When I spoke on Wednesday at the Union of Jewish Students’ lobby on the rise of anti-Semitism in British higher education, the nature and scale of the bigotry which too often scars student’s lives was brought home to me.
Our Universities are among the very best in the world. They are the space where ideas take ground, flourish and are subjected to the rigour of academic scrutiny. Many of the people who will go on to shape society form their political views and identities at Universities. Higher education is where the very nature of that society itself is questioned and where changes for the better are devised and refined.
But not all ideas are good ideas. It is part of the poisonous inheritance of moral relativism that we cannot recognise that some ideas are absolutely wicked.
We must face the fact that, as the Social Affairs Unit recently revealed, University campuses in the UK are “increasingly – if inadvertently – playing host to extremist groups”. These groups spring from across the political spectrum. Disparate zealots from Hizb-ut-Tahrir to the BNP, are defined by common hatreds. In particular, a virulently expressed anti-Semitism – hardened by the reaction to recent events in Gaza – is disgusts me.
The spiteful bile that many extremists spew has absolutely no place on University campuses. No form of baseless hatred, whether rooted in Islamism or Nazism, has ever had worth. As the great pianist Daniel Barenboim said – “anti-Semitism has no historical, political and certainly no philosophical origin. It is simply a disease.”
We know that this disease is steadily growing again. From the 27th of December alone, there have been 220 anti-Semitic attacks across the UK. Many of the students I talked to on Wednesday were feeling increasingly intimidated and threatened. In the sanctity of their universities, some are even going so far as to take off the kippah to disguise their identity for fear of attack.
In the face of this it is my pledge that while we must not stifle academic debate, equally we should not allow this despicable evil to fester unchecked. We simply cannot afford to have our Universities, the very spaces in which ideas mix so freely, corrupted by the hatred of extremists. I am only too aware that, if we let the seeds of hatred germinate, they will grow, until we reap a bitter harvest of division and destruction. I am unequivocal about this: we must confront any form of bigotry head on, only they can we build the social cohesion, the social justice we surely crave.
That is why on Wednesday I called on the Government to recognise the urgency of this threat, and to counter it with speed and vigour. As a first step, ministers should follow the recommendation of the All Party Parliamentary Group on anti-Semitism and set up a working group on Antisemitism in HE. It is the very least we can do to ensure that the future is marked by what we share, not by that which divides us.