‘To challenge the intellectual underpinnings of antisemitism in public life and to confront the hostile environment for Jews in universities.’
Antisemitic ways of thinking are well entrenched in some places at the highest levels of academia. This fact is generally and angrily denied. Antisemitic ways of thinking are tolerated and protected by individuals and institutions that are not themselves antisemitic, but which constitute the powerful mainstream of universities. This is institutional antisemitism.
This culture in universities devalues opposition to antisemitism as unsophisticated and conservative. Antisemitic discourse is not recognised as such but it glows with radical and anti-establishment excitement; it is presented as liberational while Jews and their Zionism are associated with oppression and injustice. Antisemitism is often less suspect in academia than is opposition to antisemitism.
The cracks within which isolated antisemitism scholars operate are closing and there is almost no new generation coming through. Even Jewish Studies and Israel Studies, even Holocaust Studies and Genocide Studies, as disciplines, are in crisis. The material and moral pressures to accommodate to the culture in academia relating to antisemitism and to Israel have been strong. As Hannah Arendt observed, assimilation in a time of antisemitism means assimilating to antisemitism.
The wider fight against antisemitism is undermined if the universities are lost. Antisemitic worldviews are being taught as common sense to future generations of journalists, politicians, civil servants, teachers, cultural producers and other opinion formers. The people who we would normally have expected to rely on in the future to educate society about the dangers of antisemitism are in the present being corrupted by it.
Addressing the Problem
We need to protect and nurture what remains of scholarship on antisemitism and the Holocaust and to build on that foundation a new community of living research, scholarship and teaching.
The challenge of changing the intellectual weather is formidable. Our aim is nothing less than turning back the tide of a self-confident and sophisticated antisemitism that is not afraid and that is convinced of its own virtue.
The new institution must also develop the capacity to communicate effectively, to supply people who are not academic specialists with the facts, ideas and arguments that that they need to defend themselves against antisemitism. Our challenge here is to maintain quality and rigour while producing large quantities of accessible materials for diverse audiences.
The battle against antisemitism is currently still mainly in the field of ideas. One danger of losing the battle of ideas may be having to fight on more traditional battlefields.
Antisemitism is a universal concern; it is never really about Jews and its threat is never limited to Jews. Antisemitism is attractive to anti-democratic politics and thought. Openness to antisemitic ways of thinking in academia, and tolerance of of them, are related to a broader emerging carelessness about democratic culture and the democratic state. Many academic disciplines are increasingly embracing, as standard assumptions, radical critiques of existing society – and of the enlightenment liberal tradition that underpins the core values of the university. Frequently this is more accurately described as contempt than critique. Robert Fine, who is a key inspiration for this centre, wrote of the necessity to hold the critique of existing conditions in one hand, but also to hold the ‘critique of the critique’ in the other. Following Hannah Arendt, he argued that the experience of 20th century totalitarianism taught us something important about the menacing potential of contempt for what exists, especially when it is combined with a utopianism that requires the ‘new world’ to be built from scratch.
It is not accidental that antisemitism was associated with both National Socialist and Stalinist totalitarianisms. Antisemitism has the potential to function as an emotionally satisfying way of exemplifying the ‘enemy of the people’. Conspiracy fantasy, the temptation to account trivially for the injustices that we feel unable to face rationally, and to blame somebody, and to aspire to conspiratorial power oneself, is on the rise in the 21st century. The fragments of older antisemitisms remain virulent in the cultural unconscious, available to those who decide to pick them up and mould them into contemporary ideologies or worldviews.
The world did not come to its senses after the Holocaust. Antisemitism persisted in the late 20th century and re-established itself in the 21st among people who think they are respectable.
Nazi-type antisemitism continued to fester, especially in the post-communist states. Even in mature democracies it now seeks alliances in mainstream populist politics. There is also a populist philosemitism that imagines Israel as a white, Islamophobic, model society.
Under communism, Jews were stripped of their identities while caricatures of Jews were drawn to give ugly faces to abstract evils. The communist states pioneered the portrayal of apartheid and racism with Israeli faces. This antizionism has caught on widely in recent years.
Jews were driven out of the states that defined themselves as Arab or Muslim, out of the places where they had felt at home for centuries. Now there are formidable efforts to falsify these histories to try to make them compatible with today’s simplistic white/non-white morality tales.
Antizionism is an anti-Jewish ideology that is strong in left-wing and liberal circles today, including on university campuses. It coalesces into ostensibly coherent worldviews that are distinct from ‘criticism of Israel’. It portrays Israel as uniquely illegitimate and as central to, and as symbolic of, oppression everywhere. It thinks of itself as innocent of antisemitism.
Antizionism, pioneered in the USSR, by Arab Nationalism and by the Jihadi Islamist ideologues, is embraced today by people who think of themselves as liberal, progressive and democratic.
On our campuses it is antizionism that is especially pressing. It nurtures a hostile environment for Jewish students and academics, and for those who challenge its certainties. It delegitimises antisemitism scholarship as propaganda for Israel. Antizionism is part of an ecosystem of anti-democratic and conspiracy-fantasy ways of thinking that is considered legitimate.
For generations, people with antiracist, democratic ideals, including many Jews, have generously donated money to our universities. Millions of pounds of this money are currently being spent every year in ways that violate the values of the donors.
Jewish Studies scholars are spearheading campaigns against the IHRA definition of antisemitism, which recognises the significance of antizionist antisemitism. Some are pushing spurious alternatives of their own invention to legitimise antisemitic thinking. In a thirst for legitimacy, antisemitism scholars involve themselves in convoluted debates with antisemites.
Holocaust and Genocide Studies is under attack by academics who say that Zionist scholars thwarted a proper understanding of mass killing in their enthusiasm to ‘centre’ the Holocaust.
Historians are rewriting the identities of Jews from the Middle East to make people believe that they were corrupted by white European Jews, shattering centuries of utopian co-existence.
The antizionist left remains largely unaware that its own worldview was significantly shaped by Soviet state apparatchiks in an effort to make its ‘anti-imperialism’ resonate emotionally.
The London Centre for the Study of Contemporary Antisemitism works to improve our understanding of antisemitism. It is a creative and energetic hub of thinking and research from diverse disciplines. The Centre maps and describes antisemitism, even where it is angrily denied by much academic orthodoxy. We recognise and challenge antisemitic thinking and we critique the ideas and claims that are based upon it. We point towards alternative, rational and democratic ways of understanding the world.
We bring in research money, both from established academic sources and by means of our own fundraising. We support academic work on antisemitism materially and morally. We facilitate communities of fearless scholarship and clear thinking to disrupt and puncture the antisemitic discourses that are currently accepted within the democratic, left-wing and liberal social spaces where we live and work. It should be obvious that we oppose antisemitism in other spaces too, in particular Islamist antisemitism and far right, populist or Nazi-style antisemitism.
We publish scholarly books, journal articles and reports. We work closely with the Journal of Contemporary Antisemitism to develop it as the pre-eminent academic journal in the field. We host scholarly conferences and seminars. We work with others to formalise a global network of antisemitism scholarship.
In the London Centre, in our own universities, and in partnership with colleagues in other universities, we will help nurture new generations of antisemitism scholars, via our involvement in Masters and PhD-level teaching, as well as in post doctoral research positions. We will open up sources of funding for students who are locked out of the resources available to others.
We address the hostile environment in universities more generally. We offer leadership and help to those opposing campaigns to boycott Israel and to institute other kinds of antisemitic loyalty pledges. We are developing our capacity to provide expert reports to institutions, courts, trade unions and to individuals who are defending themselves against antisemitism.
We are a centre of expertise for government, local government, civil society and commercial organisations, journalism and news, and other cultural producers.
We are developing journalistic writing, podcasts, videos, events and social media outputs to increase the impact of the scholarly work facilitated by the Centre, among wider audiences.
We offer expertise, leadership and communal memory to the institutions of the Jewish community in Britain.
Our Values and Red Lines
We oppose antisemitism, including the antisemitism that resembles criticism of Israel.
We oppose racism, Islamophobia and other analogous structures of unjust discrimination.
We embrace the conception of the university as a community of scholars. We support the norms of academic freedom and the conception of academic spaces in which ideas can be tested fearlessly, in good faith and in a collegial spirit.
We are committed to recognising and nurturing academic potential and talent.
We nonchalantly shrug off antisemitic allegations that we are agents of Israel, that we support ‘Jewish supremacy’ and that we are funded by Zionist imperialism or Israeli apartheid.
It is legitimate and excellent for Jewish people and others to donate money to a centre that opposes and fights antisemitism. Jewish self-defence is not corrupt, tribal or oppressive.
Jewish communal institutions and the State of Israel should support, and be associated with, and rely upon, scholars who oppose antisemitism.
Independence and Good Governance
Our Centre is legally constituted as an independent educational charity and works in partnership with universities and other institutions throughout the world. We are open to a deeper partnership with a university but we will always retain our own legal independence and academic autonomy.
It is run by David Hirsh, our Academic Director and Chief Executive Officer, a world renowned scholar of antisemitism and who has an academic position at Goldsmiths, University of London.
We have a Board of Trustees to oversee this work. The Board embodies a diversity of experience, skills and knowledge and each trustee has a sophisticated understanding of, and commitment to, the overall project. The Board has final say in all decisions relating to the London Centre and will ensure good governance, transparency and adherence to the rules and norms laid down by the Charity Commission and the law, and the board and the academics will ensure adherence to best practice in academia.
The Board is committed to assuring that no resources of the Centre will be expended on projects that legitimise, deny, downplay the significance of, or compromise with, antisemitism. Neither will it allow the London Centre to support projects that violate any other of its core values. We express this commitment here because sometimes, in the name of the principle of academic autonomy, donations to academic institutions have ended up being used in ways that are profoundly incompatible with the aims that donors intended to further. This will not happen at the London Centre for the Study of Contemporary Antisemitism.