Student awarded £15,000 refund from SOAS amid ‘toxic antisemitic environment’

- SOAS University of London has refunded a student £15,000 in fees after he said he was forced to abandon his studies because of a “toxic antisemitic environment”.

The university may also order a fresh independent investigation into complaints made by the student over antisemitic behaviour on campus.

The move comes amid pressure on universities to adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of antisemitism. Gavin Williamson, the education secretary, wrote to all vice-chancellors in October, criticising a “lack of willingness by too many universities to confront [antisemitism]”.

Last year, the government said universities must do more to stamp out antisemitism on campus after Jewish societies reported having to pay for security at speaker events.

Noah Lewis, a Canadian, was enrolled as a student at Soas in the academic year 2018/19. He claimed that during his time at Soas, Jews and people who were pro-Israel were labelled as “Zionists”, antisemitic graffiti and symbols were found on lockers, desks and toilet walls, and many people publicly stated their support for the BDS movement, which promotes boycotts, divestments and sanctions against Israel.

When he stated his intention to write a dissertation on the “systemic biases that exist in the United Nations and target the state of Israel”, he said fellow students accused him of being complicit in covering up Israeli war crimes and that he was a “white supremacist Nazi”.

According to UK Lawyers for Israel (UKLFI), which provided legal assistance to Lewis, the student lodged a formal complaint in May 2019. He said the stress and extreme discomfort caused by the “toxic antisemitic environment” had exacerbated his anxiety and mental health issues. He felt he had no alternative but to leave the university and return to Canada, and demanded his tuition and related fees be refunded.

In July 2019, a panel investigating Lewis’s allegations offered an apology on behalf of SOAS for the “emotional trauma … experienced due to the perceived antisemitic discrimination which he had to endure”. It recommended compensation of £500.

Lewis appealed against the decision, and in March 2020 an appeal panel concluded there was a prima facie case for an external reinvestigation of Lewis’s original complaint, saying the original investigation “had not been adequate”.

The appeal panel said that such an investigation should go ahead even if Soas decided to come to a settlement with Lewis regarding his fees.

According to UKLFI, Lewis received the sum of £15,000 from SOAS on 24 December. The school’s new director, Adam Habib, who takes up his post in January, is expected to decide whether to implement the appeal panel’s recommendation for a new investigation.

A spokesperson for the university said: “SOAS is extremely concerned about any allegations of antisemitism at our school. Diversity is key to the SOAS mission and we want all our students to feel welcome and supported in their studies.

“We cannot comment on any individual student case or the outcomes of any appeal. However, where we have established an independent panel as part of a complaints process, we would of course consider the findings of such a panel thoroughly and take appropriate action.”

The school’s Centre for Jewish Studies offered a “wealth of opportunity to learn about Jewish culture and tradition” and Hebrew at undergraduate and master’s level, the spokesperson added.

Jonathan Turner, executive director of UKLFI Charitable Trust, said: “The panel grasped the nettle and has set a benchmark for best practice which should be followed in other cases of an antisemitic environment. We hope that other students who experience antisemitism at universities will now be encouraged to object.”

Source: The Guardian
Photo:  Students on campus at Soas, London, in 2015. Photograph: Richard Wayman/Alamy Stock Photo