University drops anti-Semitic claim amid row over academic freedom

A Scottish university has withdrawn an allegation that an academic article was anti-Semitic amid claims its stance had undermined academic freedom.

It comes after more than 500 scholars and activists, from 28 countries, lodged a petition with Glasgow University over its handling of the paper and the treatment of its author.

Philosopher and linguist Noam Chomsky and Nobel Prize winning chemist George Smith were among signatories to the petition, which condemned the university’s decision to describe the article, which examined lobbying methods used by Israel and its supporters, as promoting “unfounded anti-Semitic theory”.

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Campaigners claimed the university had wrongly conflated criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism and undermined academic freedom, while damaging the reputation of the author, as a result.

A student walks in the campus of Glasgow University. (Photo by Andy Buchanan / AFP) (Photo by ANDY BUCHANAN/AFP via Getty Images)

The university has now dropped the anti-Semitic claim from its preface to the article, which was peer reviewed and published in its online journal eSharp, and said the decision to do so had been taken back in August, although the changes only appeared earlier this week. The petition was lodged with the university on October 24.

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Jonathan Rosenhead, emeritus professor at the London School of Economics and chair of the British Committee for Universities of Palestine, was one of the founders of the petition

He said: “The fact that the university now recognises that it got things wrong is a forward step. But they don’t seem yet to understand quite how badly they did so.

"They have undermined the peer review system of their own journal, trashed the reputation of the referees who give their time and expertise without payment. And they have still not apologised to the article’s author, Jane Jackman, for the gratuitous damage they have inflicted on her reputation.

"The necessary repair is for the preface to be removed, and for the university to state publicly that it got things seriously wrong, and for the author to receive a full apology.”

Glasgow University is a signatory to the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s definition of anti-Semitism, which is described as “a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews”.

Universities have been encouraged to sign up to the definition but there is growing debate around the world on its impact on scholarly discussion, particularly among those in the field of Middle Eastern studies, as well as its ability to determine guilt in genuine cases of anti-Semitism.

Earlier this month, a Copenhagen-based academic, Dr Somdeep Sen, pulled out of a Glasgow University talk on his new book, Decolonizing Palestine, after being asked to provide details of his presentation in advance. He was also asked to insure his talk did not flout UK terror legislation.

The request followed claims from Glasgow University’s Jewish Society that the talk was anti-Semitic and could put student safety at risk, a position which the scholar said was taken without basis.

Dr Sen described the university’s handling of the situation as “extremely disappointing and alarming” and potentially harmful to his reputation. He pulled out of the talk after a requested apology failed to materialise, and questions over his treatment remained unanswered.

A spokesman for Glasgow University said: “The University of Glasgow is committed to supporting academic freedom and promoting equality and diversity across campus and is committed to combating any form of racism and racial discrimination.

“The eSharp editorial team took a decision in August to amend the preface added to the journal in May 2021 to apologise fully for any offence the article has caused. Amendments were also made to address potential ambiguity in wording.

“Freedom of expression, the right to disagree, the protection of all staff and students in their right to hold views and of academic freedom are at the heart of the university’s mission. The university does not agree that publication of the editorial is damaging to academic freedom and it remains on the website for readers to endorse or challenge as they see fit.”

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