Antisemitism at UCL — the Working Party Report

Or, how a report meant to tackle antisemitism becomes an enabler of antisemitism

University College London. A pioneer for equal rights, but is that still the case?

What is the Working Party report, and why does it matter?

In 2019 UCL, along with many other universities and other public and private institutions, adopted the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of antisemitism. However, this year there was a pushback from some academics represented on UCL’s Academic Board (the advisory body which represents the academics at the institution). The AB set up a working group to examine the issue and report back. The report is available here.

From the start there were problems with the Working Group (WG) which caused intense unease among campaigners against antisemitism. These problems suggested that the WG was set up, not out of a general concern with academic freedom, but as a move by antizionist academics to preserve their freedom to engage in their particular obsession while avoiding any scrutiny of the dubious places to which this obsession is taking them.

What are the problems with the report?

There are numerous problems of commission and omission both within and surrounding the report which justify concern.

First, an early warning sign came with the discovery that neither of the two Student Union representatives nominated to the WG were Jewish. One need only imagine how unthinkable it would be for a student union to nominate two white students to an enquiry on anti-black racism to realise the enormity of this.

Second, the only antisemitism researcher who appears to have been involved in the WG (and is quoted in its report as such) is Professor David Feldman, Director of the Pears Institute for the study of Antisemitism. Yet, in denying any relationship between antizionism and antisemitism, Prof. Feldman is an outlier in the field, to the extent that even some of his colleagues at the Pears Institute are aghast at his positions.

Nor can we refrain from mentioning that Feldman was the Deputy Chair of the Chakrabarti report which essentially absolved the Labour Party of institutional antisemitism — a view which was strongly rejected by the Jewish community as a whitewash, and has since been thoroughly discredited by the devastating report of the Equalities and Human Rights Commission (EHRC). It was noticeable, by the way, that following publication of Chakrabarti’s report, its supposedly ‘independent’ chairperson promptly joined the Labour Party, and was nominated for a peerage by its leader. One might have thought that the members of the WG would have seen the dangers in aligning themselves with the views of an individual associated with this scandal.

When I challenged one of the report authors on this, he insisted that they had indeed spoken to other workers in the field (Anthony Julius was one of those mentioned). However, none of these others are quoted, nor is it possible to detect any point at which their views influenced the report’s authors. It is doubtful whether any of those supposedly spoken to, in reading the report, would have felt that their views had been taken into consideration.

Third, there is the tendentious use of language in the report.

Thus we read that ‘The IHRA definition of antisemitism is notoriously problematic and politically controversial’ (Report p. 73). So a definition adopted by an alliance of 34 countries, the UK parliament, the Scottish parliament, the Welsh Assembly, the European Parliament and a huge range of public and private bodies is ‘controversial’, while Professor Feldman’s outlier views are not. An often reliable guide to bias in a document is to notice which views are labelled as ‘controversial’, and which are treated as unproblematic.

Fourth, there is the question of which examples it chooses to dwell on and which it ignores.

Thus, a complaint by Jonathan Hoffman, a pro-Israel activist, about an anti-Israel exhibition, is described at length (complete with an ad hominem attack on Hoffman himself), despite the fact that the complaint was rejected and the event went ahead.

Yet there is no mention at all of the one clear attack on free speech that took place at UCL, when a Jewish Society meeting featuring the Israeli speaker Hen Mazzig was disrupted by hooligan tactics, including shouting, banging on windows and threatening behaviour. The incident ended with terrified Jewish students filing out of the abandoned meeting while running a gauntlet of jeers and threats from the hyped-up antizionists. A truly shameful episode in UCL’s history, which has done enormous damage to UCL’s reputation as a place for civilised debate.

Indeed, it is noticeable that since that episode (before lockdown put an end to all such events) even quite uncontroversial events of Jewish interest which used to take place in UCL’s central buildings and open concourses have been held in more secure locations on the university’s periphery, adding to the sense of marginalisation and vulnerability.

The report’s authors show their political allegiance by quoting a far left fringe Canadian organisation, Independent Jewish Voices Canada, an organisation which campaigns for boycotts of Israel (IJV Canada web site), and which links to an anti-IHRA web site which openly describes IHRA as a conspiracy to ‘silence criticism of Israel’.

In short, the report’s authors squarely align themselves with precisely those tendencies which have created today’s antisemitism crisis.

These are the warning signs. But what about the substance?

Contemporary antisemitism and antizionism

To get to the heart of the problem with this report we have to do something which the report itself shows no interest in doing — namely to understand the distinctive nature of antisemitism compared to other racisms. We also have to understand the world-view which underlies the report itself, and which explains why it is part of the problem and not a solution.

Antisemitism differs from other racisms in that it understands itself as ‘punching up’. It constructs its target group as a sinister elite, which it sees itself as courageously defying. This is a deeply conspiratorial world-view. Antisemitism is not just racist stereotypes about Jews having long noses, an obsession with money or being generally slippery characters. These stereotypes are rather like the porcupine’s needles. They’re obvious, they hurt, but they are not the essence of the animal.

A key point about this faux anti-elitism is that it can attach itself to a bewildering variety of world-views. For each, it constructs Jews as whatever the adherents of the world-view despise. In Medieval times it was their religion, for 19th century racists it was their supposed race. For right-wingers Jews are communists, for the left (including Marx) they are the essence of the money power. For nationalists (and Stalin) they are rootless cosmopolitans, for liberals narrow nationalists. In 19th century Britain they were swarthy Levantines and Orientals, while for the Nazis they were Semites, the sworn enemies of the white Aryan race. And now these swarthy Levantines have apparently been transformed into white colonialists. Today antizionism is the new antisemitism, constructing an entire country — a tiny one the size of Wales with a population similar to Honduras — as a global and supremely powerful force for evil.

Let us illustrate the malign nature of antizionism and why it is in no way mere ‘criticism of Israel’ with one example (there are many others — see here for further examples). This is the accusation known as ‘pinkwashing’.

‘Pinkwashing’ starts from an incontestable fact about Israel, namely that it is one of the most gay-friendly countries in the world, and manifestly the most gay-friendly in the Middle East. Now this is of course something that progressives might be expected to celebrate, regardless of their views about other aspects of the country. But in fact they do no such thing. The pinkwashing allegation asserts that Israel’s vaunted gay-friendliness is merely a ploy, a vast deception whose role is to whitewash (hence the ‘pinkwashing’ jibe) a country that is in fact deeply malign.

Now just think what would have to be the case for this allegation to have merit. It would require treating the debates in Israel that led to the legalisation of homosexuality as mere shadow-boxing, a fake conflict in which the protagonists were not motivated by the same conflicting beliefs as in every other country where the same issue has arisen, but merely the puppets of a vast act of deception. It would mean treating the crowds (often ‘straight’ families) who congregate to enjoy the fun of Gay Pride parades in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem similarly as pawns, engaged in a vast charade orchestrated by — whom? Presumably some shadowy puppet-masters.

Now clearly such allegations are simply insane. Yet we know of no case where a self- described antizionist has challenged them — just as we know of no case where an antizionist has challenged the ludicrous and terrifying allegations of organ-harvesting that accompany Israel’s immense and creditable disaster relief operations around the globe. For antizionism, it seems, no accusation is too sick, mad or vicious, or too redolent of Medieval blood libels, to become part of the armoury of demonisation.

The Working Group report and antisemitism

The arguments against IHRA themselves fit neatly into this form of antisemitism. After all, why would the 34 democracies who are members of the IHRA sign up, after years of debate and the advice of countless experts, to a definition that is apparently so flawed? Why would so many governments and public bodies, in so many countries, sign up to it? The answer from its critics draws on precisely the conspiracy theories that are central to classical antisemitism. It must all be a plot to silence criticism of Israel. And of course, in order to gain the support of so many countries and bodies around the world, the plotters must be not just malign, but supremely powerful. While the WG report stops short of saying this, at the very least it gives credence to it. There is a nod and a wink which enables others to make that argument for them. The fact that criticism of Israel seems to be alive and well, not least in universities, is ignored.

We have already mentioned Prof. Feldman’s position as a rogue voice among academics of antisemitism and that, in privileging his views while ignoring others, the report reveals its bias. We can now go further, and state that an examination of Feldman’s own views reveal precisely the ways in which antizionism slips into antisemitism.

Feldman has previously expressed the view that the IHRA definition privileges Jews over other victims of racism. And while the report does not quote Feldman on this, it does quote a Canadian group as referring to the use of the IHRA definition as ‘privileging one group’.

Such a statement is uncomfortably reminiscent of standard antisemitic tropes that Jews demand special treatment. ‘There go the Jews,’ says the classical antisemite, ‘thinking they’re “the chosen” again’.

To return to the complaint about the anti-Israel exhibition. As stated above, there was no ‘stifling’ of freedom of speech. But something was stifled — any acknowledgement that a map of ‘Palestine’ in which Israel does not appear could well be a hostile act and an incitement to genocide, in the context of Palestinian campaigns demanding ‘From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free’. Let us be clear. This is a desire for Israel to be wiped off the face of the earth. And while we cannot know what was in the exhibitor’s mind, it is this ‘gone Israel’ which is precisely what the quoted exhibit showed.

The report accuses the IHRA of ‘blurring these boundaries’ (p. 63), i.e. between antisemitism and criticism of Israel. Sadly, the report engages in a ‘blurring’ of its own. This is the blurring between ‘criticism of Israel’ and antizionism. They are not the same thing. As described above, antizionism denies the legitimacy of a whole country, and sees everything about it as the epitome of evil. It thus opens the way to, even where it does not openly advocate, the genocide of Israel’s Jewish population. ‘Criticism of Israel’ is to antizionism what literary criticism is to book-burning.

The report ignores the weight of academic opinion showing the link between antizionism and violent attacks on Jews. Thus in 2003 the Centre for Research on Antisemitism at the university of Berlin was asked by the European Monitoring Centre for Racism and Xenophobia (EUMC) to analyse the data and summarise the findings on antisemitism that the European organisation had collected. The CRA completed its document in October 2003. It found that violent attacks against Jews often arose from virulent anti-Zionism across the political spectrum. Moreover, it specifically identified young Muslims of Arab descent as the main perpetrators of physical attacks against Jews and the desecration and destruction of synagogues. Many were victims of racism and social exclusion themselves (Gerstenfeld, 2020).

The claim that accusations of antisemitism are made in order to stifle criticism of Israel has been described by scholar of antisemitism Dr David Hirsh as ‘the Livingstone formulation’. He writes: ‘The new EHRC principle is that… the Livingstone formulation, is itself antisemitic. The practice of assuming that Jews are faking antisemitism in order to smear the left and silence free speech is itself antisemitic. It puts Jews outside of the community of rational discourse by refusing to engage with the truth of what they say, and attacking their imputed motivation instead. It is said that Jews ‘weaponise’ antisemitism; but really antisemitism has always been a weapon targeted at Jews.

‘Opposition to IHRA takes this antisemitic form.’

If UCL’s Academic Board wishes to behave responsibly, it should reject this deeply flawed report. Before it makes any decisions it should do something which the report’s authors so notably failed to do — namely engage deeply with those involved in developing the definition and seek a far more representative range of expert opinions on this deeply sensitive subject.


The report of the Working Group established by Academic Board in December 2019 [AB Minute 26, 2019–20]

Jewish Chronicle, 7th August 2016.

Report available on EHRC web site

Jewish Chronicle 7th August 2016

Jewish Chronicle, 14th December 2020.

Independent Jewish Voices Canada

No to IHRA ‘What is the secular basis of Judaism? Practical need, self-interest. What is the worldly religion of the Jew? Huckstering. What is his worldly God? Money.’

Professor David Stone, ‘An Evidence-based view of the Arab-Israeli conflict’.

Gerstenfeld, BESA Centre 7thDecember 2020.

David Feldman

Dr David Hirsh, BESA Centre 2ndDecember 2020

Reform Jew and supporter of Israel. Liberal centre-leftist. Help run North London Friends of Israel.

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