Is it time to forge legal interventions against antisemitism?

This is an expanded version of the op ed that ran on p. 24 of the JC of 28 January 2011

Reports about antisemitism in the UK are reminiscent of a certain vertigo that used to throw Bill Clinton’s first presidential campaign into a state of heightened anticipation. Betsy Wright, Clinton’s acerbic advisor and veteran lobbyist, dubbed it waiting for the next ‘bimbo eruption.’

What derails the Jewish enterprise in this country may not be as titillating. It is, however, equally vexing. Witness last month’s front page story in the Jewish Chronicle about a dyspeptic Palestinian speaker at an esteemed British university mouthing antisemitic obscenities, spurring communal leaders to devise an effective response – and leaving readers to wonder how to curb such antisemitic eruptions in the future.

Police are now investigating allegations of antisemitism at the London School of Economics allegations of antisemitism at the London School of Economics after 30 Jewish students walked out in protest at a lecture by Abdel Bari Atwan, editor-in-chief of London-based Al-Quds Al-Arabi newspaper, speaking on “How Much influence does the Zionist lobby exert in the US and the UK?”

Small wonder the British Jewish community’s anxiety level has been ratcheted up several notches. In recent weeks various think-tank reports show that phenomena like Atwan’s characterization at LSE of a malevolent “Jewish lobby” and his veiled accusations that Jewish students were collectively responsible for “bombing Gaza” are not only part of an ongoing effluvium of anti-Jewish, anti-Israel invective in academia, but an integral component of a campaign most notably on UK campuses.

Indeed in a new report by the Reut Institute, a Tel Aviv-based strategic think tank, Britain is identified as a “hub” of global deligitimization efforts that unite Middle East resistance networks with allies on the liberal-left in Europe. No sooner had British Jews digested that discomfiting thesis when the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs published “Mapping the Organizational Sources of the Global Deligitimization Campaign against Israel in the UK”, charging the British academy with having become a key “mainstreaming agent” in the international effort to deny Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state. Their method: routinely offering platforms to Islamist ideologues who demonise and vilify Israel under the banner of academic freedom.

It’s hardly surprising. In 2006 the Report of the All-Party Parliamentary Inquiry Into Antisemitism flagged UK campuses as antisemtic hot spots, while in 2008 the Center for Social Cohesion published “Islam on Campus”, which painted an equally troubling picture of the deep ideological roots of anti-Israel activity. Such investigations dovetailed with evidence gathered for more than 20 years by the Community Security Trust in its annual antisemitic incidents reports and more recently, CST’s new studies of antisemitic discourse.

In response, CST commissioned a legal team headed by Anthony Julius to compile a Student’s Guide to Antisemitism on Campus and to make it available to Jewish societies and activists throughout the UK. Reacting to the Atwan affair, the Board of Deputies of British Jews, the Jewish Leadership Council and the CST mounted a united complaint to Universities UK as well as Education Minister David Willetts, both of whom have promised to respond.

But are such interventions enough? The Reut Institute and the JCPA reports show that underlying the current hate on campus is an amply funded, coherently organized and multilayered campaign with front and behind-the-scenes efforts. Stemming the tide requires an equally sophisticated approach. And here, British Jews may want to take a page from the American Jewish community’s playbook and seriously consider legal intervention.

In the U.S., for example, at the end of the last Congress legislation was introduced to protect Jews – as well as Sikhs, Muslims and other minorities – from discrimination at federally funded secular institutions. The bill, co-sponsored by the Zionist Organization of America and written by Kenneth Marcus, legal scholar and former director at the Office for Civil Rights in the U.S. Department of Education who directs the San Francisco-based Institute for Jewish & Community Research, is part of a two-pronged strategy to strengthen existing civil rights legislation in a way that will protect Jewish students from antisemitic harassment on campus.

Would such a strategy work in the UK? While the judicial systems of the two countries pose serious challenges in terms of jurisprudence, according to Senior Law Lecturer Lesley Klaff of Sheffield Hallam University the opportunities are ripe. In a forthcoming article in the Journal for the Study of Antisemitism Journal for the Study of Antisemitism, Klaff argues that legal remedies for antisemtic hate speech on British campuses are already in place thanks to the new Equality Act> which consolidates previous anti-discrimination legislation, imposes an “affirmative equality duty” on all universities from April 2011 and proscribes antisemitic hate speech on campus on the grounds that it constitutes “hostile environment harassment” for Jewish students.

“It’s high time we used the laws at our disposal to mount an effective fight-back strategy against campus antisemitism,” said Klaff.

In so doing, perhaps young Jews at British universities will finally have recourse to redressing the next antisemtic eruptions on campus.