Holocaust survivor Marika Sherwood was due to give a talk at the University of Manchester during Israel Apartheid Week 2017 with the title ‘A Holocaust survivor’s story and the Balfour declaration: You’re doing to the Palestinians what the Nazis did to me’. The University insisted the subtitle be removed and attendance limited to university students and staff only.
The University was reluctant to disclose what led up to this interference with free expression until the Information Commissioner’s Office forced the University to reveal the relevant correspondence. As the Guardian reported on 29 September, the documents revealed that Israeli Embassy pressured the University to insist on the change, alleging that antisemitism lay behind the Holocaust survivor’s choice of title.
I have written to Nancy Rothwell, the University Vice-Chancellor deploring the University’s action and calling for an apology to Ms Sherwood and the students who invited her for disparaging them as antisemites.
The response to my second letter still failed to explain or apologise, so I have tried again
We must be conscious of the hurt that unwarranted claims of antisemitism cause to accused just as we are sensitive to the pain that antisemitic comments cause to Jews.
Dear Professor Rothwell
I was very disappointed to read in in the Guardian yesterday of the censoring of the title of the talk by Marika Sherwood.
It is outrageous that a university should see fit to refuse to allow a survivor of the Holocaust to describe her talk, which comes from her own experience, in the terms that she sees as appropriate. Her chosen title and sub-title were intended to inform your students of how her experiences frame her understanding of Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians. Your refusal is doubly troublesome as it appears that this was not a decision that your University took from your own considerations but in reaction to the representations of a foreign government that requested the suppression of free expression on your campus.
It appears you were told “Both of these events will to [sic] cause Jewish students to feel uncomfortable on campus and that they are being targeted and harassed for their identity as a people and connection to the Jewish state of Israel, I would be grateful if you could look into these events and take the appropriate action.”
Do you have any evidence that your Jewish students were being harassed. If they were I am sure you would take action against the perpetrators but it seems highly unlikely that Ms Sherwood was harassing anybody. Her views may be unwelcome to some of your students but that is no reason for censorship. Surely we expect our students to argue with opinions that they disagree with, not demand they are not heard.
It is particularly distressing to see that the IHRA definition has been used as a weapon to attack free speech. Again the embassy told you, “Comparing Israel to the Nazi regime could reasonably be considered antisemitic, given the context, according to IHRA’s working definition of antisemitism, which is accepted by the British government, the Labour party, the NUS [National Union of Students] and most British universities.”
This statement is misleading in a number of ways. The definition is three lines long and makes no reference to comparisons to the Nazi regime. That is in one of the 11 examples which are not part of the definition and are introduced with the words ‘could, taking into account the overall context include..,’ I am not aware of any evidence of antisemitic intent by Ms Sherwood and, indeed, as a Jewish survivor that seems highly unlikely.
Personally, I hesitate to draw comparisons between Israel and the Nazis because such comparisons short-circuit critical thought and over-simplify but I did not, personally, have to endure Nazi persecution. But I avoid them because they are not the best way to investigate Israel’s activities not because I believe them to be, in themselves, antisemitic.,
Although the definition has been circulated by UUK [Universities UK] at the request of the Minister for Higher Education, I am not aware that most have adopted it. The Labour Party has adopted the short definition but not the examples called in aid by the Embassy. You should be aware of the legal opinion from Hugh Tomlinson QC who lays out the legal risk that any organisation that uses the definition to curtail activity incurs. The opinion, which I urge you to study to prevent your University placing itself in jeopardy, can be downloaded from http://freespeechonisrael.org.uk/ihra-opinion/
I also understand from the report that the University failed in its duty to provide an educational service to its locality by limiting attendance to its own staff and students. We look to our Universities to promote controversial discussion to enrich our public discourse and democracy.
I hope that your University will reflect upon this unhappy episode and apologise to Ms Sherwood and the students who invited her for, in effect, calling them antisemites – a most serious allegation. I hope, also, that the University will reflect on its actions and resolve to handle such events better in future.
The University’s response
I am writing in response to your email to the President & Vice-Chancellor who is currently away from the University The statement given below which has been issued by the University on this matter should reassure you.
“Events held on campus are reviewed under the University’s Code of Practice on Freedom of Speech if they concern potentially controversial topics and whenever they involve external speakers. This includes events organised through and in the University of Manchester Students’ Union. In deciding whether or not an event should go ahead, the University pays due regard to all relevant legislation, including the Equality Act 2010.
However, such legislation does not act to prohibit completely the expression of controversial views. In this case the University allowed the events to proceed in line with the requirements of the Act and our commitment to principles of freedom of speech and expression.”
Roz Dutton (Mrs.)
Executive Assistant to the President & Vice-Chancellor
You may be unsurprised to learn that your pro-forma response reassures me not at all.
I am surprised at your reference ‘, such legislation does not act to prohibit completely the expression of controversial views’ . You have not cited any aspect of the Equality Act which would deter the university from allowing Ms Sherwood to speak to her chosen title nor reassured me that the University has a predisposition to free expression of views that may be unwelcomed by some individual s or groups: something I take to be a central purpose of any institution of higher education.
You have not responded to my concern that you have unfairly branded Ms Sherwood and the students who invited her as antisemites; nor have you stated that it was not concerns about the IHRA working definition of antisemitism that framed your decision. Neither have you commented on the pressure that the Israeli Embassy appears to have exerted on the University. You have also failed to point to any harassment of Jewish students by Ms Sherwood or the students who invited her. Nor have you commented on the exclusion of Manchester residents from an event that may well have interested a number of them.
You have sent me a standard response to a set of concerns that I did not raise and failed to respond to a single one of the issues I articulated in my letter.
I await a considered response to the substantive, and I believe important, points I raised in my letter.
The University’s further response
I refer to your e-mail of 2 October 2017 and apologise for the delay in providing a response.
To be clear, at no point have we branded Ms. Sherwood nor the students who invited her as antisemites. The University allowed the event in question to proceed in line with the requirements of the Equality Act 2010 and its commitment to principles of freedom of speech and expression.
For information, the University has not adopted the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism, whether explicitly or otherwise; this position is endorsed by Universities UK.
Roz Dutton (Mrs.)
My further reply
I am pleased to hear that your University has not adopted the IHRA definition. However, I am now at a loss to understand why the full title of Ms Sherwood’s talk was disallowed and why attendance was limited to students and staff.
The only interpretation I am left with, unless you can provide an alternative explanation, is that someone believed a holocaust survivor’s statement ‘You’re doing to Palestinians what the Nazis did to me’ to be antisemitic. Thus the University has, even if unintentionally, accused Ms Sherwood and the students involved as antisemites. This is a very hurtful and damaging accusation.
Given this, the University is under a strong moral obligation to apologise to Ms Sherwood and the students for inadvertently giving the impression that you regarded them as antisemites. In order to secure closure on these unfortunate events, this must be accompanied by a clear explanation of why Ms Sherwood’s full preferred title was disallowed so that the record can be set straight.
Further correspondence will be posted here if and when it appears