Noam Chomsky in free speech row over UCL ‘antisemitism’ rules

Linguist ‘at a loss for words’ over university guidelines on what can and cannot be said about Jews

October 24, 2019
Noam Chomsky (centre) says UCL’s antisemitism rules are too restrictive
Source: Getty
Noam Chomsky (centre) says UCL’s antisemitism rules are too restrictive

Noam Chomsky has described himself as being “at a loss for words” about the conditions imposed on speakers at an event launching a book about his work, in a new row about antisemitism on UK campuses.

UCL Press is publishing The Responsibility of Intellectuals to mark the 50th anniversary of Professor Chomsky’s celebrated essay of the same name. Contributors include Jackie Walker, the black Jewish activist and former vice-chair of the left-wing Momentum movement within the Labour Party, who was expelled from the party earlier this year on the grounds of antisemitism – a claim that she vigorously denies.

The launch event, at UCL’s Institute of Advanced Studies, is planned for 29 October. Panellists include Ms Walker and co-editor Chris Knight, senior honorary research associate in anthropology at UCL. They have received an email from UCL Press attaching UCL’s code of practice on freedom of speech and guidelines setting out a number of allegedly antisemitic “tropes that UCL would find unacceptable to be repeated on its campus”.

Responding to this, the three editors of the book said that, while they “sympathise[d] with the intention of these guidelines”, they also believed that they “unacceptably restrict[ed] the principle of freedom of speech within a UK university”.

One of the allegedly offensive “tropes” was that “Jews as a group or particular sections of the British Jewish community invent, exaggerate or ‘weaponise’ incidents of antisemitism for political or other benefit”. In response, Professor Chomsky, who is Jewish, said that he was “frankly at a loss for words”.

“Would it be anti-Arab racism to say that some Arab group has exaggerated incidents of anti-Arab racism? If so, I’m a hardened Islamophobe, because I know of such cases and have often said so,” he said. “Such behaviour is common – for other nationalist groups as well. Why are Jewish groups immune from criticism, alone in the world?”

Another “trope” that UCL did not want repeated on campus was the implication that “Jews are less vulnerable to discrimination than other minority groups”.

Yet, as academics, Professor Knight told Times Higher Education, “it is our responsibility to conduct research. It is at least theoretically possible that careful investigation might reveal that, in today’s Britain, black people and Muslims typically suffer somewhat worse discrimination even than Jews.”

UCL said that the university had “carried out a thorough risk assessment and implemented a number of measures around this event”.

“We have asked all speakers, including Ms Walker, to comply with our code of practice as a condition of attending the event. This requires that the views and ideas put forward do not give rise to an environment in which people will experience – or could reasonably fear – harassment, intimidation, verbal abuse or violence, with particular reference to the protected characteristics under the Equality Act 2010, including religion and belief,” a spokeswoman said.

“We have been clear that the expression of antisemitic tropes or positions would be considered unacceptable under this code of practice.”

matthew.reisz@timeshighereducation.com

POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: Chomsky in UCL free speech row

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Reader's comments (3)

Interesting.
This will increase the respect I have for Mister Chomsky. Truly an intellectual and a world citizen !!!
Free Speech on Israel have published a full analysis of the unacceptable threats to free speech and academic freedom posed by the UCL restrictions. https://freespeechonisrael.org.uk/ucl-attack/

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