Pieces in Friday’s Daily Mail, Times and Jewish Chronicle reported allegations of antisemitism against Priyamvada Gopal, the Professor of Postcolonial Studies at Cambridge University.
There are two main criticisms of Gopal. The first, is that she has supported the campaign to rescind her University’s decision to adopt the IHRA definition of antisemitism, which she says is contrary to free speech but which her opponents insist is essential to Jewish safety.
Gopal is not alone among staff at her University in opposing the IHRA definition. The local branch of the academics’ union UCU which has a membership in excess of 2,000, passed a motion calling on the University not to implement the definition. UCU also held an online webinar on the issue, chaired by two Jewish academics from Cambridge.
Indeed Gopal’s resistance to that definition is in line with a significant minority strand of Jewish opinion, which is well represented by the recent Jerusalem Declaration, signed by 200 academics from the United States, Britain and Europe.
Among the initial signatories were the historian of the German Army in the Holocaust, Omer Bartov, the philosopher Brian Klug, Tony Kushner, who has written more widely than anyone on antisemitism in postwar Britain, Rabbi Jill Jacobs, and the international human rights lawyer, Philippe Sands.
If we tell ourselves that opposition to the IHRA definition is so great an offence against Jewish opinion that anyone guilty of it must be sacked, among the first to lose will be Jewish academics, dozens of whose university posts will be at risk.
The second complaint related to a Twitter thread posted on Thursday morning. There, Gopal pointed out (as she has in the press before) the incongruity of her university holding two positions between which there is undoubtedly some tension: support for the IHRA definition and an absolutist position of free speech. She criticised lecturers at her university who claimed to combine these two beliefs, and the journalists who reported on them.
One newspaper which has become a friendlier home to the right-libertarians in recent weeks is the Cambridge student newspaper, Varsity which had recently published an interview with a retired Professor, the historian, David Abulafia. By far the most offensive allegation contained in Gopal’s thread was that she accused either the journalist or the lecturer of having manufactured quotes about her and described the interview as “made up”.
The key phrase was introduced by Abulafia. In looking back on previous pieces he had written (on the Colston statue trial), and Gopal’s response to them, he claimed to be offended by a tweet from Gopal in which she had supposedly described his interventions as having a “racist overtone”. This language Abulafia described as offensive, and the journalist reported his criticisms of it verbatim, without seemingly checking whether Gopal had in fact used those words.
Abulafia, or the journalist, were quoting something that Gopal had never said. She had indeed criticised Abulafia’s language, but not as racist. She was accusing him not of insulting black writers but of giving them fulsome but insincere compliments. Elsewhere, writing for the Spectator, Abulafia has been willing to admit that distinction.
Nevertheless, this phrase “racist overtone” appeared in the interview between speech marks as if Gopal was being directly quoted. In that context, her allegation of a failure of ethical integrity was well deserved.
The Cambridge University Jewish Society then joined in, saying that Gopal made “baseless and damaging accusations against two Jewish student journalists … [and echoed] historic tropes about media control.” But Gopal has never spoken of conspiracy. It is her critics who introduced that language. Nor is the trope accurately rendered.
There is a recurring problem in the way in which the national press finds stories of Oxford or Cambridge staff or students, and uses them to fuel culture wars. In autumn 2018, for example, a Cambridge University Student Union Council meeting debated whether to broaden the commemoration of British war veterans to include all those affected by war. The then editors of the Varsity newspaper saw how a story they had created span out of control. The right-wing press “placed narrative above fact, prioritised sensationalism over student safety, and violated students’ personal privacy.”
All this has happened, once again, in Gopal’s case – the main difference is that the target is not a woman student but a woman academic.
The allegations of antisemitism against Gopal only serve to add an extra layer to what is some publications’ long-standing obsession with her. This year, even before the antisemitism allegations, she had already been criticised in the Daily Mail, the Times, and the Spectator. Last year, she was in the press after the Home Office cancelled her invitation to address its staff.
The year before, Gopal was previously accused of racism, after journalists circulated a false quotation attributing to words she had never written. That campaign resulted in her receiving dozens of rape and death threats. In that context, why anyone would want to restart this unpleasant cycle of shaming Gopal in the national press is beyond me.
It would be false to claim that universities are somehow immune to the antisemitism you find elsewhere in society. Indeed the risks are about to get worse, when the government’s Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill passes, with its absolute duty on universities to protect free speech, even that of cranks and conspiracists. Life is likely to get harder for students and academics, and we do well to choose our targets with care.
Yet a Jewish identity should not be a card that any political activist or student journalist can pull out, as the opportunity arises, to get them off the hook of well-earned criticism. To those of us who have had to campaign against real antisemitism in the last five years, it is depressing to find instances of genuine offence equated with these thin pickings.