My Response to a Recent Attack on SOAS in The Spectator

by Kevin Jon Heller

Last week, Adrian Hilton — a self-described “conservative academic, theologian, author and educationalist” — published a vicious hit-piece in The Spectator about SOAS. It’s entitled “A School of Anti-Semitism?”, and the name basically says it all. According to Hilton: “[p]retty much all student societies at SOAS have no choice but to conform to the Islamo-Marxist orthodoxy”; “the entire student body defines itself in terms of concentric circles of ethno–religious rhetoric, each competing for dominance”; “You can be thrown out of a meeting for being insufficiently black”; SOAS “allows students to organise themselves into warring ethno-religious factions and then sides with some and not others” — and on and on, ad nauseam.

The article is a dishonest caricature of my university, so SOAS asked The Spectator to publish a response. The magazine agreed to give me 600 words, which I greatly appreciate — but they also made me rewrite the final paragraph, claiming that my first one was unfair to Hilton. (Apparently being unfair to an entire university is fine, but being unfair to Hilton is not.) You can find my response here. And in case you are wondering, here is the final paragraph The Spectator refused to run:

Only Hilton knows why he felt the need to portray SOAS so unfairly. But his flagrant disregard for the truth seems to indicate that he is more afraid of SOAS’s multiculturalism than he is of its supposed anti-Semitism. For those who long for a whiter, more Judaeo-Christian world, the vibrancy of SOAS can be a scary sight indeed.

I hope you’ll read both the original article and my response. Comments most welcome!

11 Responses

  1. Here is an excerpt from the Hilton article:

    “Earlier this year, Soas held an ‘Israel Apartheid Week’ , culminating in a vote to ‘boycott’ the Jewish state: not a student protest, but an official, university-sanctioned boycott. Needless to say, there have been no comparable protests against Syria, Saudi Arabia or China, which have far worse human rights records. You might forgive a bit of idealised student geo-political ignorance, but Soas’s decision to boycott Israel was made with the endorsement of the school’s academic staff. The vote was preceded by a six-week campaign during which an ‘apartheid wall’ was constructed and anti-Israel activists went around menacing their fellow students with fake machine guns.”

    True or false? KJH’s replay does not appear to say. If it is true, does he really want to defend this stuff?

  2. Israel Apartheid Week was organised by a group that was unaffiliated with SOAS and was one of such 30 events held at universities throughout the UK. Some SOAS students organised specific events, but the University itself had absolutely nothing to do with the Week.

    I have no idea whether there were fake machine guns being bandied about and, if so, by whom. I never saw them. And I have no idea what the “Apartheid Wall” was, which is not to say that there wasn’t one. I just didn’t see it. (And note my office looks down at the main area in front of the building, where protests are almost always held.)

    The claim that there have not been comparable protests about Syria is false. Moreover, students have spent vastly more time protesting on behalf of sessional lecturers and SOAS janitorial staff than they have protesting Israel’s policies toward Palestinians. “Occupy SOAS,” which involved the most disruptive protests in the three years I’ve been at SOAS, focused on job cuts, course reductions, and University governance structures — not on Israel.

  3. To be specific, I don’t see the point of BDS at all and I don’t understand why any intelligent person (including students at SOAS) would support it. Its net effect is to deprive Palestinians of job opportunities. I suppose you are familiar with the SodaStream company, which had a West Bank factory.

    This of course has no direct connection with SOAS, but still, why are these students so misguided?

  4. Mr. Brynes, “there have been no comparable protests against Syria, Saudi Arabia or China”, perhaps because the comparison is misleading. The Palestinian territories are the only territory in the world in which, since 50 years, a State is keeping millions of people under occupation and without civil rights. Can you provide another similar example for us? The “other occupying powers” took at least some responsabilities of their occupied peoples, giving them a citizenship. In Syria is taking place an awful civil war with external actors that played and are playing an increasingly on role in it. You (and Mr Hilton) provide a cheap and facile argument.

  5. I have a feeling that we are going off topic. The West Bank Occupation itself is an endless subject. I’d point out that in 2006 Israel completely vacated Gaza. The result was that Hamas moved in, established itself as the sole government and continued its war against Israel. Do you think Hamas might have tried a less ferocious approach? What kind of civil rights do Gazans have? The point is that Hamas has sworn to wipe out Israel and its actions show that it is serious. Hamas also has a presence in the West Bank. We hear a lot about Hamas-al Fatah reconciliation but almost nothing about Hamas moderation.

    Israel is reacting to circumstances — to what they have encountered with Palestinians. Over the years of occupation, the West Bank has gained a great deal of infrastructure. In 1967 there was no real university in the West Bank; now there are about nine or ten, I think. What has Hamas or al Fatah done to build them?

  6. Mr Brynes, whether you see the point in BDS or not is irrelevant to the issue in hand. Many do see the point and exercise their democratic right to campaign for it. You are free to campaign against it if you so wish. However, your opposition to BDS and your, dare I say irrational, support for a commercial enterprise making money from its operations on illegally occupied land have nothing to do with student activities as SOAS or any of the other University of London schools and colleges.

  7. BDS was part of what the SOAS students (and perhaps faculty and administration) were advocating. I suppose you do have the welfare of the Palestinians, as well as their situation in international law, in mind when you advocate for them. An independent future state in Palestine will be economically dependent on Israel for a long time. The “Zionist entity” will be the major source of demand for Palestinian products which no other state in the region can supply. I’m not supporting SodaStream; I’m only pointing out that BDS acts directly against the economic interest of the West Bank. You do want Palestinians to have jobs, I hope. For that reason BDS is wrong. My argument assumes that there will be an Israel in the future. Perhaps your stance reflects an expectation that Palestinians will take over Israel so that the question will become moot. I notice that you haven’t said anything about my comments on Gaza. Can the reason be that like Hamas, you want to see Israel disappear?

  8. Remarkable how quickly Mr Byrnes goes from (kind of) interacting with a commenter who is criticising Israel to insinuating that the commenter wants to see Israel destroyed. A better illustration of my point in the Hilton response is difficult to imagine.

  9. Both al Fatah and Hamas demand in writing the destruction of Israel; al Fatah claims to have renounced the demand in a witnessed voice vote at a meeting of party members, but on this point their charter has not been revised. If the destruction of Israel were really a dead issue, why can’t both parties (as well as the minor parties) renounce it publicly AND in writing by cutting a couple of sentences out of their respective charters?

    If you want to ask me if I want to destroy the Palestinians, you can do so, but so far I think I have shown more concern for their well-being than the BDS advocates.

  10. KJH wrote, “I have no idea whether there were fake machine guns being bandied about and, if so, by whom. I never saw them. And I have no idea what the “Apartheid Wall” was, which is not to say that there wasn’t one. I just didn’t see it. (And note my office looks down at the main area in front of the building, where protests are almost always held.)”

    Kevin, let me Google that for you, so you can address that element of the post and give your thoughts on it:

  11. I am a student of yours from SOAS and I agree with Hiltons article in the main. For the record I was the Jewish/Israeli student that was forced to leave the Israeli society because I am pro-Israel. The members of the Israel Society at SOAS appeared to me to be mainly from the Palestinian society. The referendum and ‘Israel Apartheid Week’ were and are organized by SOAS anti-Israel societies with added assistance from outside. The SOAS community is virulently anti-Israel, often morphing into blatant anti-Jewish (antisemitic) sentiment. To me it was not an issue that I was bothered by; but I found a general reluctance, if not plain fear, of saying anything pro-Israel, by both students and staff. The fear of being socially excluded and vilified was an emotion felt by any one that did not denigrate Israel. I found that if anyone wanted information or to discuss Israel, they would approach me off campus or in deserted areas to talk. It is quite possible for two people in the same environment to have diametrically opposed views of the same situation; and this is such an occasion. I have often pondered the question whether anti-Israel sentiment is a prerequisite for employment at SOAS. This past Friday I was called a ‘racist pig’ by a SOAS PhD for disputing her version of BDS (at a workshop held at SOAS, by staff from SOAS). Hiltons article is mostly an accurate description of how and many other perceive SOAS. Lastly I would like to offer the opinion that SOAS community is not pro-Palestinian; rather it is anti-Israel. I found no attempt to discuss peace; but much discussion on wiping out Israel, both blatant and in terms that leave no doubt as to desire and intent. I enjoyed my time at SOAS but will not pretend that is something that it is not

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