Scottish college censors Israel’s critics

Three men at a demonstration with Israeli flags

David Collier (center) taking part in a pro-Israel demonstration.

BetterThanReal

The University of Glasgow is coming under fire for censoring critics of Israel.

Leading academics have accused the Scottish college of undermining scholarship and damaging academic freedom.

In an open letter last week, almost 500 high profile scholars, including the linguist and political analyst Noam Chomsky, demanded that the university withdraw an apology it issued earlier this year for a paper in one of its academic journals.

The paper by researcher Jane Jackman detailed the activities of pro-Israel networks in the UK.

And this week, the scholar Somdeep Sen pulled out of a talk he had been invited to give at the university on the topics addressed in his book Decolonizing Palestine.

University managers had imposed pre-emptive conditions, Sen said.

Sen and his supporters say that the university attempted to vet his talk.

In both cases, Israel lobby groups and individuals had complained.

Jane Jackman’s paper revealed that one of these lobbyists, David Collier, has actually trained other pro-Israel campaigners at the Israeli embassy in London.

In both cases, the university raised the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s bogus definition of anti-Semitism as justification for its censorship.

Although widely criticized by scholars and lawyers, and rejected by most UK universities, the definition has been pushed by Israel and its lobby around the world, as well as by the British government. The definition conflates criticism of Israel and its racist official ideology Zionism, on the one hand, with anti-Jewish hatred, on the other.

The article by Jackman examined the Israel lobby’s propaganda activities in the UK. It was published in a 2017 issue of the university’s postgraduate journal eSharp.

Jackman told The Electronic Intifada that the apology would have a “chilling effect” on researchers. “Glasgow’s action is likely to stifle debate where Israel is concerned,” she said.

The IHRA definition is “making criticism of Israel unsayable,” she said.

At the time she wrote the article, Jackman was doing PhD research on the silencing of the Palestinian voice in the UK via pro-Israel groups.

Given the subject of her research, there is a deep irony in how she has become just the latest example of such silencing.

Glasgow university and eSharp did not respond to requests for comments.

“Considerable offense”

Although Jackman’s article is still available to be read online, it is now prefaced with an editorial statement apologizing for the “considerable offense” which the article allegedly caused.

The statement alleges “failures in scholarship” in the paper, including a “biased selection of sources” and “misrepresentation of data,” which “promote an unfounded anti-Semitic theory regarding the state of Israel and its activity in the United Kingdom.”

But the apology is not accompanied by any evidence for the claims of bias, errors or the conclusions being “unfounded.”

The apology also says the journal’s current editorial collective has introduced “new checks and balances” for its articles.

But Jackman says her paper was peer reviewed in the normal manner. To ensure impartiality, the paper was reviewed with her identity being concealed from the reviewer and the reviewer’s identity concealed, too.

Contrary to the statement’s unsupported claim of “biased” sourcing, an analysis of the paper’s bibliography by The Electronic Intifada found otherwise.

Our research showed that the paper cites exactly 16 sources each which might fairly be described as pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian respectively. It also cites a further 12 sources which might be described as neutral, such as mainstream corporate newspapers (which many people would argue have an intrinsic pro-Israel bias in any case).

Jackman’s article is an examination of how Israel has mobilized its UK-based assets to promote its interests “in order to buttress from below the British government’s traditionally staunch support for Israel and to combat increasing public antipathy to Israel.”

It explains how “British Zionists, both Jewish and non-Jewish, are being mobilized to wage a proxy war for Israel via the digital realm.”

The article also argues that using false allegations of anti-Semitism to ban criticism of Israel actually “renders Jews more, rather than less, vulnerable to racist abuse.”

Jackman writes that “the definition of anti-Semitism has been extended in such a way as to make critics of Israeli policy and behavior susceptible to spurious charges of anti-Semitic racism.”

Israel lobby campaign

Although the paper was published in 2017, the apology is dated May of this year.

It seems to have been triggered by two closely related events: the adoption by the university of the IHRA definition in November 2020 and a lobbying campaign targeting the university’s principal initiated by hard-right anti-Palestinian blogger David Collier.

As The Electronic Intifada has reported before, Collier has close ties to Israel. In 2019 he addressed pro-Israel groups from around the world at an Israeli government conference which claimed it would “counter the lies” of the Palestine solidarity movement.

Jackman’s paper reveals that Collier’s links to the Israeli state are even closer than previously thought.

It reveals that in November 2016 Collier spoke at an “advocacy training” session at the Israeli embassy in London for more than 100 Israel lobby groups from across the UK.

Other speakers included then ambassador Mark Regev, as well as his successor Tzipi Hotovely – a far-right religious extremist who claims Palestinians do not really exist.

Collier seems to have first noticed Jackman’s article in December last year.

In a rant posted on his blog, Collier urged his followers to contact the university’s principal Anton Muscatelli – whose email address he provided – and protest against Jackman’s paper.

Collier has more than 70,000 followers on Twitter and a substantial comments section on his blog, suggesting that he has enough of an audience to rally a campaign against institutions like Glasgow university.

He told his followers to ask the principal, “how the university ever felt this paper was worthy of academic publication. Make sure you attach the PDF.”

The document in question was Collier’s own 17-page “analysis” of Jackman’s paper.

In reality, it was just another rant by Collier, an anti-Palestinian bigot. If it had not been masked by supposed “anti-Semitism” concerns, the “analysis” would have made its way straight to the trash folder.

Anti-Semitism pretext

Responding to Jackman’s statement in her paper that Collier’s comments are often “inflaming antagonism towards pro-Palestinian supporters and muting their messages,” the blogger says that this was “the ultimate compliment.”

“Good,” he wrote. “I am delighted I have not been wasting my time!”

Despite the “anti-Semitism” pretext, Collier is clearly proud of his successful role in helping censor Palestinians and their supporters in the UK.

And notably, despite his detailed 17-page rant against Jackman’s eSharp paper, he nowhere denies Jackman’s revelation that he helped the Israeli embassy train other pro-Israel propagandists in 2016.

Which leads to the question of how often Collier conducts other similar training for the Israeli government. Collier did not respond to a request for comment.

The same day as Collier embarked on his lobbying campaign against Glasgow university in December 2020, The Jewish Chronicle – an anti-Palestinian newspaper – published an anonymous article about it.

A Glasgow university spokesperson told the paper – apparently unprompted, since Collier had not mentioned the definition – that “we have recently agreed to adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance working definition of anti-Semitism.”

The spokesperson said the university had “been made aware of concerns raised” around the article from 2017.

The Electronic Intifada understands that an internal debate then ensued at the university, with some managers and academics wanting the article deleted altogether and other academics defending it.

The decision to keep the article online but apologize for it has been described as a “compromise.”

Collier took note of the apology in July, a few months after it was published. In a new blog post, he claimed the apology was “an important victory” over what he called “toxic anti-Zionism.”

He wrote that anyone who complained to the university at his instigation “should pat themselves on the back. This is a clear victory and shows that our efforts are worthwhile.”

“A moot point”

Jackman says she had not been consulted or even informed by the university about the change made to her article. She was only made aware in July, after The Jewish Chronicle had covered the story once again.

She told The Electronic Intifada that she then wrote to the university’s “Complaints Resolution Office” challenging its assertation that she had promoted an “unfounded anti-Semitic theory” and asking what it was referring to.

She says the university responded by claiming it had changed the wording of the apology. Instead of alleging that her paper contained an “unfounded anti-Semitic theory,” the new apology used the words “what some would regard as an unfounded theory.”

But this change was not in fact made.

And, in any event, the amended wording would have been unacceptable to Jackman. It would have left the apology essentially the same.

The May version of the apology, including the accusation that Jackman promoted an “anti-Semitic theory” is still on the university’s website. It also can be found on the first page of Google search results for the article.

Another version of the apology has now also been put online. Although it does remove the word “anti-Semitic,” the new version still baselessly accuses Jackman of promoting an “unfounded theory regarding the state of Israel,” of selecting biased sources and misrepresenting data.

Writing to Jackman university’s complaints department alleged that “the argument that grassroots activists are engaged in a campaign coordinated by the Israeli government to manipulate public opinion” amounted to anti-Semitic theory.

But, bizarrely, the complaints office continued: “in truth, whether this can be described as anti-Semitic is also a moot point.”

As well as trampling on academic freedom, the university’s response to Jackman displays contempt for objective reality.

It is simply a fact – not once contested by the university – that pro-Israel groups and individuals in the UK (who often claim to be “grassroots”) habitually attempt to influence public opinion in favor of Israel.

It is also a fact that, more often than not, they are doing so in direct coordination with the Israeli government. David Collier himself is a perfect example of that.

Ironically, in shutting down academic critics of Israel at the behest of the Israel lobby, Glasgow university is providing yet another example of why Jackman’s article was – far from being “unfounded” – entirely correct.

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Asa Winstanley

Asa Winstanley's picture

Asa Winstanley is an investigative journalist who lives in London.

At The Electronic Intifada he is associate editor and co-host of our podcast.