This is a guest post by Joel Braunold, who is a member of the National Executive of the National Union of Students
When I was campaigning to get elected at conference last year, I would go up to delegates and give them my election speech which revolved around my ARAF work and campaign on student housing. After speaking to one delegate, though, I was asked a question that I thought had nothing to do with my election. “Well, are you a Zionist?” A little taken a back, I said, “Yes, I believe in the concept of the state of Israel alongside the concept of the state of Palestine.” The delegate shook their head and said, “Sorry, I can’t vote for a racist,” and walked away.
At the time I shrugged this off as the ignorance of a single delegate and went on to try and persuade more people to vote for me. What I have discovered, though, is that whether in a students’ union or a seminar, the word Zionism is seen as a slur, something you say to make someone feel ashamed or embarrassed.
It’s important at this point to state that I am a proud Jew and a proud Zionist. I believe in the national self determination of the Jewish people in the same way that I believe in the national self determination of the Palestinian people. There is nothing shameful in this belief, nothing that makes me a racist. I am utterly perplexed and at times frustrated by people insisting that I am a morally corrupt person for believing in the above.
What I find astonishing is that it is becoming an acceptable view in the student movement that my belief in national self determination means that I am a legitimate target for hate. If I were to denounce any wish for self government, be happy with the concept of being a minority in every country, with no place to call home, then people would stop hating me and all would be well. If only I could understand that it was my belief in a homeland that leads people to the slip from anti-Zionism into antisemitism then I would see that the best way of avoiding being a victim of racism was to give up the concept of me being a people and settle for me being only a member of a religion – then I too could be a member of the progressive student community and no one would have to wonder if I have a sinister Zionist agenda.
Over the past two months there have been things said to me by students and colleagues, both in formal NEC meetings and informal ‘chats’, that range from offensive to outrageous. I have been told that I am an immoral Jew, that I am one of the bad ones who do not march against Israeli oppression and that there are good moral Jews who march and Zionist Jews who don’t (of course this was said by someone who is not Jewish). I have been told that rather than being a victim of antisemitism, I am the cause of antisemitism, I and my fellow nasty Zionists are responsible for everything that happens to the Jewish community in the UK. Not the people who attempt to burn down synagogues, attack school children on buses, graffiti over Jewish community buildings or who call for death to all Jews; not any of them, but I am the one responsible for the historic rise in antisemitism, I, a member of a people who deserve the homeland that the UN granted us sixty years ago. Lastly I was told that I do not understand how to fight antisemitism and, rather then oppose a rally that intertwines a swastika with a Star of David, I should march alongside that banner to educate the people there….
Sometimes clarity is very important so let me be clear. I have never heard of anyone in the student movement blaming a victim of racism for the abuse they get. I have never heard people justify racism when in pursuit of a political cause (whether legitimate or not). Anyone who racially abuses me because I am a Zionist is wrong as racial abuse is wrong. This is not about me smudging a line between anti-Zionism and antisemitism, but rather pointing out that clear cases of antisemitism such as speakers going around saying it is a rational thing to blow up a synagogue or people actually trying to burn down synagogues, are being explained away by motivations that lie in the Middle East. I don’t give a damn how angry you are about what happens in another part of the world, there is no excuse for people putting up the names and addresses of people’s places of worship on a protest group. Yet it is justified and absolved because the Jews were asking for it – what do they expect if they have a prayer for the safety of the state of Israel in their services. Antisemitism is not contentious and I’m sick of people ringing their hands over it and making excuses.
My aim here is not to open a can of worms, that was done at the last EGM, but to state a message loudly and clearly. To those who feel that it is a slur to accuse someone of being a Zionist I stand up proudly as a Zionist, unashamed and willing to defend it passionately. To those who are disheartened with what they have seen, who are feeling intimidated and low, you have nothing to feel bad about. Though some people like shouting louder and will use more underhand tactics, tactics that they should have to apologise for, to achieve their goals, you have a legitimate voice that should and will be heard.