SOAS not anti-Semitic but diverse and vibrant

I read Adrian Hilton’s recent feature article about SOAS, “A School of Anti-Semitism?” with equal parts anger and frustration. Hilton’s SOAS bears no resemblance to the institution that I proudly call home.

I am a professor of criminal law at SOAS. I am also Jewish, with family who fled Hitler. So I take it personally when someone like Hilton – an outsider both to my university and to my religion – distorts SOAS beyond recognition. In the three years I have taught at SOAS, I have not witnessed even a single instance of anti-Semitism. Nor have I felt anti-Semitism personally – despite having vocally opposed academic BDS during the vote last year.

What I have seen in the courses I teach – on international criminal law and public international law – is debate over the wisdom of Israel’s policies toward Palestinians. The key word being “debate”. Do SOAS students criticise Israel passionately? Yes. Do I and other students (including Muslim ones) push back when we believe that those criticisms go too far? Absolutely. My courses are dialogues, not monologues. That is why I enjoy them so much. Indeed, SOAS is my fourth law school in my fourth country, and I have never had the privilege to teach such engaged and conscientious students.

If Hilton had bothered to spend some time at SOAS, perhaps he would not have been so quick to caricature it. There was no “official SOAS-sanctioned boycott” of Israel last year. The vote on academic BDS was organised by the Students’ Union; the University had nothing to do with it. The idea that SOAS’s multi-faith prayer room displays “only Islamic information” is false; the claim that non-Muslims can use the room only if “they observe the diktats of the Sharia”, laughably so.

A mere fact-check, however, cannot adequately convey the problems with Hilton’s article. He does not simply attack a SOAS that exists only in his imagination. Much worse, he fails to understand that SOAS’s diversity is precisely what makes it such a special place – for students of any faith. If you are interested in Judaism and Israel (which is not limited to Jewish students), SOAS offers a BA in Hebrew and Israeli Studies, a Centre for Jewish Studies and a Jewish Music Institute. If you are interested in Islam and Arab states (which is not limited to Muslim students), SOAS offers opportunities unparalleled anywhere in the world, including dozens of relevant undergraduate and graduate programs. My faculty, for example, offers one of the world’s only LLMs in Islamic Law.

There are indeed many Muslim students at SOAS. And that is cause for celebration, not concern – because we are teaching the next generation of Muslim leaders, just as we taught the previous generation: Princess Wijdan Ali, the first woman to represent Jordan at the UN; Dr Hüseyin Çelik, a former Minister of Education in Turkey; Mohamed Hechmi Hamdi, the founder of Tunisia’s oppositional Al Mustakillah TV station; Professor Dewi Anwar, a former Assistant Minister/State Secretary for Foreign Affairs in Indonesia and a current member of the UN Secretary General’s Advisory Board on Disarmament Matters. And that is but a partial list.

I have no idea why Hilton felt the need to portray SOAS so unfairly, but portray it unfairly he did. Criticising Israel is not anti-Semitism, despite Hilton’s efforts to elide the distinction between the two. SOAS is not an easy place to defend Israel’s treatment of Palestinians; our students are too smart and too informed to accept the kind of platitudes Hilton sprinkles liberally throughout his editorial. So here’s a suggestion: instead of trying to score rhetorical points by lamely accusing our students of conforming to “Islamo-Marxist orthodoxy”, Hilton might try actually engaging with their arguments. After all, as our students know better than anyone, substantive debate is what SOAS is all about.

Kevin Jon Heller is a Professor of Criminal Law at SOAS, University of London


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