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University of Bristol’s treatment of Jewish students ‘a disgrace’

Image: stux, via Pixabay

Education committee chair attacks response to antisemitism claims and calls on senior management to resign

The University of Bristol’s treatment of Jewish students in the wake of antisemitism allegations against a professor has been branded a “disgrace” by the chair of the House of Commons Education Committee.

Robert Halfon, Conservative MP and chair of the committee since July 2017, said in an evidence session on 27 April that Bristol “cares nothing for the welfare of its Jewish students and it’s making it a hostile environment for Jewish students”.

In an explosive exchange, Halfon, who is Jewish, raised the spectre of 1930s Germany in relation to how Jewish students feel they are living, and said it had become a “national issue”.

Halfon’s attack on Bristol was in relation to comments by sociologist David Miller, who has been at the centre of a brewing row over remarks on Israel and Palestine. The University of Bristol has opened an investigation into the comments, which the government has branded “ill-founded and wholly reprehensible”.

In a 16 March statement, the University of Bristol said comments made by Miller had “caused deep concern for some members of our community”. It also said “people hold very different views on the issues raised” and noted the “vital importance of the right of staff and students…to speak openly without fear of censorship or limitation, provided that this right is exercised responsibly”.

Bristol told Research Professional News it had nothing to add to today’s comments as its investigation is ongoing.

‘Appalling behaviour’

Elsewhere in the session, Halfon said “the behaviour of the management [and] of the vice-chancellor of Bristol University, is pretty appalling”, and alleged that in failing to take action against Miller sooner, the institution had “broken” the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s modern definition of antisemitism. 

“There’s been some awful things going on in terms of Jewish students, they feel unsafe, they feel unprotected, they feel that the university is now a hotbed of antisemitism,” Halfon said. 

“Personally, I think the senior management should resign because they care nothing about antisemitism, they’re hiding behind employment law, and Bristol University, the way it has treated its Jewish students is a disgrace.”

In later comments, directed at universities minister Michelle Donelan, who was appearing before the committee, Halfon added: “Students [who go to Bristol University and other universities] should not feel that they’re living in 1930s Germany…and I think it’s become such a serious national issue being raised in parliament, a number of times that you [Donelan] should take a proactive role…get a grip and deal with this once and for all.”

When Donelan said universities were autonomous, and that she did not wish to comment on the Bristol case until its internal investigation had concluded, Halfon said she and the government were seeking to “wash [their] hands” of the issue.

Fractious debate

In response, Donelan said: “I would hate anybody who’s listening to this to think that the government has washed its hands of anything in relation to antisemitism, because that’s absolutely not the case.”

She said that the government had been urging universities to sign up to the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition, and that 98 institutions had now done so. However, the minister added that this was no “panacea”, pointing out that Bristol was one of the signatories. Donelan added that she would speak to Bristol once its review was finalised. 

In a fractious exchange, Halfon said there was “nothing stopping [you] picking up the phone and saying to the vice-chancellor [at Bristol], ‘what on earth is going on—get your act together’.”

Donelan responded: “This is an individual case, and the government doesn’t normally intervene with individual cases because universities are autonomous and they need to then produce those individual reviews. Once that review is done, absolutely, I will examine that review, and speak to the vice-chancellor once I have the facts in front of me as to what has happened.”

Halfon went on to say that the government should “cut off funding [from] universities that don’t deal with [antisemitism]”. 

“Why should Bristol University be getting any funding when it’s harbouring a known antisemite?” he asked.

Donelan said that the government would “keep all these things under review and work with the students”. She said she would wait for the conclusion to the University of Bristol review, adding that “the government doesn’t comment on these individual cases but I have gone as far as I possibly can today.”