics also show that the way in which antisemitism is manifesting itself is changing—for example, there are increased reports of online incidents. I am concerned at the way in which religious harassment has evolved at this time of global crisis.

Throughout the pandemic, the Government have made it clear that higher education providers have a responsibility to their students to ensure that they continue to be able to access support and the complaints procedures. As universities begin to teach the autumn term, it is more important than ever that students feel able to report incidents of antisemitism and other hatred. We expect higher education providers to have a zero-tolerance approach to all racial harassment and religious hatred and to act to stamp it out, whether it is on campus or online.

I call on all leaders to step up their efforts to address this issue within their institutions. Adopting the IHRA definition is one way of showing that antisemitism is not welcome, although adoption alone does not mean that our work is done. Hon. Members are no doubt aware of activity to tackle antisemitism that has already happened across the higher education sector. For example, in 2015, the Government asked Universities UK to set up a taskforce to address harassment and hate crime. That taskforce resulted in the “Changing the culture” framework, which was published in 2016. Much of that has shaped work across the sector.

In 2019, Universities UK published a report on the impact of “Changing the culture”, and it showed that progress had been made, especially in certain areas of focus, particularly student-to-student sexual harassment, but work remained underdeveloped in other areas, including hate crime. In particular, the report emphasised the requirement for further senior leadership buy-in and investment to enable culture change. UUK then committed to convening an advisory group on racial harassment in higher education, which would include vice-chancellors. That group is soon to publish guidance for the sector.

The Government have worked with partners, including UUK and the Office for Students. Through ministerial guidance, the Government have tasked the Office for Students with supporting efforts to tackle harassment and hate crime in higher education. As a result, the OFS has provided £4.7 million for a range of projects over four years.

In conclusion, we will continue to work across Government to ensure that racism and religious hatred of any kind are not tolerated anywhere, particularly our world-leading universities. We call on leaders across the sector to do more to ensure that a zero-tolerance approach is taken. As a Government, we have adopted the IHRA definition of antisemitism and have encouraged universities to do so. We will ask them to do this again and we will be clear that there is much more progress to be made. Our universities should be inclusive and tolerant environments. They have such potential to change lives and society for the better. I am sure that our universities are serious in their commitment to tackle racism and hatred, but much more work remains to be done.

Question put and agreed to.