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Reports of anti-Jewish sentiment at universities on rise, organisation claims

ByRosie Barrett

Dec 1, 2015

Reported incidents of anti-Jewish sentiment by academics on university campuses are increasing, a national Jewish organisation has claimed.

In a submission to Scottish Parliament, the Scottish Council of Jewish Communities (Scojec) said that students at Scottish universities feel “compelled to deny or hide their Jewish identity at the very time in their lives when they should have the freedom to explore it.”

The organisation quoted Scottish students as saying they felt “hounded for taking off Jewish holidays” during exams; have felt they were being penalised on essays for using pro-Israeli language; and have avoided class “due to fear of being harassed or attacked”.

The evidence submitted derived from a survey the organisation conducted back in march, called ‘What’s Changed About Being Jewish in Scotland’, in which various members of society gave anonymous anecdotes on experiences of discrimination in Scotland.

Responding to the survey, several students said they had experienced discrimination on the part of universities and academics against their religion.

One female North American student in Edinburgh said: “As a student having a University that refuses to reschedule my exams around Jewish holidays and Shabbat, I was told that either I sit exams on Shabbat or I fail, period.”

Another student in Scotland said she was “being hounded for taking off Jewish holidays, and refusing to sit exams on Friday evening”, was “repeatedly summoned for dressing down from professors, the Dean, and the head of school,” and was told by the Dean that “because this is a secular university, we don’t need to take any account of students’ religion”.  Many practicing Jews observe the Shabbat, the period between sundown Friday and sundown Saturday, as a day of rest and withdrawal from work-related activities.

Elsewhere in the survey, a senior academic at another university recounted a story where a medical student was pressured by a vice-principal to choose between his religion and his career.  The vice-principal was reported to say “why should the University give a dispensation from our rules; why can’t you give one from yours?”

The reported incidents are part of a rising pattern of anti-Semitism within Scottish universities in recent years, according to Nicola Livingston, Public Affairs Officer of Scojec, and chair of the Jewish Student Chaplaincy Scotland.

“It crops up more often than it ought to,” she told The Student.

“The last 7 or 8 years have seen us have to get involved in these sorts of issues more times than all of the last 40 years put together.  So it’s unfortunately increasing.”

A spokesperson for the University of Edinburgh declined to comment on the reported experiences, saying it was a Scotland-wide issue best addressed by the Universities Scotland (US), the representative body of all Scottish universities.  Representatives from US had not responded to queries from The Student at time of press.

Scojec submitted anonymous student survey quotations to Scottish Parliament as part of an evidentiary submission criticising the proposed Higher Education Governance (Scotland) Bill. 

At issue for the organisation is Part 2 of the bill, which aims to strengthen academic freedom for University lecturers. 

The bill states that universities must strive to uphold the academic freedom of all teaching and research staff, defining freedom in part as the ability to “hold and express opinions” and “present controversial or unpopular points of view.”

But Scojec argues that the provisions have the effect of protecting the interests of academics against the interests of students.  Citing testimonies of students who claimed their academic work had been penalised for pro-Israeli views, the organisation said a balance needed to be struck to protect students as well.

“It is irresponsible to widen the statutory definition of academic freedom…while also not imposing equivalent statutory responsibilities to protect those who may suffer detriment from careless or malicious use of that freedom,” the group said in its submission.

Speaking to The Student, Nicola Livingston of Scojec characterised the issue at hand as a power imbalance.

“We think it would be wrong to strengthen freedom for one group of people, people who are in a position of power” she said.

“Students only pass this way once.  Their whole life is in the hands of that and the institution.  So we can’t really have people in power having their freedoms protected above the freedoms of students.

“I’m very much not saying things should be excluded from things that are uncomfortable.  Your life as a student needs to be a time when you’re tested and when you get to test things out.  But it also needs to not pass a bar where there’s a power imbalance.”

Ben Bernheim, a Jewish student at the University of Edinburgh, characterised the University’s approach to the issue as earnest, but said that some discrimination persisted.

“As far as I know in Edinburgh, the University has always been relatively flexible when accommodating Jewish students,” he told The Student.

“That being said, Jewish students in Edinburgh who would usually wear kippot [yamulkes] during their daily lives do not while on campus as they feel uncomfortable and would rather avoid ‘provoking’ discrimination or standing out.

“The consensus among Jewish students is that anti-Semitism today tends to be almost ‘accidental’ and uninformed rather than malicious – much the same I should think as for other forms of discrimination.”

Bernheim recalled an experience of a friend in a tutorial in which someone made a comment that ‘Jews are all rich’, which the tutor didn’t correct in the tutorial.  The tutor “apologised when my rather shocked friend approached them afterwards,” Bernheim told The Student.

He also spoke of alienation in the wake of a recent academic boycott, which saw over 600 academics, including 11 from the University of Edinburgh, pledge to disavow ties to Universities in Israel to protest policies toward Palestinians.

“The Academic Boycott certainly shook any faith I had in the possibility of discussion in the supposedly free-speech environment of a University,” he said.

Scojec’s legislative criticisms are now being considered by members of the Education and Culture Committee at Holyrood.  Speaking to The Student, MSPs in that committee expressed the importance of ensuring safe environments for Jewish students.

“I’ve welcomed the wide range of evidence and thoughtful submissions we have received…from the Jewish community and indeed others on the measures related to academic freedom,” Colin Beattie, SNP MSP for Midlothian North told The Student.

“The academic freedom enjoyed by those teaching and researching in our universities does not represent a free pass to break the law. Anti-Semitism or any other kind of discrimination has no place in Scotland.

“If more is needed to make that crystal clear then there will be an opportunity to consider amendments at Stage 2.”

Chic Brodie, SNP MSP for South Scotland, told The Student: “There is no room  for discrimination of race, faith, colour, or creed in our society and the Convener of the Education Committee, Stewart Maxwell, has made this very clear particularly in consideration of [the Scojec submissions].”

The Scottish government has been accepting submissions and suggestions on its higher education bill from universities and other organisations throughout the year.  A report on Stage 1 of the consultation process is due to be released mid-December.

By Rosie Barrett

News Editor

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