Boris Johnson’s new Communities and Local Government Secretary, Robert Jenrick, made a barnstorming address to the Board of Deputies on Sunday, pledging an extra £100,000 from the government to tackle antisemitism on social media, and a commitment not to tolerate “organisations which compromise the safety of the Jewish community”.
Mr Jenrick, whose wife Michal is an Israeli-born corporate lawyer, has three daughters who are being brought up as Jewish. So he has an inbuilt familiarity with the Jewish community, which shone out from his remarks, telling deputies that he was going to come down heavily on both local councils and universities which did not adopt the IHRA definition of antisemitism.
The Secretary of State, a lawyer by profession whose Newark constituency is home to the Beth Shalom Holocaust Centre, declared: “As the prime minister has already made clear, our nation would be less without our Jewish citizens. I cannot imagine a Britain without our Jewish friends, neighbours, and loved ones. But I am all too aware of the challenges that you face. The scourge of antisemitism is a stain on our society. Whether on our streets or in the comfort of our homes, using social media, there is no place for antisemitic abuse and this government will do everything possible to ensure that Jewish people feel safe wherever they are.”
He said he regretted that others had not followed the government in its adoption of the IHRA definition of antisemitism. Local councils, Mr Jenrick said, had “a duty to act and to stamp out antisemitism wherever they find it. So I do find it troubling in some cases that we are seeing the reverse. I will be writing to all councils insisting that they adopt the IHRA at the earliest opportunity and use it at all appropriate occasions — including in their disciplinary proceedings”.
The Secretary of State said that “boycotts, divestments and sanctions against the state of Israel are also divisive, and equally, I won’t tolerate them on my watch. Councils should not be wasting time and taxpayers’ money pursuing their own foreign policy, often seemingly obsessed with Zionism to the detriment of delivering high quality services for local residents”.
— Board of Deputies of British Jews (@BoardofDeputies) September 15, 2019
Some in public life, Mr Jenrick added, “cannot distinguish between legitimate criticisms of the policies of a democratically elected government, and blatant antisemitism. Replacing the word Jew for Zionist when peddling vile and offensive views can never sanitise them. Rejecting Israel’s right to exist is antisemitic and suggestions that the IHRA definition curtails legitimate criticism of the Israeli government is wrong and must be countered”.
If local councils are in for a series of phone calls from the Secretary of State, so, too, he made clear, are the vice-chancellors of Britain’s universities, whom he also wants to oblige to adopt the IHRA definition. He attacked the “disgraceful experiences of some Jewish students” facing antisemitism on campus. He said: “We wrote to many universities urging them to adopt the IHRA definition, yet some didn’t even reply. These organisations are recipients of public money — failure to act is unacceptable”.
In response to a deputy’s question, Mr Jenrick also expressed unease about the annual Israel Apartheid Week on campuses, and said he would look at the issue in his department.
To applause, Mr Jenrick said that the government was going to provide an additional £100,000 to tackle the spread of online antisemitism on social media — this was in response to new CST figures showing that there was a 50 per cent rise in online antisemitic abuse in the first six months of 2019 alone.
The Secretary of State also made a trenchant defence of the need to build Britain’s main Holocaust memorial and learning centre at Westminster, rejecting criticism of the location and saying he felt there could be no stronger public interest than putting it in the park next to Parliament.