A world-class university is trying to silence academics with restrictions that Noam Chomsky called an “outrage”. University College London (UCL) has insisted that leading academics, including Jackie Walker, must abide by chilling new guidelines. Ahead of a book launch, they feel these seriously stifle freedom of speech. UCL claims they are to prevent antisemitism. Yet, as Walker and others told The Canary, these guidelines also seem part of a right-wing Zionist attack on the left.
The Responsibility of Intellectuals
In a 1967 essay called The Responsibility of Intellectuals, Chomsky wrote:
Intellectuals are in a position to expose the lies of governments, to analyze actions according to their causes and motives and often hidden intentions. In the Western world, at least, they have the power that comes from political liberty, from access to information and freedom of expression.
Written in response to the Vietnam war, this essay helped launch the US anti-war movement.
In 2017, fifty years later, a group of academics took part in a conference to review Chomsky’s essay. As Walker, one of the speakers, told The Canary, this “very successful conference” led to a book. UCL Press has published the book and planned a launch event on 29 October.
But ahead of the launch, UCL sent additional “Guidelines for The Responsibility Of Intellectuals book launch panel” to all those involved. These are in addition to UCL’s standard Code of Practice on Freedom of Speech. The Canary has seen a copy which claims to highlight five antisemitic “tropes that UCL would find unacceptable”.
Everyone speaking at the book launch must agree to these conditions. Chomsky called them “shocking”. Sir Geoffrey Bindman QC, visiting professor of law at UCL, called them “objectionable”.
Many involved feel it’s Walker’s presence that is under attack.
Walker’s a prominent Jewish supporter of Palestinian rights who has faced continued allegations of antisemitism in recent years. But the main body of her work, as a Black academic and writer, challenges racism in all its forms. And, as Walker told The Canary, neither her chapter nor the book as a whole focuses on antisemitism. No one intended to speak about the subject at the launch.
A UCL spokesperson told The Canary it drew up “specific guidelines… for this event”:
Following a thorough risk assessment which takes into account previous comments made by invited speakers… to ensure that the views and ideas put forward do not give rise to an environment in which people will experience – or could reasonably fear – harassment, intimidation, verbal abuse or violence.
One of the book’s editors told The Canary that Jonathan Hoffman – who has been described as a “notoriously abusive pro-Israel bully” – attended the 2017 conference. The editor said he “came along, attempted to heckle and cause problems” and:
When Jackie came to speak, he started interrupting. But she just handled it incredibly well: answered his questions and calmed the atmosphere.
Hoffman is a former “vice-president of the Zionist Federation”. In June, he was found guilty of “aggressive, bullying behaviour” against pro-Palestinian demonstrators. As the Electronic Intifada reported, he’s been linked to Britain First leader Paul Besser.
Although not speaking at the launch, Chomsky said he would reject “all” UCL’s “conditions, for two reasons”:
First, why bring up anti-Semitism and not Islamaphobia, white supremacy, and other far more serious forms of racism? Second, these conditions are an utter outrage.
The first condition states speakers must not make:
Suggestions (overt or implied) that Jews as a group or particular sections of the British Jewish community invent, exaggerate or “weaponise” incidents of antisemitism for political or other benefit.
Chomsky noted in response that this effectively states it:
would be antisemitic for anyone to say or imply that any Jewish group has ever exaggerated incidents of antisemitism in the Labour Party or elsewhere. I’m frankly at a loss for words.
Meanwhile, Bindman also noted that, while he ‘understands’ and ‘shares’ the need to “exclude antisemitism in any form”, some “tropes” in the guidelines “are objectionable”. He stated:
I do not believe such guidelines are desirable, however, though entirely well intentioned, because they have a deterrent effect on free expression, regardless of their specific content.
Bindman also said:
There is undoubtedly a conflict among Jews in Britain (of which I am one) as to whether criticism of Israel or Zionism is ipso facto antisemitic. Some Jews believe – doubtless sincerely – that it is. There are individuals and organisations, such as the Jewish Board of Deputies, the Jewish Labour Movement, and the Campaign against Antisemitism who have arguably supported [some] suggestions mentioned… It would be wrong in my view to exclude discussion of such issues where backed by evidence.
“Silencing of academic freedom”
Walker told The Canary that she feels this situation is “similar” to an incident in September when Waterstones cancelled a book launch. As The Canary reported, organisers faced a “harassment” campaign.
Walker feels it reflects “a pattern of silencing of academic voices”. The book, including Walker’s chapter, is freely available to read online. And as she explained, “there is nothing there that in any way mentions antisemitism”.
On 18 September, the Jewish Chronicle ran a story highlighting Walker’s presence at the launch. It reiterated the claims that led to Walker’s suspension from Labour. At that point, UCL only referred to its standard code of conduct.
When asked why she thought this was happening, Walker speculated that pressure on UCL from the Jewish Chronicle is possible, and probably some other quite high level sources too. But as she also explained, the key issue now, “apart from the silencing of academic freedom in so many ways”, is that:
what it means is that we can never actually, in any way, consider that any Jewish voices may be in any way using antisemitism as a way to support their alignment with Zionism.
Speaking about UCL’s conditions, she said:
It’s an extraordinary thing to say, that we can never actually point out the very obvious fact that although Jews are unfortunately targeted with bigotry and with physical assault, they are not targeted in terms of police brutality, imprisonment, disadvantages to life in terms of things like university entrance? Or any other markers that are so prominent with people of colour or Muslims.
It’s absolutely breathtaking.
Walker also emphasised that “one of the main topics” of her chapter “is the way that people of colour are excluded from academia”.
Here, she explained:
we have an example where one of the very few women of colour who manages to get on a platform at this level is effectively silenced in what is supposed to be a world-class university.
And yet, as Walker said, UCL has engaged in research “looking at the attainment gap between students of colour and the rest of their student body”. Walker said:
Now I would suggest the hypocrisy of this is just extraordinary… And that they’re doing this, is just breathtaking.
One of the book’s editors also emphasised that Walker’s chapter is about:
Black representation within academia. She makes the point that so often, if you’re a black intellectual, somehow you’re not treated as an intellectual. You’re treated as if you’re something else – maybe an activist. But you can’t be seen as a ‘proper intellectual’ when you’re Black.
That’s what Jackie intends to talk about at the book launch. She doesn’t want to be involved with absolute vicious, horrible cruel nonsense.
“Why are Jewish groups immune from criticism?”
Chomsky also commented further on issues of racism that these conditions expose, asking:
Would it be anti-Arab racism to say that some Arab group has exaggerated incidents of anti-Arab racism? If so, I’m a hardened Islamophobe, because I know of such cases and have often said so. And so are all journals and commentators on the Middle East, because such behavior is common – for other nationalist groups as well.
Why are Jewish groups immune from criticism, alone in the world?
Beyond that, there happens to be a solid record of exaggerating incidents of antisemitism in Labour.
As one of the book’s editors noted, the “normal UCL guidelines can be accepted and interpreted positively”. But the new stipulations are “beyond absurd” because:
You can criticise Israel as if it was any other state. But you mustn’t mention the Jewishness of the Israeli state.
Or, you can accuse various people of making things up or exaggerating. But if you’re Jewish, the stipulation is that you can’t make anything up.
So, for example, if a Jewish group says that the whole of Britain is now a terribly dangerous place for Jewish people, that can’t be an exaggeration. Because the people making that claim are Jewish.
“A number of measures around this event”
A UCL spokesperson told The Canary:
UCL views the right to debate and challenge ideas as fundamental to the nature of a university, and is committed to ensuring that free and open discussion can take place in an atmosphere of tolerance for different viewpoints.
Our Code of Practice on Freedom of Speech underlines our commitment to securing freedom of speech within the law for all staff, students and visiting speakers. It makes clear that freedom of expression is protected by the law, but is not unfettered.
We expect speakers to be sensitive to the diversity of our inclusive community and to show respect to all sections of that community.
UCL has carried out a thorough risk assessment and have implemented a number of measures around this event.
We have asked all speakers, including Ms Walker, to comply with our Code of Practice as a condition of attending the event. This requires that the views and ideas put forward do not give rise to an environment in which people will experience – or could reasonably fear – harassment, intimidation, verbal abuse or violence, with particular reference to the protected characteristics under the Equality Act 2010, including religion and belief.
We are clear that the expression of antisemitic tropes or positions would be considered unacceptable under this Code of Practice.
Other measures in place include appointing an independent chair who will ensure the event is conducted in an open and constructive atmosphere to ensure a safe environment is created for peaceful debate to take place.
“Speak truth to power”
As one of the editors explained, the whole focus of Chomsky’s essay, this book, and the launch, concerns the responsibility of academics to:
counter lies and deception, and speak the truth and in particular, speak truth to power.
But the UCL restrictions mean, in effect, that:
Jackie, nor any of us, are allowed to suggest that if there was research on the impact of racism, and if you came out with the finding that possibly Black people are more likely to find themselves in the back of a police van being beaten up than Jewish people, apparently that in itself is antisemitic.
In order to avoid being antisemitic, you have to say that Jewish people suffer as much discrimination as Muslims, Black people and other groups.
But in particular, he noted the impact on Walker, saying:
There can’t be anything worse than being accused of being a racist when you’ve spent your whole life fighting against racism.
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