Leeds University pays damages to Danielle Greyman after failing her essay because it failed to blame Israel for the crimes of Hamas

This is a longer version of a piece by David Hirsh, first published in Jewish News

Leeds University has paid damages to Danielle Greyman to settle her legal claim after she alleged that her third year Sociology essay had been failed unfairly because of antisemitism. Asked to write about a case study of her choice, relating to the crimes and immorality of the powerful, she wrote an essay about Hamas and the UN in Gaza. The essay was failed because it did not blame Israel for the crimes and immorality of Hamas and the UN. Other reasons were given too, but they did not justify the extreme harshness of the marking.

To my mind, this story taken as a whole, is evidence of an antisemitic hostile environment at Leeds University and in its Sociology Department. This is especially true in the light of the absolute denials that it published as it paid damages to the student (from the Jewish Chronicle report):

A spokesperson for the University of Leeds said: “No finding of any wrongdoing on the part of the University has been made by the Court. Furthermore, the University does not consider or accept that there has been any wrongdoing. An internal review exonerated our staff of any alleged discrimination and the University remains fully supportive of the academic judgement of its academic staff.

“We strenuously deny the accusation of antisemitism, the definition of which we interpret to be in line with the working definition of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA).  

“The University of Leeds has a zero tolerance approach to antisemitism, and any form of unlawful discrimination or hate crime, and on which we follow Government guidance.

“The listing of this claim in the small claims court was surprising and unexpected. As a consequence, and on the commercial direction of our insurers, an offer without any admission of liability was made by the University which was accepted by the claimant.

“This offer was made expressly on the basis that the University does not accept any liability nor accept that the claimant has suffered any loss.”

Any university can have a couple of sociology lecturers who don’t understand the significance of deciding to teach the “Zionist” student a lesson. But the closing of ranks by the department, and then by the whole institution, over the issue of antisemitism, is, in my view, a clear marker of institutional antisemitism.

At the beginning, the essay was failed by two markers for reasons, made evident in the feedback, which mainly related to disagreement over the content of the essay, not to its quality. From The Times report:

Comment from markers: “You state you will not be including information about Israel’s role in these events. It is impossible, without admitting an ahistorical approach, to do this and achieve an accurate reflection.” They added: “By restricting the parameters of debate a comprehensive, objective analysis has been curtailed.”

The essay was about Hamas and the UN, it was not about Israel. Sure, everything has causes and Hamas and the UN’s relationships with Israel constitute causal factors, but there are many others. I wrote the following in my report:

“This is a clear example of the problem with the marking of this essay. Reasons for social phenomena are never abstract but are in a sense infinitely complex. The markers appear to believe that the key reason for the suffering of the people of Gaza is Israel and that other reasons are to be understood to have Israel as their own real cause. An essay that argued for this position would be plausible but it would also be open to the same criticism: that regarding Israel as the only real cause for suffering in Gaza would also be treating ‘the situation’ as though it happened ‘in an abstract way’. The fact and the nature of Hamas rule has their causes: to do with the history and politics of the PLO, the Arab League, the Islamic Republic of Iran, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, British colonialism, Israel, twentieth century totalitarianism and 19th century imperialism. And each of those causes, in turn, has their own causes. None of them happened in abstract ways. If the markers had been writing they might have chosen to focus their essay on Israel as a cause. But the markers do not have the right to insist that their own abstraction is the correct abstraction that must be adopted by every student, for fear of being accused of ‘abstraction’. Any explanation in social science chooses its causes, and its abstractions. The essay in question gives many reasons why Hamas and the UN may be regarded as significant causes. The markers are not persuaded by those reasons. But that is not the basis on which an essay should be marked.”

In their correspondence, the University said that my report had not been read and was not relevant.

The markers required this essay to be written according to the principles of their own antizionist intellectual framework and it was not. They could have made their point by marking it down and treating it as a ‘teachable moment’. But they chose instead to fail it completely. I have marked hundreds of sociology essays, over 20 years, with many colleagues second marking them, with moderators checking, with external examiners reporting, with the Exam Boards overseeing. Danielle’s essay was not a fail; it was so far from being a genuine fail that in my experience it is an outlier of one.

The essay was then given to a third examiner in the department, who backed up the fail awarded by the first two. Danielle appealed to the Department informally, and tried to open a conversation but the Department responded only with a bureaucratic face. When she appealed formally, the Department stood by the markers, and the third marker, formally, and it put up a brick wall.

Danielle appealed to the University and the appeals process stood by the Department, ostensibly anyway, over the key question of antisemitism. But the appeals panel did find a procedural reason to have the essay remarked.

The remark that it ordered confirmed Danielle’s claim that this essay was not a fail. This came after Danielle worked hard in the summer to rewrite and resubmit the essay; which was in the end rather good, but which was given only a grudging bare pass.

Meanwhile, Danielle had, all along, earned sufficient credits to be awarded her 2.1 degree, even if this essay was marked as a fail, but nobody told her that. Normally, a university tells a student what class of degree she has earned, it does not expect a student to familiarize herself with the byzantine rules and calculations, and to correctly claim her degree. They said that their rules prohibited a student from being awarded their degree while an appeal was under way, but they never gave her the option. They only told her that she had already earned her 2.1, whatever the result of the appeal, much later, and after Danielle had retained lawyers.

Danielle might have valued justice for her essay over the immediate award of the degree that she had already earned; or she might have valued getting her degree and getting away fast, leaving the university to stew in its bureaucratic antizionism. She ought to have been awarded her degree immediately, because she had earned it. And then the university should have gone through an appeals process anyway, in an effort to understand the accusation that had been made, and honestly to work out if there was any justice in it. But none of that happened.

It did not happen at SOAS either, back in 2020, when a student was paid £15,000 damages after making an allegation of institutional antisemitism. SOAS’ own appeal committee mandated it to conduct a proper investigation to find out if the School had a problem of institutional antisemitism. The investigation has still not happened.

Leeds set about putting up a second brick wall against Danielle, this time a legalistic one. It defended every point made by Danielle and her lawyers from UK Lawyers for Israel. The university refused to read my own expert report on the essay, which the lawyers submitted. A big, powerful institution, the University threatened to escalate and to inflate its legal defence against Danielle, and to put her at risk of huge costs if she were to lose in court. It tried to frighten her. But Danielle, and her lawyers who stood by her without expectation of payment, were not to be frightened.

It was the university that was frightened. In the end, it paid Danielle off rather than have her claim tested in court. The university was making grandiose claims about the falsity of the allegation of antisemitism – how very dare she? – and about standing by its staff who were accused by a Jewish student of closing ranks to defend their antisemitic treatment of her.

But, after trying to frighten Danielle, Leeds caved and paid damages. It said there was a risk it would not recover its costs even if it won in court. It said its insurance company gave it no choice. But if the university was really the victim of a false, Zionist, claim of antisemitism, it should have defended itself. It did not defend its Sociology Department or its staff or its institutional processes, instead it paid damages to the student who accused them, while denying that she had been damaged. The University left Danielle with a gaslighting letter, saying that everything she had claimed was false.

I wonder if the University, and its Diversity, Equality and Inclusion people were aware of the finding of the EHRC in its report about Labour antisemitism. EHRC saw that the following was common in Corbyn’s Labour Party: the suggestion ‘that complaints of antisemitism are fake or smears’. It concluded that ‘this conduct may target Jewish members as deliberately making up antisemitism’. EHRC said this constituted unlawful antisemitic conduct. The University had a legal duty to take what Danielle was saying seriously and to investigate her charge without assuming it had been made in bad faith. Of course, after a proper investigation, it might have concluded that her claims were without foundation. But there was no proper investigation, and her claims were not without foundation. Leeds University failed to follow the Macpherson principle in this case.

Danielle had adored and respected her Sociology lecturers, and she had been planning postgraduate study. She could not proceed with that because she was not awarded her degree for a year, and only then, after legal letters pushing the university to award her degree. By then, Danielle had no heart to proceed with her MA in the Sociology, because she felt that she had been treated, within the discipline, and within the university system, as a Jew and in an antisemitic way. Not only did she feel that she no longer had a place in sociology, but she also felt that she no longer had a place in the country. She left Britain, where she no longer feels safe, or at home, and she went to re-start her life in Israel. Which is ironic, given that her lecturers probably wanted to weaken, not to strengthen Israel, and to delegitimize it, rather than to re-legitimize it as a place of refuge for Jews who suffer antisemitism.

It so happened that on the same day that Leeds University paid damages to Danielle, the London Centre for the Study of Contemporary Antisemitism published Eliana Silver’s film about campus antisemitism. Eliana’s film was a third year project at Robert Gordon University in Aberdeen. Her lecturers told her it was libellous, and so it fell short of good, balanced journalism, and they graded it, and the written report that went with it, a ‘c’. We thought it was good, and not libellous, and we published it here. See also a discussion about Eliana’s film, with Martin Bright and myself, here.

The film interviews three Jewish students.

One, at Cambridge, tells the story of a lecturer whose twitterstorm was reported in the student newspaper that he worked on. The lecturer blamed him for the paper reporting bad things about her. She connected this reporting, which had no connection to Israel or Jews, to this student’s public support for the IHRA definition of antisemitism. His support for IHRA, apparently, made him untrustworthy as a reporter. He experienced this as an accusation of dual loyalty, that if you are Jewish, then anything else you do is tainted by an antisemitic view of you as exclusively an agent of the Jewish collective.

Another, at Bristol, described what it was like to be, as a student, at the same university in which David Miller was a professor. She describes what it was like to stand up against him, and the support he received from the university for years. And she is critical of the grounds that the university offered, in the end, for firing him, which were procedural and bureaucratic and did not mention his antisemitic writing and teaching; or the impact on the community of scholarship in which students were accused of being assets of Israel.

And a third student describes her experience at Glasgow University, where there was no kosher food available, where there was no feeling that the institution was supportive over issues like Jewish holidays, and where a lecturer displayed a hostile poster on his office door with impunity.

Universities are communities of scholarship that research and debate intellectual frameworks and knowledge. We, at the London Centre, are worried that too often, antisemitic ideas and frameworks find their way into the complexity of legitimate knowledge that circulates in universities. Young people are included in these communities of scholarship, as students and they construct their own ways of thinking inside those institutions. The antisemitic experiences of Jewish students are one way into understanding the antisemitic ideas that are protected and legitimized in the universities.

The London Centre exists to challenge the intellectual underpinnings of antisemitism in public life. The key place we challenge it is in the universities, and we do so from inside, as members of those scholarly communities. We are also there to do what we can to educate students. Those who are victimized by antisemitism are hungry to understand what happened to them; and those who find that they themselves have been seduced into antisemitism, need to understand no less. We are also there to stand with students who in the hostile environment. We have built the Centre because the work needs to be institutionalized and organised. I have written reports, like the one I wrote for Danielle Greyman. I have been there for students when they email me, or when they timidly knock on my door, and when they tell me what they have experienced.

The work is huge and we are ambitious. To change the weather in academia we have to fund research, publish research outputs, create a network of antisemitism scholarship and a machine for supporting students. We need proper financial support. Please donate here.

David Hirsh
Senior Lecturer in Sociology, Goldsmiths, University of London
Academic Director and CEO of the London Centre for the Study of Contemporary Antisemitism

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