Sunday, 28 February 2016

Extremism in British Universities: A Kingston Perspective

Professor Julius Weinberg, the Vice-Chancellor of Kingston University, was invited by Kingston Synagogue to address a meeting last week on this topic.  He appeared to be very happy and comfortable to discuss the difficulties facing Muslim students and expressed concern that Sunni and Shi’ite Muslims are likely to cause friction for each other in the months and years to come.  His delivery was light, jokey and at times verging on the slightly dismissive of people with what might be described as ‘radical’ views, calling them 'mad idiots' at times.

To be fair to him Professor Weinberg’s lecture was really focusing on extremism as it related to Muslim students and Prevent, the Government’s strategy for dealing with extremism in educational establishments. His major concern was freedom of speech: the right not to be offended is not paralleled by a right to be offensive; the relevant question, he said concerns the limits of tolerance and he related back to these themes throughout. 

All this was well and good, however, but his audience, which contained several academics who lecture at Kingston University was more concerned with anti -Jewish feeling at his University and he didn’t say how tolerant he expects Jewish staff and students to be.  Asked by many people about anti-Israel/pro-Palestinian sentiment on campus and harassment of Jewish students at Fresher's week he consistently changed the subject to discuss the feelings of Muslim students, many of them, he assured us came from poor backgrounds.  When confronted with a photo of an antisemitic banner held up at Fresher's week last year, he denied all knowledge of it.

His attitude was consistent at least.  He really didn’t see a problem.  His dismissive approach continued.  When asked if a Holocaust denier like David Irving would be welcome to speak at Kingston, his reply was an emphatic ‘certainly’.  His main focus was on freedom of speech.  He made it quite clear that as long as a person stayed within British law they are welcome to express their views at his University.  It was pointed out that David Irving is a convicted Holocaust denier and his response was that since Holocaust denial is not illegal in this country it is just a debating topic and people who find his views offensive should be more concerned with the debate; after all, he said, Kingston University is a place of learning and people need to be free to debate all topics. 

‘Did you know,’ he asked ‘that Kingston University offers a degree in Holocaust studies?’ He was right, we didn’t know and after researching the University’s web site, I still don’t know.  All I could find on their website was a MA in Human Rights offering a module on genocide and crimes against humanity, therefore not Holocaust Studies.  It is possible that the module has been omitted for some reason from the web site or he is being disingenuous about the module.

He was also asked several times as to what he understood to be antisemitism but flatly refused to answer the question, the reason for this we can only wonder at.  It was therefore no surprise that when asked about contemporary antisemitsm and the call for the delegitimisation of the State of Israel he said he had no problem with a debate at Kingston on discussing Israeli's right to exist. Prof Weinberg was asked if he would allow a debate on the delegitimisation of the State of Israel.  He said he has a problem with a State which is based on a religious ideal. He did not mention if the State concerned was Israel, Vatican City, ISIL (Daesh) or the United States of America.

It was not surprising that he made no mention of the fact that last September, Kingston University was named by the Prime Minister along with  King's College London, University of London's Queen Mary and School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) as the leading universities to give a platform to extremists and hate speakers.

So it would seem that he clearly disagrees with Mr Cameron since when asked about  the National Union of Students  “no platform” policy, he said that while people should always be safe, ideas should not be. It is essential to allow speakers with whom one disagrees to have their ideas tested and challenged

The default position at Kingston University is to allow any speaker as long as he or she does not have links with any organisation on the government's banned list  and had previously signed a declaration not to break the law and agreed to take questions. Gender segregation is not allowed and all meetings must be open to all members of the University.

It is clear from the Professor's views that in his eyes freedom of speech trumps hate speech as long as it doesn't break the law. It would appear therefore that he considers those of us who believe that students of all races and ethnic backgrounds have a right to walk around university campuses without fear of being targeted for either their religious or cultural practices, or their views on Israel are wrong since any offence requires, in his view, more tolerance.

It would appear that Jewish students and Faculty members are being expected to tolerate offensive antisemitic rhetoric and for there to be no limits to their tolerance.  Isn’t this reminiscent of Europe in the 1930’s? ‘It’s just talk’. ‘It will come to nothing’, German Jews said ….

Ronnie Fraser


Academic Friends of Israel

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The free speech argument could work in a debate setting, but otherwise I don't see how views can be challenged by students who possibly have no idea what a speaker is talking about. Nowadays I'm not sure many people who attend problematic talks are there to challenge anything.