Previous Section Index Home Page

19 July 2007 : Column 149WH—continued

He adds:

Mr. Husain’s final and important comment is:

That is in a sense the most killing statement in the book. Of course, a huge part of the report was devoted
19 July 2007 : Column 150WH
to saying that it is time to attend to the matter of British universities and colleges—I think that the real problems start there, as adolescents of 15, 16 or 17 are perhaps not really ready to imbibe an evil anti-Jewish, Israel-hating and Jew-bashing ideology, but at college and university that can happen.

We invited the university campuses to take action against the phenomenon. However, the opposite has happened. My hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw has mentioned that the vice-chancellors do not seem willing fully to engage with the question. The union representing university and college lecturers has taken frankly the most extraordinary decision in the history of the British trade union movement. For the first time in British history since the abolition of the anti-Jewish discrimination laws in the 19th century, a college union is saying that there should be discrimination against Jews. There is no call for a boycott against people from universities in other countries where state practices are infinitely more odious than those undertaken by some agents of the Government of Israel. There is no call for a boycott of Arab professors or students in Israeli universities. The call is directed expressly at Jews. I find it unbelievable that there was not a greater upsurge of outrage in our country about that call.

My hon. Friend has rightly said that Sally Hunt, the union general secretary, has come out clearly against that call, that it will not come into effect and that most university lecturers are ashamed at their new union’s decision, but none the less it still stands. I spend some time as a Member of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe discussing, in the course of political work in many different European cities, what the British Government are doing. Again and again this summer I have had the question put to me, “What on earth is going on? This is the first time any European trade union has sought to organise any kind of boycott against Jews.” It is no use saying, “No, it is because they work in Israel and are associated with Israeli universities.” It is because they are Jews that people are to be picked out. That is why it is so important that my hon. Friend the Minister should ask the new Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills what its action will be in the coming period in response to that grave problem.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills must take a lead. It is not right that the Department for Communities and Local Government should be the sole Department involved in the matter. My right hon. Friend must take a clear lead. I invite the Minister to write to me when he returns to his Department, outlining the views of his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and what action he will take before the academic term starts in the autumn. We do not need to see another outbreak of anti-Semitism on campus, followed by action; we need pre-emptive, preventive action now.

My hon. Friend the Minister for Lifelong Learning, Further and Higher Education has made clear in the media and on a visit to Israel the Government’s repugnance at the call for a boycott by the universities union, but now that the Department for Education and Skills has been broken up, it behoves the Secretary of State responsible to take a clear lead. We must go further. We need an action programme signed by each vice-chancellor explaining what they will do to ensure that academic freedom is not threatened by calls from any country for boycotts against Jews.

19 July 2007 : Column 151WH

I invite the Minister—I do not know how cash-strapped his budget is, but it always surprises those of us with any connection to Government how poor and lacking in resources any Department is until it decides to do something—to send Ed Husain’s book to every vice-chancellor and ask them all to read it over the summer holidays, so that never again can anybody say, “What dumbfounded us was the fact that the authorities on campus never stopped our anti-Jewish hate campaigns.”

We must understand the extent of the dismay, particularly throughout Europe—that is the part of the world in which I have the most contacts and do some work—at such decisions. Our universities should understand the extent to which European parliamentarians—the hon. Member for Eastleigh (Chris Huhne), a distinguished former Member of the European Parliament, might want to comment—members of the Council of Europe from the Parliaments of the 46 member states and the European Commission are concerned about the boycott calls and the reports of anti-Semitism and hatred of Israel on British university campuses. UK universities receive a great deal of funding and support from the European Commission and other European institutions. If vice-chancellors are not seen to take clear action against anti-Semitism and anti-Jewish behaviour on campus, the question will arise whether that funding will be quite as automatic as it has been.

This is not simply about odious acts of violent hate; it is about a culture of sneering and contempt. Too many of our Jewish students, as we found on our travels to talk to university and sixth-form students, feel afraid. That is a terrible thing. Islamophobia exists, as do snarls and snide comments at times about people of many different faiths, including Irish Catholics—I could tell stories from my mother’s side—but we found something quite different. Some young British men and women simply are not 100 per cent. happy going to university, as my children will be. That is quite wrong.

I turn to the problem of foreign policy. The Minister must feel that he is carrying the burden for rather more Departments than he should, but the question of what Britain says and does about international anti-Semitism must be integrated into the work of our international policy Departments. To begin with, we must consider the role of the internet as the publisher of the most odious anti-Semitic material, as well as material written to inflame global Islamist opinion against Israel and the defence of democracy anywhere in the world. It is not too much to describe the net as a contemporary version of Der StÃ1/4rmer, the notorious anti-Jewish Nazi newspaper published in the Hitler years. One can easily read Islamist propaganda anywhere just by logging on.

We must discuss the issue with the United States in particular, because America is the biggest source of internet service providers and America, alas, allows unacceptable amounts of pornography, the commercialisation of sexual relations and other vile material, including anti-Semitic propaganda, on the net. In the cause of freedom of expression, American friends and colleagues in politics and public life are reluctant to talk about dealing expressly with such things. Obviously criminal sites can easily be shut down, but the problem goes well beyond that. We must have a discussion about the deontology of the net
19 July 2007 : Column 152WH
and what action can be taken to prevent it from being accessed in order to poison minds with propaganda against Jews.

I am not talking about the religion of Islam. I have no problem with any preacher talking about his faith. It is not necessarily my cup of tea—I do not believe that any type of religious fundamentalism is a great help in these troubled times—but I respect and admire enormously the commitment to faith of my 10,000 Muslim constituents, who are the Muslims I know best. It is the ideology of Islamism—not the faith but the ism—that must be confronted.

We have seen preposterous examples of what can be easily accessed on the net. Islamist organisations such as the Muslim Council of Britain condemned the suicide bombings in the tube two years ago, the failed car bombings a few weeks ago and the attacks on the twin towers, but that was the easy part. The real test is to condemn suicide bombings in the middle east, Iraq, Kashmir or Afghanistan. A dead man in a London tube or a Manhattan office tower is an innocent victim of evil terrorism, but to read much of the material written by Islamist ideologues, a dead Jewish child or granny in a Tel Aviv bus is a legitimate target for what almost appears to be good or acceptable terrorism. Dressing the matter up with talk of resistance or freedom fighting is sheer hypocrisy, as is making comparisons with Nelson Mandela when South African apartheid was overthrown by peaceful means, or Mahatma Gandhi when the one thing that he taught the world in freeing his country from British rule was to shun violence rather than embrace it.

Until the Muslim Council of Britain condemns all terrorist violence at all times and places, I shall take its condemnation of terrorism in our country as an expression of piety rather than a willingness to join the great mass of UK citizens, including all the Muslims I know, who detest terrorists and their ideological gurus who make hatred of Jews and Israel a key element of Islamism. We must continually spell that out to our international partners and friends. We are doing so through the Council of Europe, but we must also take the message to those countries that would find what I just said completely unacceptable or nonsense. One can walk through too many streets in Istanbul and buy “Mein Kampf”; television channels in Egypt and Jordan broadcast films based on blood libels or “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion”. Such countries are part of the problem and not yet part of the solution. The British Council should do more—in addition to interfaith dialogue, in which I am a complete believer—to encourage theological discussion between Jewish, Christian and Muslim theologians, all children of the great Abrahamic religions. Indeed, we need to invite theologians—theologians in the purest sense—to discuss whether any part of their religions can endorse evil action; that includes the Christian religions.

The fundamental point that the Foreign Office must start to consider is what it is doing through formal diplomatic means, démarche, and its sponsorship of the British Council, the BBC World Service and BBC World TV, to make clear our concerns about anti-Semitism. Let nobody misunderstand the points to be drawn from our report and the points made by the Government in their strong response. What we are discussing is part of a new global ideology, which is a nihilist renunciation of
19 July 2007 : Column 153WH
everything that people have fought for, since Galileo through to Spinoza and the years of the enlightenment, the great advances in freedom of expression and religious freedom in the 19th century and today’s human values as expressed in the European convention on human rights and the United Nations charter, to which we all sign up.

That ideology is a denial of what is best and most important for all human beings. That is why I hope that our modest report, which has produced a fine response from the Government, is not seen as a closing down of the discussion in the House of Commons. It should be seen as the beginning of a wider fightback until anti-Semitism and hatred of Israel is extirpated once and for all and seen as part and parcel of the thinking of only a tiny fringe—the extreme, idiot minority, whom we can never get rid of, but who should no longer be allowed air time on the BBC. They should not be treated as serious interlocutors for the great faith of Islam and the vast majority of British Muslims, who repudiate the evil ideology that is expressed, in a perverted way, in the name of their faith.

3.42 pm

Chris Huhne (Eastleigh) (LD): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir John. I add my penn’orth to those of other Members who have appreciated the Government’s efforts to respond to the all-party parliamentary inquiry’s report. I was honoured to be the Liberal Democrat member of the inquiry, and I pay tribute to the dedication of our research staff and to our chairman, the right hon. Member for Rotherham (Mr. MacShane), for guiding us through a good route march of research and thinking.

This debate is crucial, not just to the Jewish community in this country but to all minority communities. In some basic sense, we are all minorities in one way or another: in our tastes, beliefs, enthusiasms and views. We must defend that diversity. We have to champion and celebrate it, or we will lose it—at our peril. Today, the Jewish community faces the challenges that we are discussing, but the Muslim community may well face them tomorrow and some other community may face them the day after.

Having been involved in the inquiry and report, I was shocked that a minority community in modern Britain should suffer problems such as those suffered by the Jewish community. Thank heavens, there has been no direct attack on a Jewish community building since the bombing in 1994 of Balfour house, the headquarters of the Joint Israel Appeal and other UK Jewish charities. However, that cast a long shadow over many activities of the community. I shall give one example, which I found striking and is in the report. It relates to the King David school, which has 1,000 Jewish pupils. Under the advice of the local police and the Community Security Trust, it now has CCTV, anti-shatter glass and reinforced walls. There are just two access points to the school, and they are controlled by security guards. It all comes at a cost of £130,000 annually—with, I have to say, very little, if any, support from the British state as yet. A similar school in France suffering similar problems gets a major contribution towards costs.

At one end of the spectrum are issues of potential criminal damage, threats to the person, bomb and firebomb attacks—although as I said, those latter have not happened recently in the UK. We have heard from other hon.
19 July 2007 : Column 154WH
Members that the softer problems can be just as intrusive and limiting. The development of anti-Semitic discourse in Britain is worrying; we found it worrying as we took our evidence. Given the frequent lazy confusion of Jewish with Israeli, and Israeli with the Israeli Government, it is easy to slip into something that to any Jewish person can seem—indeed, is—a discriminatory set of remarks.

It is worth mentioning the definition of anti-Semitism in the report which we adopted from the EU monitoring centre on racism and xenophobia. The definition is not perfect; I am sure that the debate will go on. However, it is a good working definition of what we have to deal with. It simply states:

We have to be aware of that and deal with it; the right hon. Member for Rotherham rightly set that out in quoting from the Ed Husain book.

Underlying that definition of anti-Semitism is a fundamental and old battle against any type of human behaviour that seeks to stereotype us as other than individuals and to depict our behaviour as being in some sense determined by the group of which we are a part. Such behaviour does not treat our individual views and beliefs as worth while in themselves, but as part of a collective view or belief. For any liberal, that is deeply shocking. Criticism in that context, as that definition sets out, constitutes anti-Semitism—for example, when it applies double standards to Israel that are not applied elsewhere, when it requires a standard of behaviour from Israel not demanded elsewhere, or when it holds Jews collectively responsible for the behaviour of the state of Israel. Israel, after all, is a democratic state with a vigorous tradition of a free press—often an opposition press—and of free opposition parties. Moreover, as people often forget, it has a substantial Arab minority, which has full political rights and exercises them in its representation in the Knesset.

I recognise that the hon. Member for Daventry (Mr. Boswell) and the right hon. Member for Rotherham in particular have already mentioned this issue, but I should like to extend some of the points about the academic boycott, which I feel is total folly. Its adherents and proponents have set it out in terms that are counter-productive as well as illiberal. I also share the dismay about the motion passed at the annual conference of the University and College Union. Although I can hear the weasel words transmitted to us by the hon. Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann), the thrust of that motion—its political understanding—was that it was to be seen as a support for a boycott of Israeli universities. The academic boycott essentially treats the individual, once again, as someone who is responsible for the behaviour of their group—not as an individual, but as part of a collectivity for which they cannot conceivably share responsibility. Two wrongs cannot and do not make a right.

The boycott would be counter-productive, even in the terms of those who are pressing for it, since many of those who are most critical of Israeli Government policies are to be found in the universities, think-tanks and institutes within Israel. Jonathan Freedland was absolutely right when he wrote recently in the Evening Standard:

19 July 2007 : Column 155WH

From the other side of the community divide, so to speak, Dr. Sari Nusseibeh, the president of al-Quds university—the only Arab university in Jerusalem—has said:

I welcome the idea from the right hon. Member for Rotherham that the new Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills should attempt to communicate the concern—in the hope that he shares it—to the vice-chancellors about the recent developments of this nature in those communities. It is important for us to remember the words of George Bernard Shaw, who once said that the English think that they are being tolerant when often they are merely being indifferent. We must not be indifferent; we have to be tolerant, and toleration sometimes requires a more active role than mere indifference. Perhaps the Minister can enlighten us on the action that the Government are taking to ensure that any academic boycott will not be implemented, and on whether university authorities might consider legal sanctions or derecognition against a UCU branch that supported a boycott. Could, for example, the Department for Communities and Local Government encourage UCU to conduct a race equality impact assessment over any boycott policy?

I said at the beginning that this is not an issue only for the Jewish community. There is an important line to be drawn and defended for all of us who care about the rights of our fellow citizens. Perhaps the best quotation that I could mention in this context, well-known though it is, is that from Pastor Martin Niemöller, referring to the sad developments in Germany in the 1930s. He said:

We let others encroach on the freedom of our fellow citizens to make their lives as they choose at our great peril. An attack on one of us is an attack on us all. With the attacks on the Jewish community, the time has come to draw a firm line on behalf of us all.

3.54 pm

Next Section Index Home Page