In a trailblazing move, King’s College London (KCL), has adopted the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of anti-Semitism and has set out tough new guidelines in order to ensure the safety and security of students and staff at its campuses. It is thought KCL is the first academic institution in the country to adopt the IHRA definition with the accompanying examples . It was publicly turned down by London’s School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) last March, which rejected it as “too controversial”.
Professor Ed Byrne, the neuroscientist who has been principal of KCL for the last four years, has been engaged in talks with the Board of Deputies, UK Lawyers for Israel, Jewish students and Rabbi Lord Sacks, who is an emeritus professor at KCL, to hammer out details of the new proposals.
His entire senior team, he told the JN, had unanimously endorsed the adoption of the IHRA definition. A similar definition relating to Islamophobia has also been adopted.
Professor Byrne said that KCL had seen some difficult and distressing campus meetings where speakers had been disrupted and students felt intimidated. He was determined to stamp this out, he said. “We have three key priorities: freedom of speech — we’re not allowing ‘no platform’ — but always in the context of the law.
“Second, we will allow peaceful protest, but the problem is that we have not put enough effort into defining and controlling how protests will take place”. That will change, he said, as protesters will be made to demonstrate far enough away from any meeting so that they do not disrupt it with noisy chanting. Megaphones or loudhailers will be banned, Professor Byrne said.
His third priority was that “everyone on campus, students and staff and visitors, feels completely safe. That’s safe from any physical violence, but also safe from hate speech.” Discussions would continue to take place about the use of cameras by protesters, whether or not events should be ticketed, and the moderating of speech within events by independent chairs. Banners or flags will not be permitted inside lecture theatres.
Professor Byrne said there were a range of behaviours “that go beyond acceptable debate”, which would not be tolerated at King’s. “Anti-Semitism is totally unacceptable in our community. For us, we have an absolute commitment for Jewish students not only to feel safe, but to feel welcomed.”
As well as taking steps to combat anti-Semitism Professor Byrne has been strengthening KCL’s contacts with Israel. A strong proponent of academic freedom, he has just returned from Israel where he met the presidents of the Hebrew University, the Technion and the Weizmann Institute, and plans to improve exchanges of staff and students between Israel and London.
“We will be the best connected university with Israel,” he said, adding that KCL is planning a large-scale medical research conference later this year, which he hoped more than 300 plus Israelis would attend. “I think Israel has some great universities, and the more we do with them, the better”, Professor Byrne said, adding that he was keen to expand ties with universities elsewhere in the Middle East, too.
Former chief rabbi Lord Sacks, who is now an emeritus professor at KCL, told the Jewish News: “I have always been proud of my long association with King’s College London. The steps taken by KCL, under the leadership of its principal Ed Byrne, to tackle the issues of anti-Semitism on campus, and especially in the adoption of the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism, are important and welcomed. KCL has always been home to a significant Jewish student population and I look forward to this being the case for many years to come”.
A spokesperson for KCL told Jewish News that “following disruption at some events organised by student societies earlier in the year we have been in constructive dialogue with leaders of the Jewish community as well as leaders of other faith groups.”
“the Dean’s Office & Chaplaincy at King’s has worked closely with the Office of the Chief Rabbi for past two decades and King’s has valued both the input from Rabbi Gavin Broder and Rabbi Sacks. This engagement has led to some useful adjustments to operational procedures and guidelines around student events.”