VICE-CHANCELLOR of the University of Sydney Dr Michael Spence has asserted that anti-Semitic behaviour is not acceptable on campus, and insisted the university wants to take a strong stand against it.
Speaking exclusively to The AJN, following a series of incidents in recent years that have left Jewish students feeling uneasy, Spence said university should be a place where “everybody is safe and free to discuss ideas”, and where students have confidence people will “engage in debate about their ideas, but not in behaviour that’s denigrating of them personally”.
“We have repeatedly expressed the fact that anti-Semitic behaviour is not acceptable on campus,” he said.
“One is always going to have people who engage in hateful behaviour of one kind or another. What I want to do is empower the great body of students and staff to know how to deal with and fight against that.”
The university is investing significantly in the creation of a national centre for cultural competence and increasing the cultural competence of its staff and students. Cultural competence programs for staff have already started, and Spence said the feedback from that is “extremely positive”.
On the topic of the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israel, Spence reiterated that “BDS is not university policy”.
“We think that we should have academic relations with universities wherever good academic work is being done,” he said. “Exceptional academic work is being done in Israel and we have relationships across the board, most recently in nanotechnology and agriculture with universities in Israel, so that’s not an issue.
“We have strong academic relations with Israel, a great tradition of relationships with the Jewish community, a flourishing program in Hebrew and Jewish studies that remains internationally renowned and is very important to us.”
Noting that some staff support the BDS movement, particularly Associate Professor Jake Lynch, and choose not to collaborate with academics from Israeli universities, Spence said, “That is a position that Jake takes in relation to the foreign policy of the State of Israel.
“Academic freedom means that there’s nothing I can do to stop him taking that position, nor would I think it appropriate for me to do that, because the university is not somewhere that promotes ideas or has positions. We are a forum for debate, we are not a participant in debate.”
He said the university cannot censure staff or students for holding an opinion or expressing an opinion.
“What we can do is censure them for behaviour that moves beyond the holding or expressing of an opinion, and moves into racial vilification or hate speech.”
He added: “I’m not defending the work of the Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies. I’m not endorsing the academic positions of Jake Lynch. I need to make sure that Jake Lynch does not engage in behaviour that involves racial vilification, hate speech, anti-Semitism.
“But I also can’t censure an academic for holding a view or advocating a view, because that’s what academics do.”
Urging students to come forward if they “have evidence of behaviour they regard as anti-Semitic”, he added, “We take the concerns of students that they are being treated unfairly by either staff or other students incredibly seriously.
“We want to stamp out this behaviour, which we think is endemic in Western culture. We want to take a strong stand against it.”