Simon Johnson: At Last! Action To Outlaw Race Hatred On Campus

This is Simon Johnson's monthly column for the Jewish Telegraph and was featured in the print edition on the 3rd March 2017.

LAST month, I wrote about Israel Apartheid Week. I said that "as well as countering the campaign, we now must apply our efforts to countering the charge of apartheid to Israel".

 

I went on: "Before it becomes too embedded in the campaigning lexicon of cohorts of students, we need to be creative and effective in challenging the very basis of this campaign."

We have had good progress in giving effect to this pledge, with the support of government and the university authorities.

At the start of last week, the Minister for Higher Education, Jo Johnson, wrote to all university vice-chancellors.

He advised them that the government had adopted the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition of antisemitism and would ensure that this was widely known in universities.

He also addressed Israel Apartheid Week. He said: "I am sure you share my concerns about the rising reports of antisemitic incidents in this country and will want to make sure that your own institution is a welcoming environment for all students and that the legal position and guidelines are universally understood and acted upon at all times.

"This will include events such as those that might take place under the banner of 'Israel apartheid' events, for instance.

"Such events need to be properly handled by higher education institutions to ensure that our values, expectations and laws are not violated."

A few days after this letter, I was pleased to work with Universities UK, agreeing helpful guidance which they circulated to vice-chancellors about how to deal with Israel Apartheid Week.

Freedom of speech is a cherished value on campus, but when that spills over into antisemitism, intimidation, harassment or threatening of Jewish students and when protests breach public order legislation, Jewish students should be protected.

And immediately, we saw the impact of the guidance, when both UCL and Exeter refused permission for a so-called "Mock Checkpoint" being installed on their campus.

These are unprecedented steps. They are the first time that the government or Universities UK has addressed Israel Apartheid Week and in a way that focuses on the concerns that Jewish students and the community have expressed from previous years.

It shows, I am proud to say, how the Jewish Leadership Council has been able to create a real difference.

It is part of a programme of supportive activity from the government and government institutions against antisemitism and the risk of antisemitism from anti-Israel and anti-Zionist activity.

I recently attended the quarterly meeting of the Cross Government Antisemitism Working Group. This is a group of civil servants from across government who ensure that government institutions combat antisemitism.

There are similar groups for anti-Muslim hate crime and other forms of discrimination.

It has been meeting for nearly 10 years, and the community is represented at the meetings by the CST, JLC, Board of Deputies, UJS and the Parliamentary Committee against Antisemitism.

At last week's meeting, it struck me just how much action has been taken in recent weeks by the government.

Out of these meetings came the government's decision to adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance's definition of antisemitism.

Following our request after one of these meetings, the Secretary of State for the Department for Communities and Local Government, Sajid Javid, wrote to all local authorities asking them to adopt the definition, as did Minister of State for Higher Education Jo Johnson in relation to universities.

We also learned that the government is supporting pro-peace initiatives on campus and is supporting "Stand Up-Education Against Discrimination", which is a multi-agency partnership including Maccabi GB, CST, Tell Mama and Kick It Out, aimed to empower young people in schools against discrimination and race hatred.

Whatever your politics, there is no question that this government deserves our thanks for the commitment to counter antisemitism.

It gives me confidence that, if Jewish values and culture came under political pressure, the government and political establishment would step in to protect Jewish life.

I think we all have cause to think about this as we follow the French presidential campaign.

An eyecatching plank of Marine Le Pen's policy manifesto is that French Jews should be banned from wearing a kippa in the street as part of "the struggle against radical Islam".

If we pull away the Islamophobic nature of this statement, it is clear that this candidate to be president of a major Western power is planning to legislate for a crackdown on religious symbols.

It is an attack on tolerance and religious culture, masquerading as a national security measure.

The fact that the proposed ban extends to the wearing of the kippa, and that Ms Le Pen is trying to appeal to the Jewish community to take this step to protect France against radical Islam, is a double problem.

Firstly, it pits one religion against another. Secondly, it attempts to equate the wearing of a kippa with propensity to commit terrorism!

It is a restrictive and disgraceful policy and should be condemned by all right-thinking people.

Such a thing could not happen here. We must thank the government for that and be constantly alert to changes in the political climate that would threaten our cherished religious freedoms.