As the Antisemitism Working Group at the British and Irish Association for Jewish Studies, we express our profound concern at the response of the University of Edinburgh to the controversy surrounding the invitation of Dr Salman Abu Sitta to speak at the Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies Seminar on 8 November 2022 regarding the centenary of the British Mandate for Palestine.
As has been reported in the press, Dr Abu Sitta has publicly referred to “Jewish financial power” in the United States, described late 19th and 20th century Jews as “ghetto-dwellers”, and claimed that the “enemy use their influence, money, political influence and defamation…” These are not isolated incidents, but demonstrate an ongoing invocation of antisemitic notions of nefarious and hidden Jewish power. The comment about “ghetto-dwellers” follows a long history of portraying Jews as an unsanitary people apart from healthy society.
When these issues were raised by the Jewish Chronicle, a University of Edinburgh spokesperson stated:
“The University is committed to freedom of expression and academic freedom.
Staff and students should feel able to discuss controversial topics, and that different viewpoints are respected. Given the size of our community, it is inevitable that there will be differing views amongst its members.
We encourage respectful debate and discussion whenever there are differences of view or opinion.”
This response is inadequate. Open debate on the Israel-Palestine conflict is an essential aspect of public discussion of today’s global political challenges. Yet the University’s response to Dr Abu Sitta’s public comments demonstrates a failure to distinguish between criticism of the State of Israel and antisemitism. The University, and the organisers of the talk, must acknowledge publicly this failure and respond appropriately.
We note that Dr Abu Sitta is not a professional historian; his doctorate is in civil engineering. While he has made an important contribution to the field of Palestine Studies with his historical mapping of Palestinian society, including the depopulation of Palestinian villages, towns and cities in 1948, Dr Abu Sitta is not trained as a historian. He has not published in academic journals or books on the Palestine Mandate, which is the subject of the talk in question.
Many published historians of the Mandate are critical of the pre-1948 Zionist movement, the British empire, and the League of Nations, without any antisemitic analysis. We ask for an explanation from the University of Edinburgh and the organisers of the talk as to why they consider it appropriate to invite this particular speaker to discuss the history of the Palestine Mandate.
We also wish to draw attention to the distress that this affair, and the response of the University, is causing to Jewish scholars and students at Edinburgh. We express our solidarity with them.