Reports of a spate of swastika graffiti and Holocaust denial leaflets discovered on university campuses across the UK over the past week raises serious concerns, and highlights the challenge faced by universities as they seek to protect students from extremism.
At the University of Cambridge, two swastikas were found on a map and flyers supporting the Holocaust denier, David Irving, were seen at the university earlier this month. Leaflets spreading Holocaust denial at University College London led the Jewish Society to release a statement condemning the “trivialising of Jewish history”, while a swastika and a “Rights for Whites” sign were discovered at the University of Exeter.
Increasingly, universities have strong policies to mitigate the risks posed by extremist speakers on campus, but these incidents pose an entirely different threat – one which is far harder to deal with through risk assessment procedures for a number of reasons.
The first of these is that it is extremely difficult to ascertain who is behind racist incidents on campuses due to their open nature. Unlike schools, hospitals and community centres which are usually smaller, enclosed spaces likely to be patrolled by private security, universities often open onto busy streets in major cities and are easily accessible to the public. This in turn has attracted extremist groups, and universities have been grappling with this problem for a number of years.
National Action, the neo-Nazi youth movement proscribed as a terrorist organisation by the Home Secretary Amber Rudd in December 2016, has combined street marches in city centres with vandalism on campuses, while men connected to the proscribed terrorist organisation, al-Muhajiroun, have also targeted London’s universities.
National Action members in particular have proven a threat, leafleting and targeting university campuses with graffiti and stickers including phrases such as “white power” and “Hitler was right”. The media-savvy group has pulled such stunts at institutions including the Universities of Nottingham, Leicester, Warwick and Coventry in recent years, with members performing Nazi salutes and targeting students.
Monitoring and preventing such activities, which resemble anti-social behaviour rather than more traditional understandings of campus extremism, has proven difficult for universities. This has a real effect on student confidence and raises some deep questions about the way antisemitism rears its head in modern society.
Following the incidents at the University of Cambridge, Adam Goot, a co-president of the Cambridge Jewish Society wrote on Facebook of his disgust at: “these potent and enduring tropes which underlie casual anti-Jewish conspiracies and the non-acceptance of Jews as an oppressed minority.”
A recent graduate, I remember a similar feeling when a swastika was daubed on my campus at UCL in February 2015; a sense of being violated by mockery of the unimaginable tragedy of the Nazi extermination of the Jews. A swastika is a symbol of genocide, it is not ordinary graffiti and will often be interpreted by Jewish students as incitement to hate and violence.
As Binyomin Gilbert, a student at Goldsmiths University who works for the Campaign against Antisemitism explains: “The holocaust was the single most horrific incident to have occurred on Europe’s soil. The cost of which was 6 million Jews. To deny the holocaust is not only to display stunning levels of wilful ignorance but to insult the survivors and the communities that still today suffer its impact.”
To see a resurgence of neo-Nazi hatred and Holocaust denial at British universities is extremely disturbing, and should remind us of both the importance of Holocaust education and the urgency to abandon any complacency when it comes to antisemitism in the UK. The events of the past week show that universities face a serious challenge in dealing with this issue – and we must do all we can to make sure it is taken seriously.
Elliot Miller is the National Organiser for Student Rights at the Henry Jackson Society @Elliotmiller94