Last week's protest held at UCL against the visit of an ex member of the Israeli Defence Forces, generated a flurry of headlines with mutual allegations of violence and intimidation. If any act of physical violence did take place, on either side of the protest, then this is of course to be condemned. But loud and rowdy protests at universities are nothing new. I can recall in my student days pickets against the visit of a member of the South African Government and against a talk at the Student Union by David Irving the holocaust denying historian. In both cases the events generated heartfelt debates about the right of free expression against the principle of no platforming for those advocating racist views or representing regimes with a history of human rights violation.
However, the narrative about the events at UCL has quickly moved from this terrain to an argument that the protest was inherently anti-semitic. A letter to the Provost of UCL from a pro Israel advocacy organisation called the Campaign Against Antisemitism defines the protest as anti-semitic not simply on the basis of how it was conducted but on the grounds that it was directed against an Israeli. The key paragraph reads ".It seems clear from footage of the protest that the protesters would have protested in the way that they did against any talk by an Israeli...... demanding that Jewish students at UCL sever all ties with Jews from Israel is de facto anti-semitic."
Wind back a few weeks to September and we saw a similar line of argument used to protest against an event held at Hinde St Methodist church in London where, commemorating an annual world week of peace for Palestine and Israel, the church erected a mock checkpoint to illustrate the daily restrictions on freedom of movement experienced by Palestinians living under occupation in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. A range of pro Israel organisations, many of whom were represented at the UCL counter protest called for the event to be cancelled with claims that it was anti-semitic because it was one sided and was holding Israel to a standard to which other nations were not held
Wind back further to April 2015 when a conference scheduled to take place at the University of Southampton debating Israel and its legitimacy within international law was cancelled after a high profile lobbying campaign by amongst others, the Board of Deputies of British Jews, the Zionist Federation, Eric Pickles Communities Secretary , Michael Gove then Chief Whip . Michael Gove in calling for the event to be cancelled described it as being less a conference then an anti Israel hate fest. The university eventually cancelled the conference on the grounds that they could not guarantee the safety of participants given the severe volume of protest.
The connecting thread in all of these events is that a definition of anti-semitism was being drawn upon which specifically equates criticism of Israel with racism. The definition being employed has a controversial history. It originally emerged in 2005 as a draft working definition drawn up by a now defunct body called the European Union monitoring group on racism and xenophobia. Despite efforts by pro Israel lobbying groups to have it adopted it fell into disuse having been subjected to significant criticism by a range of academics with expertise in the field of anti-semitism. Central to the critique was that the definition by explicitly incorporating various types of criticism of Israel into its terms, threatened free expression but also drained the concept of all meaning. As Dr Brian Klug, fellow of the Parkes institute on Jewish and non Jewish relations said "... when every anti-Zionist is an anti-semite, we no longer know how to recognize the real thing-the concept of anti-semitism loses its significance".
However in response to a further lobbying campaign, the Home Affairs Select Committee in its recent report on anti-semitism now advises the widespread adoption by Government bodies and law enforcement agencies of a slightly moderated version of this definition. The Government has not formally responded to this recommendation. If it is adopted it will have a chilling effect on the right to protest and to exercise freedom of expression when campaigning for Palestinian rights.
As evidenced above public institutions have always been subject to a strong lobby to disallow advocacy for Palestinian rights. The effect of a wholesale adoption of this new definition of anti- Semitism will be to render events such as the UCL protest, Hinde St exhibition and Southampton Conference potentially criminal acts.
The Home Affairs Select Committee report rightly calls for a zero tolerance response to anti- semitism but also asserts its commitment to maintaining free expression. By recommending the usage of a definition of anti-semitism which could criminalise legitimate protest the committee renders that commitment meaningless. One does not need to be an advocate of Palestinian rights to be deeply concerned at this threat to freedom of expression. All of those who care about civil liberties should speak out and defend the right to protest