Union activists have begun a coordinated offensive against Israel and our liberal democracy, says the Chief Rabbi Sir Jonathan Sacks
Two weeks ago, the University and College Union congress voted unanimously to oppose government plans urging them to fight extremism on campus. They had been asked by the government to monitor potential terrorists. They refused, saying that it amounted to a “witch hunt”. On the same day, they then proceeded, seemingly unaware of the contradiction, to start a witch hunt of their own against Israeli academics who, they deemed, were guilty of “complicity” in the policies of their government.
Why, I wondered, is this witch different from all other witches? Why is “demonisation” — the language of the earlier resolution — permitted in one case (Israel) and forbidden in another? It is a question that haunts me, as it should haunt everyone who knows the history of witch hunts and where they lead — in this case, straight to an assault on academic freedom. The vote was a travesty.
As Professor Malcolm Grant, President of University College London, put it: “We reject outright the call for an academic boycott. It is a contradiction in terms and in direct conflict with the mission of a university. It betrays a misunderstanding of the academic mission which is founded squarely on academic freedom of inquiry and freedom of speech. Any institution worthy of the title of university has the responsibility to protect these values, and it is particularly disturbing to find an academic union attacking academic freedom in this way.”
The National Union of Students was equally forthright, on different grounds: “Such a boycott undermines the Israeli academics who support Palestinian rights, and hinders the building of bridges between Israelis and Palestinians.” The UCU decided to ignore the recommendation of the Parliamentary Inquiry into Antisemitism, which stated: “We conclude that calls to boycott contact with academics working in Israel are an assault on academic freedom and intellectual exchange.” It decided to ignore the government’s response to that inquiry, namely: “We oppose any calls to boycott contact with academics working in Israel.”
In the past few months, I have met with all three British party leaders to tell them how seriously we view the situation. Last month I went to Brussels to share my concerns with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, President of the European Union Jose Manuel Barroso, and President of the European Parliament Hans-Gert Pöttering.
Let us make no mistake. What is at stake is not Israel alone, but the very future of the principled freedom we call liberal democracy. One of the foundations of that freedom is the existence of colleges and universities, where we set prejudice and politics aside and engage in disinterested pursuit of the truth: listening to all sides, subjecting claims to critical scrutiny, allowing all voices to be heard and none to be excluded. Lose that and a society has begun along the road to what the historian JL Talmon called totalitarian democracy.
This is no idle speculation. It has begun already. The story is told in detail by former campus activist Ed Husain in his recent book The Islamist, subtitled Why I joined radical Islam in Britain, what I saw inside and why I left. It tells of how he and a handful of fellow radicals in effect took over an entire London college. It should be compulsory reading for all who care about freedom in Britain.
Their methods were simple. They began with posters and events deliberately designed to antagonise Jews and Christians. They publicly insulted homosexuals. This gained them ever increasing publicity. The college authorities complained. The radicals ignored them. They portrayed themselves as victims of Islamophobia. This gained them support. They began to intimidate female Muslim students into wearing the hijab. They commandeered public spaces within the college. They invited rabble-rousing preachers of hate. They linked up with other like-minded groups in colleges up and down the country. They created a momentum.
The college authorities were either ignored or forced to back down. Within six months, they were in virtual control of the institution. Husain grew increasingly radical. He joined Hizb ut-Tahrir. They attempted to infiltrate Islamic societies on campuses elsewhere. Where they failed, they simply set up a rival organisation with an innocent-sounding name. Press and television coverage gave them huge free publicity.
Husain is explicit about their agenda. “In essence I was running an Islamist front organisation operating on campus.” “Without question we despised Jews” and “deep down, we never objected to the Holocaust”. “We ran the Islamic society like a military operation.” And so on.
Of course, Hizb ut-Tahrir is not representative of the Muslim population of Britain, any more than the UCU delegates are representative of British academics. They are fringe minorities who have learned how to advance their agenda at the cost of others and drown out the voice of moderation.
The now de-radicalised Husain asks: why did the authorities not take a stand? Why did the government allow the preachers of hate to continue unchecked? Husain comes close to despair, describing “the wider British willingness to turn a blind eye, avoid a fuss, and hope that somehow it will all work out in the end”.
Britain, he says, is “content to tolerate intolerance and give a platform to those who are committed to destroying democracy”. Once he realised how dangerous the activists were, he tried to warn university authorities. His warnings were ignored. The result, he says, is that moderate Muslims are completely unsupported. How can they confront the extremists in their midst if the government and university authorities fail to do so?
Today the target is Israel. A coordinated campaign has begun. Expect boycott after boycott, demonisation after demonisation, witch hunt after witch hunt. But that, as Husain makes clear, is only the beginning. The target is liberal democracy. We must work together to defend it. All it takes for evil to triumph is for free men and women to do nothing when the witch hunt begins. It has begun. ________________________________________