For the JC April 2021
Mystery surrounds a decision taken by the Pears Foundation to remove its name from the Institute for the Study of Antisemitism, which it established at the University of London’s Birkbeck College in 2010.
Inquiries to Pears about its decision were met with referrals to the news announcement on its website, first posted on March 23. It says that “The Foundation’s vision was to see the creation of an independent academic institution. This has been achieved. The Institute has gained an international reputation for its innovative approach to the research and teaching of antisemitism”.
Now, however, Pears says that “as the Institute increasingly tackles challenging and divisive issues in the public sphere, the Foundation’s trustees have decided that continuing to be so closely associated with the Institute is no longer in the Foundation’s best interests”. No-one from Pears was prepared to explain what that meant.
Instead, its statement says that from May 4 this year the Institute will be re-named the Birkbeck Institute for the Study of Antisemitism, and that “the Foundation will continue to support its work as one of several funders”. In fact, a spokesman for Pears said its financial support would continue at the same level.
The same spokesman completely rejected the suggestion that the decision to remove its name had been made in the light of the action by the Institute’s director, Professor David Feldman, to sign the controversial Jerusalem Declaration on Antisemitism, (JDA) which was released last week. “Our announcement preceded the JDA petition”, the Pears spokesman said. The JDA has been launched as an alternative to the IHRA (International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance) working definition on antisemitism.
One of the harshest critics of the Pears Institute’s approach to the issue of antisemitism is Dr David Hirsh of Goldsmiths, University of London. Author of a book on contemporary antisemitism, Dr Hirsh said: “The institute that Pears set up and pumped money into is highly problematic. Either they are now saying, no, it’s not problematic, or they are saying that they haven’t noticed it is problematic”.
He pointed to increasing levels of antisemitism around the world, often in academia, and frequently in a form relating to hostility to Israel. “We needed an academic centre able to study that kind of antisemitism. What we got, however, was a forum for engagement between that antisemitism, and those of us who were studying it”.
He believed that the framework of the Institute was “flawed from the beginning… imagine an institute for the study of women’s rights which spends its time debating whether a woman’s place is in the kitchen”.
Dr Hirsh was particularly critical of one of the Institute’s events in 2012 when writer Karl Sabbagh, who had written the foreword to Gilad Atzmon’s book, The Wandering Who?, widely held to be antisemitic, spoke from the platform. Professor Feldman’s openly expressed principle for the centre was that people from all sides should be able to participate.He told the JC that only after Sabbagh had spoken, and Professor Alan Johnson of Bicom had detailed Sabbagh’s record, and how it was consistent with his presentation, did Professor Feldman express his regret.
Dr Hirsh said that with the rise of Jeremy Corbyn and ensuing rise of antisemitism in the Labour Party, the Pears Institute should have been “facilitating research into antisemitism of that sort in order to understand it and to inform public debate on it, perhaps supporting a journal to publish that research. But the institute could not shine that kind of light on antisemitism because it was committed to a model of academic pluralism, which required the defenders of antisemitism to have an equal say in where the light was shone”.
Professor Feldman did not make himself available for comment.
A Birkbeck spokesman said that Pears had committed £800,000 from 2020 to 2023 to the institute. New funders, besides Birkbeck itself, include the Arts and Humanities Research Council, the Bonnart Trust, the German Academic Exchange Service, and the Leverhulme Trust.