The Campaign against Ken Loach and St Peter’s College

Ken Loach In Conversation with Professor Judith Buchanan

JVL Introduction

The latest issue of  Oxford Magazine is focused on the issue of Free Speech in Britain’s universities, particularly government interference in university affairs and the danger of self-censorship that this encourages.

The editor introduces the topic in this way:

In this issue we publish an article which, as we have become acutely aware, calls into question the very survival of Oxford Magazine. Like many articles this one came, unsolicited and unannounced, from colleagues urging a strongly held position. Steeled by earlier experience we started the process of consultation and legal vetting that is so important in such circumstances. Initial reactions were varied and some alarmed to the point of questioning the wisdom of publication in this case. A number of weeks later a somewhat constrained version of the original is the result. There will, no doubt, be some readers who still would prefer that we had kept quiet… (For more click  here)

The article which occasioned this concern is reposted below. It reveals – once again – the weaponisation of antisemtism, using the IHRA definition to undermine open discussion and to defame one of our great social activists.


The Campaign against Ken Loach and St Peter’s College

Avi Shlaim, Jonathan Rosenhead & Colin Green
Oxford Magazine, Trinity term 2021

We write as three academics to protest the unfair accusations made by a number of students against the multiaward winning film-maker, social campaigner, lifelong anti-racist, and human rights activist Ken Loach. As a distinguished alumnus of St Peter’s College, he was invited to a discussion about his career and films together with the Master, Professor Judith Buchanan. This was advertised as a joint event between TORCH, the Oxford Research Centre for the Humanities and St Peter’s College. The event was part of a broader university Humanities Cultural Programme, which fosters debate between artists and academics about an artist’s work.

What followed was a well-orchestrated campaign of character assassination against a man who had been profoundly affected by horrendous images from Belsen-Birkenau and other concentration camps and then spent his life championing the victims of war, occupation, colonialism, oppression, and discrimination as well as the destitute and socially deprived in our own society.

St Peter’s was bombarded with messages demanding it cancel the event. The Oxford University Jewish Society tweeted that it was deeply disappointed by the decision to host the event because  ‘On numerous occasions Loach has made remarks that are antisemitic under the IHRA [International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance] definition, which was recently adopted by the University of Oxford’. Any objective analysis of these claims will show that they are baseless, except under this particular definition. To us, at any rate, the campaign against the artist looks like part of a wider political move, spearheaded by Mr Gavin Williamson, the Secretary of State for Education, to block free speech on Israel in English universities by insisting that they all adopt the IHRA definition.

As announced on the Board of Deputies of British Jews website, Marie van der Zyl, BDBJ President, wrote to Professor Buchanan, describing the decision to invite Ken Loach to speak at her college as ‘entirely unacceptable’ and called for the event to be cancelled. The Union of Jewish Students (UJS), a national organisation which represents 8,500 students, piled on the pressure and expressed outrage that St Peter’s College had ignored the concerns of its Jewish students and urged Judith Buchanan to remove this speaker from the event.

With commendable courage, St Peter’s College and TORCH refused to cave in and the event went ahead as planned. It was also streamed live on YouTube. Apart from the protesters, it was seen as a wonderful success with Ken Loach showing clips from his films ‘The Wind That Shakes the Barley’ (2006) about the Irish War of Independence and the civil war that followed, and ‘I, Daniel Blake’ (2016) about the inhumanity of the social benefits system. Loach talked about his films, and the worldview that informs them, eloquently and movingly in the discussion.

The day after the event took place, on 9 February, the Student Union of Wadham College held a meeting regarding St Peter’s College and Ken Loach. The motion before the meeting alleged that Ken Loach had in the past made antisemitic remarks and that he was complicit in Holocaust denial. The censure motion to formally condemn St Peter’s College was passed by a large majority. One of us (Avi Shlaim) was so dismayed by these accusations that he issued the following statement:

‘I deeply regret the attack by Wadham College students on Ken Loach. He has a strong and consistent record of opposing racism of every kind, including antisemitism. He is anti-Zionist but in no way antisemitic. He is charged with having made comments that are antisemitic under the IHRA definition. But that definition is utterly flawed. Its real purpose is to conflate anti-Zionism with antisemitism in order to suppress legitimate criticisms of Israeli policies. Antisemitism is hostility towards Jews because they are Jews. Under this proper definition Ken Loach is completely innocent. He is also an admirable person, a champion of social justice, and an outstanding artist. The attack on him undermines freedom of speech and that has no place in an academic institution. I therefore urge the students of Wadham College to stop their vilification of Ken Loach and to accord him the respect that he so richly deserves.’

The Junior Common Rooms at St Peter’s, St Hugh’s, Hertford, and Keble colleges also passed resolutions by large majorities condemning the action of St Peter’s in inviting Ken Loach. Keble College JCR condemned the Master of St Peter’s for the way she had handled the issue. St Hugh’s motion claimed that ‘the regrettable response of St. Peter’s College has encouraged the pile-on of antisemitic abuse’. This is a serious matter. But if there was indeed a spike in antisemitic abuse, it is more likely to have come as a result of the students’ attempt at no-platforming than of the cultural event organised by St Peter’s College and TORCH.

It seems to us that the attack on Ken Loach at Oxford is part of a bigger picture. The bigger picture is the persistent attempt by Israel’s aggressive defenders in this country and elsewhere to conflate anti-Zionism with antisemitism. The IHRA definition is the perfect tool to this deplorable end. As so often is the case, this initiative by some Oxford students was promptly seized upon by an impressive array of pro-Israel organisations which is always waiting in the wings.

The reality is that British Zionists have never forgiven Ken Loach for directing, back in 1987, a play, Perdition, by socialist playwright Jim Allen that was based on a libel trial in Israel in which certain Zionists in Hungary were accused of allowing fellow Jews to be sent to Auschwitz. The play’s premiere in the Royal Court Theatre was abandoned in response to fierce protests. In a letter to The Guardian, years later, Loach wrote that ‘the charge of antisemitism’ against Allen’s play ‘is the time-honoured way to deflect anti-Zionist arguments’. This may well be the origin of the vendetta against Ken Loach.

The sorry Oxford saga highlights yet again the problematic nature of the IHRA ‘working definition of antisemitism’. The definition states: ‘Antisemitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of antisemitism are directed toward Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, toward Jewish community institutions and religious facilities’.

This definition of antisemitism has been deliberately politicised by Israel’s supporters so that it could be deployed to inhibit free debate and discussion on Israel. The vacuous two-sentence definition itself does not mention Israel. But no less than seven out of the eleven ‘illustrative examples’ that follow, on what may constitute antisemitism, refer to Israel. They include ‘Denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, e.g., by claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavor’; ‘Applying double standards by requiring of it a behavior not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation’; ‘Drawing comparisons of contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis’; and ‘Holding Jews collectively responsible for actions of the state of Israel’. To achieve consensus within the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, the examples had to be separated from the definition. Israel’s friends, however, persist in conveying the false impression that the examples are part of the definition.

It was this fundamentally flawed and grotesquely partisan IHRA document that the Oxford students used to condemn a prominent left-wing critic of Israel and a defender of Palestinian rights and to try to deny him a platform. The attempt at no-platforming ultimately failed because Professor Buchanan, the Governing Body of her college, and TORCH upheld Oxford University’s policies on freedom of speech. In defence of their action they stressed that neither the college nor the University believe in no-platforming.

One of the many flaws of the IHRA definition is the singling out of Jews for special protection. This makes Jews less likely to attract solidarity and cooperation from other groups who are also susceptible to racial prejudice such as Asians, Afro-Caribbeans, Arabs, and Muslims. To be effective, the fight against racism, indeed all forms of bigotry and discrimination, needs to take place across the board and not in isolated corners. We do not need new definitions. What we need is a code of conduct to protect all minority groups against discrimination and harassment while protecting freedom of speech for all members of the University.

Some of the UK’s 133 Higher Education institutions openly, and courageously, rejected the IHRA definition; 85 capitulated to the ministerial diktat by signing up to it; and the rest chose not to commit themselves one way or the other. Oxford University has fixed its colours firmly to the fence. The statement on its website says: ‘Oxford University aims to ensure that all students, whatever their background, have a fulfilling experience of higher education. To support us in our work, we have adopted (reflecting the position of the Office for Students) the IHRA definition of antisemitism as a guide to interpreting and understanding antisemitism, noting the clarifications recommended by the Home Affairs Select Committee. The IHRA definition does not affect the legal definition of racial discrimination, so does not change our approach to meeting our legal duties and responsibilities’. In other words, Oxford University will draw on the definition for intellectual enlightenment in thinking about antisemitism but not as a guide for action.

The right to freedom of expression is already embodied in UK law by the Human Rights Act of 1998, section 6 of which expressly prohibits a public authority from acting in a way that is incompatible with Convention rights. Specific protection for freedom of expression in universities is provided by section 43 of the 1986 Education (No. 2) Act. In other words, universities have a legal responsibility to protect academic freedom and free speech. By putting pressure on universities to adopt the IHRA definition and threatening to cut off funding to those that refuse, in our considered view Mr Williamson has acted both unethically and unlawfully.

The IHRA working definition of antisemitism was not designed by Kenneth Stern, the lead author, as a guide to action but for scholarly discussion only. Instead of relying on this controversial definition, Oxford students would be well advised to re-examine more carefully Ken Loach’s actual record. If they do so, they will find examples aplenty of harsh criticisms of the State of Israel and of its policies towards the Palestinians but not a scintilla of evidence of anti-Jewish racism.


Editorial introduction continued

On another level the incident highlights issues arising from government interference in university affairs. Through the Office for Students the Department for Education has put pressure on universities to adopt the IHRA definition of antisemiticism. Not all English universities have complied. Most have, including Oxford. Some append caveats to their adoption of the definition, inseparable as it is from its attached illustrative examples. Thus by implication we, as members of the University, have all signed up to this highly contestable definition and have become aligned, by association, with a certain view about the end- lessly intractable situation in the Middle East.

But there is a yet deeper level to all this and it concerns another government intervention: the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill now before Parliament, one provision of which is the potential fining of student unions involved in no-platforming. This new initiative from the Department for Education exemplifies the whole gamut of muddled political and social forces that universities have to respond to. Already free speech (i.e. the protections for the uninhibited expression of the full range of opinion from either left or right) is limited by law and curtailed by the Prevent duty. Universities, as autonomous, self-governing institutions whose academic values require freedom of debate, ought, surely, to be trusted and expected to find their own ways through this minefield. So why does the government seek to intervene so controversially in this way and why at this moment?

It is claimed by some of those against this incoming policy that incidents of no-platforming are rare. But this is to misunderstand and underestimate the true nature of what is happening. What has changed – relatively recently – is the perceived threat (and apparent power) of small groups of activists to challenge and disrupt the normal work of a university. The real danger that results is self-censorship as the safest policy for many academics wanting to get on with their already busy lives. The free speech Bill can easily be seen as just part of a broader agenda of a ‘populist’ right-wing government which is already dictating to English universities in many policy areas on an unprecedented scale; but also as unnecessary and paradoxically itself opening up possible new contraints on free speech, particularly for student unions. The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill 2021, designed as it is among other things to give the police extraordinarily wide discretion in dealing with the sorts of campaigning tactics we have recently seen organized by Extinction Rebellion, is an even more worrying interference with free expression.

The proposal in the free speech Bill for a ‘free speech champion’ on the Office for Students’ Board is inherently a political appointment. The idea must be opposed principally because it undermines the autonomy of universities. Universities themselves must be left free to control their own academic freedom.


Three weeks ago a member of Extinction Rebellion sat down with a placard (“I’m terrified for my grandchildren’s future because of the climate change”) in the road opposite the Ashmolean causing hours of traffic chaos without any obvious police intervention. An editorial in the Oxford Times described her actions as “wrong-headed” and the result of a “foolish tantrum”. We live now in a society where the expression of the whole left-to-right range of passionately-held views are tolerated (if not actually facilitated and fostered, e.g. by social media and by press attention) and a tiny vocal minority can exert immediate and widespread effects on the population and on government policy-making.

In this issue Roger Teichmann argues, in the context of pandemic lockdowns, that there are limits to the extent to which we as citizens should feel obliged to ‘obey the law’. He suggests that, at a certain point where the most fundamental matters of principle or personal belief are involved, we are fully justified in acting in ways that conflict with the policies of the elected government. Even though few among us have the determination – and courage – to pay the costs in terms either of opprobrium or arrest, when it comes to something like the looming disaster of climate change, lone protesters are bound to be speaking for the many who stay silent.

Our democratic system evidently strains to deal with the sorts of societal tensions mentioned here. Even democratic elections – let alone referendums – can serve to exaggerate the divisions to which society is prone. Too often, as we have recently seen, the police are left to make potentially drastic decisions in handling protests, given the absence of adequate statutory or governmental guidelines. Increasingly new ways of policy-making and bridging of divides are being sought, e.g. citizens assemblies or Swiss style ‘semi-direct’ democracy. But one suspects that there is no panacea; consensus can only be built up if there is wide-enough citizen engagement and informed consent. First of all everybody has got to want to achieve consensus and this will involve a preparedness to listen to one’s opponents and an intention to compromise.

Meanwhile Oxford Magazine aims to survive as a beacon of free expression of opinion across the University. We do not need a free speech champion. To those who would prefer that we had remained silent our riposte is obvious: we urge them to write an uninhibited article for us on how they would suggest a better way of providing for the open expression of views, however unwelcome some of them may be for some among us in this University.



Comments (2)

  • Linda says:

    I’d like to thank Oxford Magazine, St Peter’s College, its Master, Ken Loach, attendees at the presentation and the three academics upholding free speech for their immense courage and decency.

    If Netanyahu goes – even if he’s replaced by someone I’d find equally nasty – maybe that’ll create at least a micro-opportunity for new thinking in Israel.

  • Allan Howard says:

    In the above piece it says the following:

    By putting pressure on universities to adopt the IHRA definition and threatening to cut off funding to those that refuse, in our considered view Mr Williamson has acted both unethically and unlawfully.

    I would suggest that it’s tantamount to BLACKMAIL!!

    Talking of which (from Craig Murray’s latest post):

    The general British population may return to slumber until the next major bombings, but one man who will not forget is Richard Barnard of Palestine Action. Incredibly, Barnard has been charged by police and the Crown Prosecution Service with blackmail for proposing to hunger strike until the Israeli Elbit weapons factories in the UK are closed down.

    That is not a mistake; he really is charged with blackmail for a proposed hunger strike. I have been trying to find precedent for this and while I can find examples of the argument being made that hunger strike is emotional extortion, I certainly cannot find any example, anywhere in the world, of actual prosecution.

    NB Going on hunger strike is primarily a means to get publicity for an issue of course, and usually one that the PTB would rather not have attention drawn to!

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