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Aberystwyth refutes claims of 'hateful' anti-Israel teaching bias

Spectator columnist says politics department delivers propaganda. Melanie Newman reports

The University of Aberystwyth has defended itself against claims that its politics department is teaching "hateful propaganda" against Israel.

In an article published in The Spectator magazine in April, columnist Melanie Phillips said that she had received a complaint from an anonymous politics undergraduate at Aberystwyth who said he "was being forced, on pain of being marked down, to reproduce distorted and bigoted opinions about America and Israel".

Ms Phillips had previously published a complaint from another anonymous politics student on her website, That letter, written in 2005, claimed that "anything that differs with the anti-Semitic orthodoxy results in rather harsh marking".

In her Spectator article, Ms Phillips reported that an undergraduate studying a module on "Understanding terror" had complained that an "implicit comparison" had been made between the treatment of Jews in Germany before the Second World War and the treatment of Muslims today. The student claimed that students who did not "toe the line" were marked down.

Ms Phillips's article referred to an exchange between Richard Jackson, a reader in international politics at Aberystwyth, and a student.

The student had criticised Dr Jackson for referring, in a lecture given at the University of Oxford, to "Israeli state terrorism". Dr Jackson replied to the student: "My assertion that Israel has been engaged in state terrorism lies first in a clear understanding of what the aims and consequences of terrorism are." He went on to cite individual examples of Israeli violence against Palestinian citizens.

Ms Phillips wrote to Noel Lloyd, Aberystwyth's vice-chancellor, questioning Dr Jackson's "recycling of hateful propaganda" and asking whether his work should be included on the politics department's reading list. In an exchange of letters she made public, she also suggested that the "Understanding terror" module was "simply a form of subversion".

Professor Lloyd replied that the module aimed to be "objective, with no bias and no prejudice against any race or country".

"There is no sense that any view is necessarily correct ... the module handbook includes a wide variety of sources, written from a variety of perspectives," he said. He noted that Dr Jackson's work had been published in a number of leading peer-reviewed journals.

Times Higher Education understands that the university's solicitors have been consulted by Marie Breen Smyth, director of the university's Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Contemporary Political Violence, but the university has confirmed that it will not pursue legal action against Ms Phillips.

Dr Breen Smyth was not available to speak to Times Higher Education, but she told The Cambrian News: "The course takes a critical approach, and students may respond to that approach according to their own views, but since it is a course of academic study, students should support their views with evidence, reading and reasoned argument. I would further add that I have taught in higher education both in the UK and elsewhere for many years, and there is no evidence that I have ever penalised a student for their political views. Indeed, I am a strong advocate of respectful political debate and freedom of expression."

Ms Phillips's article, posted on the Spectator website, has attracted hundreds of comments, including some from current students at Aberystwyth.

One said: "I am a student on that course. I can happily say the claims made are a load of bunk. Not only have I not felt any 'pressure' to toe a specific line for marks, nor has anyone I know, but the idea of the course promoting bigotry against Israel is ludicrous. What it did do was (present) a lecture on the subject of state terrorism, in which a number of states came up; this can only be promoting hatred of a state if you think it's inherently hate-mongering to even raise the subject that a state's actions may be terroristic (sic)."

Readers' comments (2)

  • As we're talking balance and merely raising questions, was it raised that Britain (or any Western European country) may be engaging in state terror when it/they send/s the police and/or army against its/their own citizens engaged in peaceful (but possibly disruptive) protest? Was it raised that Israel may engage in state terror against Jews?

    The problem I see is that Israel is always included alongside much more clear-cut examples of state terror where there is little or no dispute. The situation in Israel is much more complex than any other, and as VERY few people seem to have any semblance of a grip on all the issues, all the facts, or the ability to claim objectivity, ie, do not at least sympathise more with one “side” than the other, maybe it should only be studied where due time can be allotted, and where there’s equal time allotted to a full range of perspectives. I always see the Israeli issue glossed over, as if it is clear-cut, and where the lecturer thinks his or her one-sided view is somehow objective.

    I see a lot more subjectivity and plain old taking sides is at play, as well as a lot more revisionist history making, manipulated interpretations of international law that are only applied to Israel, while different interpretations stand for every other country, and either outright Israel-bashing in the media and the UN, or demonstrable privileging of the Palestinian perspective. Even the view that the Palestinians are the underdog is never seemingly challenged, yet a very strong contrary case can be made. And then there’s all the relativist arguments to justify acts for which there is no justification. The use of the term “moderate” is also employed in hugely relative terms, as opposed to the common understanding of the term.

    I have never seen the history of the “Palestinian” Arabs explored in any depth, nor the conflicting statements made, often by the same spokespeople, nor PA authorised incitements to violence, nor the fact that Palestine never was a country, etc.

    And then there’s the assumption that the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples supports the Palestinian claims. Whereas, if there had been a definition of indigenousness along the lines of that in Aotearoa New Zealand – a world leader in indigenous rights – where the definition applied to Maori very much parallels that of the Jews in the land of Israel – where Maori were not the first people, but are the first surviving people – and where in many circumstances, rights are established on the basis of continual settlement, then the pervasively privileged story would have to be completely turned on its head.

    I can also say that I have been marked down for not towing the departmental party line, and have had my charge privately backed up by a senior lecturer involved in examining some of my work.

    Frankly, I think there are at best biases that are not recognised as such, and entrenched departmental positions that are unquestioned and ultimately unquestionable.

    Over the past twenty-five years, I have been an undergrad, a tutor, a lecturer, a graduate student, and a postgraduate, in various disciplines, at various institutions, and in various countries, and I have witnessed a huge change in the way different views are handled. It used to be that any student who could support his or her argument using appropriate sources would assessed on how well they made the argument, irrespective of whether the marker agreed with the argument or not. Nowadays, in many, if not most departments, it seems very unlikely that strong arguments that do not conform to entrenched departmental positions will be judged favourably. It is as if there is only one right argument, and every nonconformist argument is wrong.

    I am not opposed to the voicing of opinionated arguments that I disagree with, no matter how controversial, but I am opposed to there not being equal time allotted to opposing arguments. I am also strongly opposed to situations – most common in media and campus debates – where an extremist viewpoint is presented, and the person invited to give an “opposing” view is a centrist. Such is simply debate rigging, and intellectual dishonesty. Sadly, I assert such has become all too common, and even more sad is the pervasive acceptance of such.

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  • I wouldn't worry too much, if I were Jackson or Lloyd or Smyth: if Melanie Phillips is the one doing the complaining about this issue, sensible people will understand that reality is likely to be elsewhere.

    Of course, she succeeds in stirring up trouble, and since I don't want her getting up my arse, I feel compelled to stay anonymous for this comment. That's the sort of thing that ought to be troubling here.

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