Skip to content
The UK's only independent think tank devoted to higher education.

Freedom of Speech and Antisemitism on Campus

  • 13 March 2024
  • By Tom Lawson
  • This HEPI blog was kindly authored by Professor Tom Lawson, Deputy Vice-Chancellor and Provost at Northumbria University. This blog is an adapted version of remarks delivered at the HEPI and Advance HE event ‘Has the higher education sector got it right on freedom of speech?’ held in the House of Commons on 27th February.

As we know, since October 7th 2023 and the horrific Hamas attack on Israel, we have seen an upsurge in incidences of antisemitism on campuses. Our Jewish students have reported feeling unsafe – both because of an uptick in what might properly be called hate crime, but also because of a radical increase in the volume and intensity of critique of Israel. That critique at times strays into both attacking Jews as having some form of collective responsibility for the actions of the Israeli state and denying the right of Israel to exist – both of which might themselves be construed as acts of antisemitism.

Many, indeed perhaps the majority, of institutions have experienced tensions on campus – including protests, as well as campaigns directed at institutional links with third parties that have some association with the state of Israel. At my own institution, we have experienced tension between members of our community who were directly impacted by the 7th October attacks (including where family members have been killed) and other members of our community who are impacted by Israel’s ongoing actions in Gaza, including university partners that have been destroyed. Of course, students and staff impacted by the ongoing war so differently also have very different expectations of their institutions and about what is an appropriate response to this ongoing tragedy.

It is clear that there is a perception that our universities are failing to act against what the Jewish Chronicle recently described as a ‘tidal wave’ of anti-Jewish hatred. Indeed in his speech outside 10 Downing Street on Friday 1st March, the Prime Minister demanded that universities tackle ‘extremist activity’ on campus. I am concerned however that, in that accusation, insufficient attention is paid to the very real tensions between an institution’s duties to actively promote freedom of speech and to combat antisemitism and of course our obligation to protect all members of our community from harm.

Within this, I am not talking about very evident acts of antisemitism – graffitiing a Hillel house is not an expression of ideas or debate, it is simply a hate crime. Supporting Hamas, a proscribed terrorist organisation, is simply an illegal act. However, it is clear that as far as some politicians and media commentators are concerned, some rather less clear-cut examples might be construed as acts of antisemitism, but looked at from another angle, they are just the kind of challenging ideas that universities should be debating – and which we are indeed obligated to provide forums to discuss under our duty to actively promote freedom of speech.  

To highlight this with one particular example, it has been suggested that to argue that Israel (either now or indeed in the past) has committed genocide can veer into becoming antisemitic act.

Yet discussion of both the establishment of the state of Israel, and now the current actions of the Israeli state, within genocide studies is common. That is not to say that I agree or otherwise with the characterisation of genocide, but just to say it is a normal and normalised aspect of a sophisticated academic discourse. As is the discussion of the history of the British Empire with genocide studies, or the ongoing experience of indigenous populations in various former colonial states. And yet the idea of genocide is used as an example of the kind of thing universities must clamp down on. But how is it possible for an institution that is obligated to actively promote freedom of speech and the active exchange of ideas, to clamp down on something that is part of mainstream academic discourse? Indeed, even if we find such an idea objectionable – isn’t the direction of universities’ free speech obligations to suggest that we need to foster a culture in which such ideas are openly discussed and debated whatever their impact?

Most universities in the UK have adopted the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of antisemitism to guide them in adjudicating examples of antisemitic action and discourse on campus. Of course, some colleagues tell us that our obligations around antisemitism, and especially the IHRA definition of antisemitism, have a chilling effect on discussion and debate on campus precisely because they prevent them from discussing ideas like the application of the concept of genocide to Israel Palestine. While IHRA is not unproblematic, ultimately I would reject that claim. The definition puts sufficient emphasis on context to mean that discussion of these kinds of ideas could not be construed as attacks on Jews as Jews in and of themselves. And I would repeat that in the current context, institutions are obliged to provide an environment in which ideas, however unpalatable, should be debated and discussed.

It seems to me that our freedom of speech obligations mean that in relation to any single incidence, institutions must allow debate, discussion, and protest – and that is as true for gender-critical voices as it is for discussion around the history and politics of Israel Palestine. To simply shut down discussions, including those which propose ideas that admittedly make members of our community feel uncomfortable, would contravene those obligations. So the unfortunate reality is that institutions need to find ways to support Jewish students who find discussion of Israel within the conceptual frame of genocide uncomfortable to deal with that discomfort, as much as we do trans students who find gender-critical perspectives threatening.

This seems to me relatively straightforward, but where it is murkier is in relation to repetition. Providing a platform for gender-critical views, or views like those I have discussed above is important. But when does repeatedly providing that platform stray into either what might constitute harassment, or at the very least something that might pose a significant challenge for us around our obligations to members of our community and their wellbeing?

Let me explain further in relation to the current context. Institutions come under constant pressure to allow debate and discussion, and indeed protest, around Israel Palestine. This may, indeed will, make Jewish members of our communities uncomfortable. As I have discussed above, I think institutions then need to explain to those members of our community that we cannot protect them from ideas which they find objectionable. This is exactly the same as in relation to events with gender-critical voices where we have explained to members of our LGBTQ+ community the very same. But we also must listen to their concerns. But what if these events happen repeatedly, as they evidently are? When might it slip over into harassment of a particular community to continually debate an idea that such a community tells us is very challenging for them? Is an institution under obligation to repeatedly platform ideas that we are told, sincerely, wound?

At Northumbria for example we have a set of values and behaviours at the university which we expect our colleagues to uphold – including that we respect everyone. When does repeatedly airing ideas which others find objectionable slip at the very minimum into disrespect – when can we as an organisation take a view that an activity is so damaging to our community that we want to stop it?

I think the answer to that is that any institution taking such a decision could fall foul of our obligations to protect and promote freedom of speech, but should it be so? Surely institutions should be able to take a view that for their community there is a point in which we say no – we are not able to provide a platform for that set of ideas week after week because we know that it does harm. We cannot be unconcerned about those harms. After all, the very tenet of inclusion work is that the victims of hate speech get to define what constitutes that speech and what impact it has on them. Indeed, that is the principle at the heart of the IHRA definition of antisemitism – that it is the victims of racism who get to define what wounds them and what impact it has.

Ultimately that is I think the real dilemma that institutions face here – that at some point there will be a reason for the good of their community that a platform might not be provided. That would seem reasonable for institutions to make such a judgment, and legally it might indeed be possible to argue that something amounted to harassment and as such was not within the boundaries of the law. Ultimately it may well be that such a view is tested in the courts.

What is clear however is that universities are navigating a complex problem in which they have to weigh competing obligations, surrounded often by commentary that suggests no such complexity or nuance exists.  

Get our updates via email

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.


  1. Jeremy says:

    This seems like mostly a sincere attempt to find the right balance, but it’s ultimately doomed, because it’s still stuck on the supposed problem of “airing ideas which others find objectionable”. Some people find Islam objectionable, and some people find atheism objectionable: does that mean that we should simply prohibit people airing their ideas on the topic?

    On “the victims of hate speech get to define what constitutes that speech”: what a silly and circular idea! In reality, of course, there needs to be an objective definition of “hate speech” before it is even possible to decide who is a “victim” of it.

  2. jennifer says:

    surely greater balance might have been achieved by considering the atmosphere under which many of our muslim staff/students struggle, exacerbated by the conflict. Also, taking on board that support for Hamas is illegal, support for the Palestinian people surely is not.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *