SOAS faces action over alleged anti-semitism

From the archive (legacy material)

Polly Curtis | The Guardian | 13 May 2005

A dossier of evidence documenting alleged instances of anti-semitic behaviour at the School of Oriental and African Studies (Soas) has been compiled and delivered to Colin Bundy, the head of the school, with a threat that legal action could follow should he not take action to implement his own anti-discrimination rules.
The document has been collated by the Jewish lobbying group, the Board of Deputies of British Jews, following a meeting with the then education minister Ivan Lewis last month after six months of controversy surrounding Soas, which is part of the University of London.
Jewish students have repeatedly complained about instances of anti-semitism and the college’s failure to act to prevent them – allegations which both the college and the student union have strenuously denied. The row culminated in three members of the National Union of Students resigning from an executive committee citing the union’s failure to tackle anti-semitism including at Soas.
The dossier, which was sent to Professor Bundy, Mr Lewis and the Home Office last month, includes details of several disputes at Soas, including allegations relating to:
· A row over a conference held at the college about the academic boycott of Israel titled Resisting Israeli Apartheid.
· An article in the student magazine Spirit which said: “Those who benefit from the immoral actions of a colonial state in which they have chosen to reside cannot be considered as innocent”.
· The union’s banning of Roey Gilad, an Israeli embassy representative, because of their policy which equates Zionism with racism. Professor Bundy overturned the ban.
· The screening in the union of a controversial film, Promise of Heaven, which describes Jews as ‘having no values or ethics’.
· Gilad Atzmon, a pro-Palestinian activist and musician, who gave a talk to students this month, arguing: “I’m not going to say whether it is right or not to burn down a synagogue, I can see that it is a rational act”.
Jon Benjamin, the director general of the Board of Deputies, told “We wanted to pull together the evidence to overcome hearsay and conjecture. Our conclusion is that there are very clear breaches in the student union and the school’s own rules on equality and freedom of speech.
“Depending on his response we would have to see whether there have been any breach of statute. If they are not sticking to their own principles then the law would have to be invoked and that’s something we would have to explore.”
He added: “We’re not saying there is institutional anti-semitism [at Soas]. It certainly isn’t the case that everyone is anti-semitic. But a platform has certainly been given to anti-semites. It’s okay for there to be anti-Zionist platforms, but there should be equal time for events from the other side.”
Professor Bundy told that he was preparing a detailed reply to the Board of Deputies’ allegations, and that it would be inappropriate to comment on the contents of the document.
A spokeswoman for Soas student union also declined to comment on the dossier, which she said was “confidential” while under investigation.
However, she added: “An overwhelmingly large number of students, including a number of Jewish students, have expressed their distress and frustration over what they believe to be false accusations and the manner in which these accusations have been made.
“We are happy to participate in this investigation as we hope it gives people the opportunity to discuss the distinction between anti-Semitism and criticism of Israeli policies.”
In a separate development, one Jewish student at Soas claims that he is being targeted and threatened with disciplinary action by Professor Bundy because he has acted as a “whistleblower” to expose allegations of anti-semitic behaviour.
Gavin Gross, a mature student taking a part-time MA at Soas and treasurer of its Jewish society, has lobbied the university authorities and the press over what he claims is an anti-Israel bias at the school.
On April 29th he received a letter from Professor Bundy explaining what the university planned to do to tackle the situation. The letter issued a warning about Mr Gross’s behaviour.
Professor Bundy accused Mr Gross in the letter of attempting to “improperly interfere with the academic activities of Soas” and attempting to “bring Soas into disrepute”.
He referred to a letter which Mr Gross wrote to Sir Joseph Hotung, who funds a peace-building in the Middle East programme, asking him to “sever” his relationship because of the “bias” in the way Soas operates. He also revealed that he has received reports from other students that Mr Gross had been “rude” and “aggressive”.
The letter concluded: “At this stage, and provided that there is no repetition of conduct of this nature, I do not propose to initiate an investigation under the disciplinary code. However, I wish you to know that I will not hesitate to do so if this conduct continues.”
Mr Gross admitted that his email to Professor Bundy was “inappropriate”, but maintained that his letter to Sir Joseph was justified under his right to free speech.
Professor Bundy declined to comment on correspondence with an individual student.