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, melaniephillips.com. 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)."

melanie.newman@tsleducation.com.

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