…by Stuart Littlewood, Britain
– First published … October 15, 2020 –
Gavin Williamson is Education Secretary in the screwball government of Boris Johnson. And he has just threatened universities that they could have their funding cut if they don’t adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of anti-Semitism before Christmas.
Williamson wrote to vice-chancellors last week saying he was “frankly disappointed” that there were still “too many disturbing incidents of anti-Semitism on campus and a lack of willingness by too many universities to confront this”, and that the number of universities adopting the definition “remains shamefully low”.
“These providers are letting down all their staff and students, and, shamefully, their Jewish students in particular,” he said.
He insists that adopting the IHRA definition “is morally the right thing to do” – and he underlines morally! “You should have no doubt: this government has zero tolerance towards anti-Semitism. If I have not seen the overwhelming majority of institutions adopting the definition by Christmas then I will act.”
Williamson is asking officials to consider directing the Office for Students (OfS) to impose a new regulatory condition of registration or suspend funding for universities at which anti-Semitic incidents occur and which haven’t signed up to the definition.
“While many universities have rightly been quick over the summer to demonstrate their readiness to take action against other forms of racism, it is frankly disturbing that so many are dragging their feet on the matter of anti-Semitism.
“The repugnant belief that anti-Semitism is somehow a less serious, or more acceptable, form of racism has taken insidious hold in some parts of British society, and I am quite clear that universities must play their part in rooting out this attitude and demonstrating that anti-Semitism is abhorrent.”
The OfS said they will explore with the Department for Education what practical steps should be taken to ensure the IHRA definition’s wider adoption. But Universities UK were more cautious:
“We recommend universities do all they can to tackle anti-Semitism, including considering the IHRA definition, whilst also recognising their duty to promote freedom of speech within the law.”
And that last bit is what Williamson ought to have considered before stupidly going off the deep end.
Individual right of free expression in all higher education institutions
Williamson’s first problem is his ignorance. He’s completely at odds with the opinion of top legal experts who were asked for their views by Free Speech on Israel, Independent Jewish Voices, Jews for Justice for Palestinians and the Palestine Solidarity Campaign.
In a nutshell, those in public life cannot behave in a manner inconsistent with the European Convention on Human Rights, which provides for freedom of expression which applies not only to information or ideas that are favourably received or regarded as inoffensive, but also to those that offend, shock or disturb the State or anyone else.
There is a further obligation to allow all concerned in public debate “to express their opinions and ideas without fear, even if these opinions and ideas are contrary to those defended by the official authorities or by a large part of public opinion, or even if those opinions and ideas are irritating or offensive to the public”.
Read Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights, Mr Williamson, which says that everyone has the right to freedom of expression including “freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart information and ideas without interference by public authority and regardless of frontiers.”
Also, check Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which says the same sort of thing, subject of course to the usual limitations required by law and respect for the rights of others.The House of Commons Home Affairs Select Committee recommended that before accepting the IHRA’s definition of anti-Semitism, two caveats should be included:
• It is not anti-Semitic to criticise the Government of Israel, without additional evidence to suggest anti-Semitic intent.
• It is not anti-Semitic to hold the Israeli Government to the same standards as other liberal democracies, or to take a particular interest in the Israeli Government’s policies or actions, without additional evidence to suggest anti-Semitic intent.
The Government, in its eagerness to appease the Zionist lobby, dropped the caveats saying they weren’t necessary.
Eminent human rights lawyer Hugh Tomlinson QC also criticised the definition. Firstly, it wasn’t a legally binding so didn’t have the force of a statutory one. And it couldn’t be considered a legal definition of anti-Semitism as it lacked clarity. Therefore any conduct contrary to the IHRA definition couldn’t necessarily be ruled illegal.
Secondly, the language was far too vague to be useful as a tool. In Tomlinson’s view the Government’s decision to adopt the IHRA Definition was simply a freestanding statement of policy, a mere suggestion. No public body is under an obligation to adopt or use it, or, given the unsatisfactory nature of the definition, should be criticised for refusing.
He warned that if a public authority did decide to adopt the definition then it must interpret it in a way that’s consistent with its statutory obligations. In particular, it cannot behave in a manner inconsistent with the European Convention on Human Rights, which provides for freedom of expression and freedom of assembly.
A further obligation put on public authorities is “to create a favourable environment for participation in public debates for all concerned, allowing them to express their opinions and ideas without fear, even if they are contrary to those defended by the authorities or by a large part of public opinion”.
So, in Tomlinson’s opinion the IHRA Definition doesn’t mean that calling Israel an apartheid state that practises settler colonialism, or advocating boycott, divestment or sanctions (BDS) against Israel, can properly be characterized as anti-Semitic. Furthermore, a public authority seeking to apply the IHRA Definition to prohibit or punish such activities “would be acting unlawfully.”
Government’s ‘naive stance’
Retired Lord Justice of Appeal, Sir Stephen Sedley, also offered advice criticising the IHRA working definition for lack of legal force. “At the same time, it is not neutral: it may well influence policy both domestically and internationally.”
He added that the right of free expression, now part of our domestic law by virtue of the Human Rights Act, “places both negative and positive obligations on the state which may be put at risk if the IHRA definition is unthinkingly followed”. Moreover the 1986 Education Act established an individual right of free expression in all higher education institutions “which cannot be cut back by governmental policies”.
Sedley was of the view that the IHRA definition is open to manipulation and “what is needed now is a principled retreat on the part of government from a stance which it has naively adopted in disregard of the sane advice given to it by the Home Affairs Select Committee.”
Williamson’s second problem is his prejudice. He’s a fanatical Israel worshipper and far from neutral in the hype surrounding anti-Semitism in the UK. In January 2018 when he was defence secretary he addressed an audience of over 250 Conservative Friends of Israel and supporters, including 50 parliamentarians, telling them that “Britain will always be Israel’s friend” and praising Israel as a “beacon of light and hope, in a region where there is so much hatred and hurt”. He added: “We shouldn’t underestimate how difficult it is to keep that light bright and burning”.
Recalling his visit to Israel as a teenager, he said: “What I found was a liberal, free, exciting country that was so at ease with itself, a country that absorbed and welcomed so many people. That made an enormous impression upon me”.
Williamson condemned the “completely unreasonable…sheer simple hatred” channelled towards Israel and asked: “If we are not there to stand up for a country, whose views and ideals are so close, or are simply our own, what are we as a nation? What are we in politics, if we cannot accept and celebrate the wonderful blooming of democracy that is Israel?”
Achingly funny. And highlighting the UK’s role in the creation of Israel, he said: “Britain and Israel have an amazing relationship. We would like to think that we were very much at the birth of the nation, and very much helped it in terms of its delivery and coming into the world”.
He said that Britain and Israel have “a strong and firm relationship of working together. It’s a relationship of partners…. It’s a partnership of equals. A partnership of friends”.
So hopelessly brainwashed.
Then, in April 2018 at a similar meeting to celebrate the regime’s 70th anniversary Williamson waxed lyrical describing Israel as a “light unto the nations” and adding that not only do Israel and Britain face shared security threats, “our relationship is underpinned by a shared sense of values: justice, compassion, tolerance”.
He emphasised that Israel is a “liberal, free and exciting country” and that the UK-Israel relationship is the “cornerstone of so much of what we do in the Middle East”.
Breaching the Ministerial Code?
But Gavin Williamson is not the only Government minister to threaten our universities in this crude manner. A year ago Communities Secretary Robert Jenrick vowed to take action against them and “parts of local government” who, he said, had become “corrupted” by anti-Semitism.
He directed his attack on the universities who receive public money but “choose not to accept our IHRA definition of anti-Semitism and use it when considering matters such as disciplinary procedures”.
Writing in the Sunday Express, he added: “I will use my position as Secretary of State to write to all universities and local authorities to insist that they adopt the IHRA definition at the earliest opportunity.
“I expect them to confirm to me when they do so. Failure to act in this regard is unacceptable and I will be picking up the phone to Vice Chancellors and local government leaders to press for action, if none is forthcoming.”
According to Wikipedia Jenrick’s wife was born in Israel and their children are brought up in the Jewish faith. He told the Board of Deputies he would not tolerate local authority approved BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) campaigns against those profiteering from Israel’s illegal occupation of Palestine.
“Local authorities should not be wasting time and taxpayer’s money by dabbling in foreign policy or pursuing anti-Israel political obsessions, but instead focusing on delivering first class local public services.”
The same could be said of his colleague Williamson’s pro-Israel obsession – and his own – when they should be getting on with governing Britain, but of course they are exempt from their own rules.
Both Jenrick and Williamson appear to fall foul of the Ministerial Code. The first two paragraphs are enough to banish them to outer darkness, one would have thought.
1.1 Ministers of the Crown are expected to maintain high standards of behaviour and to behave in a way that upholds the highest standards of propriety.
1.2 Ministers should be professional in all their dealings and treat all those with whom they come into contact with consideration and respect. Working relationships…. should be proper and appropriate. Harassing, bullying or other inappropriate or discriminating behaviour wherever it takes place is not consistent with the Ministerial Code and will not be tolerated.
Elsewhere the Code decrees that “ministers must ensure that no conflict arises, or appears to arise, between their public duties and their private interests” and they are expected to observe the Seven Principles of Public Life. The Principle of Integrity states that holders of public office “must avoid placing themselves under any obligation to people or organisations that might try inappropriately to influence their work”.
That suggests to me they ought to be slung out on their ear and never allowed near the levers of power again. But nobody in government is principled enough or has the balls to do it. What do you think?
Stuart Littlewood … 14 October 2020