UKLFI Charitable Trust

Appeal Panel recommends investigation into “toxic, antisemitic environment” at SOAS

An Appeal Panel appointed by the School of Oriental and African Studies at London University (SOAS) to consider a student’s complaint has recommended that there should be an independent investigation into whether there was a toxic, antisemitic environment and institutional antisemitism at the School and/or its student union.  The Panel stated that there was a prima facie case which warrants a full investigation.

The recommendation was made by the Panel following its hearing of an appeal by a Canadian SOAS student, Mr Noah Lewis, from the outcome of an investigation of a complaint he had made.  During his time at SOAS in 2018/19, Mr Lewis, a Canadian, found the level of antisemitic behaviour and the toxic environment at the School affected his ability to study, caused him anxiety and ultimately resulted in him having to withdraw from his program.  Mr Lewis claimed a refund of his tuition fees and other expenses he had incurred as a foreign student during the year.  UKLFI Charitable Trust and The Lawfare Project assisted Mr Lewis with his appeal.

Noah Lewis

SOAS has now reached a settlement with Mr Lewis, paying him £15,000 compensation. Despite the settlement, the Appeal Panel recommended that SOAS should still go ahead with an independent investigation of the key issues at stake in this case. This recommendation is to be discussed with the incoming SOAS Director, Prof Adam Habib, in January. The previous SOAS Director, Baroness Valerie Amos, left earlier this year, as well as the School’s Legal Adviser and Chief Operating Officer.

 There is currently no Jewish Society operating at SOAS. Daniel Kosky, campaigns organiser  of the Union of Jewish Students (UJS) explained that they had received many reports about SOAS being a hostile environment for Jews. He said that UJS was concerned that no student at SOAS was willing to be an officer of the Jewish Society this year, so it is no longer operating.

Although Mr Lewis’s complaint against SOAS was originally upheld on one specific issue with compensation of £500 being recommended, he appealed against the decision since it had disregarded his complaint regarding SOAS fostering a toxic, antisemitic environment on campus, and its pervasiveness amongst its student union, students and certain members of the faculty and administration.

The Appeal Panel agreed that it was clear that the central part of the complaint had not been investigated and that only a narrow strand of the complaint had been investigated:    “The panel considered the objection that it would be inappropriate for every complaint from any individual student to trigger a full scale and meticulous, perhaps external, investigation of the whole culture at the School and the Student Union … But it also came to the view that in this instance, there was a prima facie case which did warrant such a full investigation.”

Mr Lewis’ complaints about the toxic atmosphere during his time at SOAS from 2018 to 2019 included the following examples:

  • On 01/03/2019 an email was sent from the Student Union (SU) to all students stating that “yesterday there were a group of external individuals, … apparently filming a piece on how SOAS is an antisemitic institution.” The email continued: “We are sending round this statement to reaffirm our commitment as a Students’ Union to our Boycott, Divest and Sanction Israel Policy (BDS), which passed in March 2015. SOAS SU was the first UK Students’ Union to vote for and support the BDS campaign launched in 2005.”   Mr Lewis said that this was an abuse of the SU’s power and was intended to make a political statement at the expense of Jews and Israel.

  • Those who are Jewish or pro-Israel on campus are labelled and referred to as ‘Zionists’. The term is used as an offensive, antisemitic blanket term to label anyone with a Jewish connection who advocates a position that might be to Israel’s benefit; to them Zionism in general is akin to fascism and racism.

  • Antisemitic graffiti can be found on campus lockers, antisemitic symbols and statements can be found scribbled or scratched into desks in the library and on the walls of bathroom stalls.

  • There is a large sign in the window by the door of the main SOAS building proclaiming SOAS’s support for BDS.

20 Nov 218 Sign in the front window of the SOAS Main Building

  • Mr Lewis intended to write his dissertation on “systemic biases that exist in the United Nations and target the State of Israel,” and posted the proposed topic on a forum with his classmates for feedback prior to submitting the proposal. He received no feedback on the forum, but definitely received feedback from his peers in person. They criticized and antagonized him for the pro-Israel stance he appeared to take.  For example he was told that he was complicit in covering up Israeli war crimes and that he must be a white supremacist Nazi” for ignoring the “genocide” and “apartheid” taking place in “Palestine.” Mr Lewis commented “as the grandchild of Holocaust survivors and having many family members who were murdered during the Holocaust, being called a Nazi is amongst the most offensive thing you can call a Jew, and to be called one by individuals on campus was a horrific experience for me.”

  • During a SOAS activity, his peers referred to Israel as the “Zionist regime,” levelled unsubstantiated accusations of war crimes against the country’s government and associated individuals in the government or with pro-Israel views and opinions as Nazis.

  • On one occasion Mr Lewis was approached by a classmate following a tutorial and was asked “why are you even at SOAS, if you have the opinions that you do?” Mr Lewis commented: “This encounter was quite upsetting and made me feel that I did not belong and would not be accepted by peers at school.”

  • Valid criticisms of the Israeli government and its policies often morph into attacks on the State of Israel and then further progress into blatant attacks on Jews in general. Factual statements and rebuttals backed with evidence in tutorials that were even slightly pro-Israel were often criticized and dismissed as “Zionist propaganda” and lacking in credibility. This would include openly labelling Jewish organizations and individuals as controlling politics and the global agenda.  Any deviation from the strongly anti-Israel / anti-Semitic positions of the majority on campus are met with derision and often harassment.


SOAS 30 Nov 2018 – sign on table in front of the SOAS Main Building

Mr Lewis wrote in his appeal notice: “SOAS has been on notice for years regarding antisemitism on campus and within the SU, and continuously fails to address this case in any serious manner.  SOAS has allowed the SU to maintain an unchecked stranglehold on not only student affairs, but schoolwide and campus wide affairs, where they continue to advance their political biases and agendas and attack and delegitimize those who disagree. Accordingly, the school is just as liable. SOAS failed to meet its commitment as laid out in section 1.1 and 6.2 of its Dignity and Respect Policy”.

Mr Lewis also submitted to the Appeal Panel evidence from former SOAS students about the antisemitism that they had experienced on campus, in statements taken in 2017.  These included the following:

  • “Though I have only been in SOAS for about three weeks now, I have been shocked by the amount of anti-Semitic attitudes on campus as well as the heavily one-sided debate taking place on campus with regards to Israel.”

  • “Being Jewish and Israeli, there have been many moments during which I have felt unwelcome and uncomfortable at SOAS. Rather than promote an understanding of other cultures, SOAS creates more hatred and hostility. Instead of reflecting on the fact that Israel exists to provide a state where there is no discrimination towards Jews – the very discrimination they are encouraging, SOAS deepens the divide and moves further away from a point of acceptance and understanding.”

  • “In SOAS I do not feel comfortable to express my support for the State of Israel, politically, culturally or religiously due to the radically oppressive nature of the debate in SOAS, where any views that do not subscribe to the typical SOAS mantra are rejected and outright attacked.”

  • “The Student Union which represents the total student body, consistently fails to respect the identities of Jewish students on the same level as other minority groups – a case in point that in the SU debate, a clause allowing Jews to define what hatred and marginalisation is for us as a group was removed from a motion promoting Jewish equality in the Student Union.”

The Appeal Panel, consisting of two members of SOAS staff and an independent chair, stated that it understood the term “toxic, antisemitic environment” to refer to “institutional antisemitism” as defined in the Macpherson Report, namely “the collective failure of an organisation to provide an appropriate and professional service to people because of their colour, culture or ethnic origin. It can be seen or detected in processes, attitudes and behaviour which amount to discrimination through unwitting prejudice, ignorance, thoughtlessness, and racist stereotyping which disadvantage minority ethnic people.”

 It added that the new investigation should also draw on the Equality Act 2010 and the IHRA definition of antisemitism for its understanding of “toxic, antisemitic environment”.

The Panel recommended that the investigation should be carried out by a panel of three people not associated with SOAS or its student union, that they should all command the confidence of the Jewish community and its leading institutions, and that they should be selected in consultation with the Union of Jewish Students (UJS) and the Government’s Independent Antisemitism Advisor (Lord Mann). They should include an academic familiar with academic research and debates on contemporary antisemitism, and someone of stature and experience in public life who would add to public confidence in the process.

Jonathan Turner, Executive Director of UKLFI Charitable Trust commented: “The Panel grasped the nettle and has set a benchmark of best practice which should be followed in other cases where there is prima facie evidence of an antisemitic environment. We congratulate Noah Lewis on pursuing the complaint and hope that other students who experience antisemitism at universities will now be encouraged to object. Organisations such as ours are here to help.”

 Brooke Goldstein, Executive Director of The Lawfare Project commented:   “What happened to Noah Lewis should never be considered acceptable at a place of higher learning. The Lawfare Project is glad to see that, with this settlement and continued investigation, SOAS is working to right this wrong and ensure that its Jewish students and faculty members can feel safe and welcome on campus.”

Mr. Lewis commented: “I am grateful for the support and guidance provided by UKLFI and the Lawfare Project.  The anti-Semitic climate that has taken hold on UK campuses like SOAS cannot be allowed to persist and I strongly urge fellow students who have suffered similar experiences to speak out.  This is the only way that we will affect positive change.”