The resignation of Oxford University Labour Club (OULC) Co-Chair, Alex Chalmers, this week has since shed light on what appears to be a culture of antisemitism within the club. Many were rightly shocked and appalled at the reports but something else has been bugging me. While I was angered to learn of this “problem with Jews” within one of the most prestigious Labour clubs in the country, I was sadly not surprised at all to hear a story like this on a UK campus.
The reactions to this incident have been very telling. The standard response to the allegations that have been made by someone unaware of the facts would usually be to acknowledge the severity of the claims and call for it to be properly investigated. This has not however been the case by all.
One common reaction is to assume that these allegations must be about Israel before even reading the allegation. Another is to acknowledge the list of allegations but deny that they are antisemitism and insist it is simply anti-Israel as demonstrated by Ken Livingstone this week. There are also others who acknowledged that this was antisemitism but then ask; what about all the other forms of hate? and say ‘well Jews are not a race, they’re part of a religion so it’s not really racism is it’? These ways of reacting are nothing new but the OULC case has certainly provided a good way for them all to occur at once.
The irony of the first response is clear considering that this is an example of what Chalmers stated in his resignation post. As he put it; many dismiss “most accusations of antisemitism [as] just the Zionists crying wolf” and this is too often the case. One clear example was when a member of the National Union of Students (NUS) National Executive Council (NEC) jumped to the assumption that this was about boycotts, divestments and sanctions (BDS) against Israel before it became clear that he had not even read the allegations. No one had even mentioned BDS in this case.
The ‘dismissing it as anti-Israel’ response is also extremely troubling in this case. This is because the allegations against OULC members show a clear link between the extreme anti-Israel rhetoric and blatant antisemitism. When it is the same people who are sharing conspiracy theories about Jewish/Zionist lobbies controlling the world that are celebrating rockets on Tel Aviv, it goes far beyond criticism of the Israeli government. When it is these same people advocating the endorsement of Israeli Apartheid Week then we must question if their motive is to challenge Israeli policies or something else.
Those who respond by asking about other forms of racism identify the next issue. There is a serious problem with those who struggle to recognise that antisemitism is a serious problem. Why can we not see a case of antisemitism and call it out for what it is? Why must people always diminish it relation to other forms of racism? It is also important to highlight that Jews are a people and a race, as well as a religious group. The UK Race Relations act recognises this, and over 95% of Jewish students who responded to the most recent JPR National Jewish Student Survey (2011) identified “feeling a part of the Jewish people” as key to their Jewish identity. Self-definition is held as sacrosanct by many on the left and within student liberation politics. Yet it seems that, just as with national self-determination, for many on the left, self-definition is for everyone… except Jews.
Many on the left are very quick to criticise antisemitism when it is perpetrated by the far-right but it is about time that we acknowledge that antisemitism cannot be attributed to just one part of the political spectrum. Antisemitism can be found across the political spectrum; left, centre and right.
Just last week I was speaking at the NUS Anti-Racism Anti-Fascism conference. I said that when Jewish students have concerns about groups like Cage that NUS officers are working with due to their links to antisemitism, they are too often ignored. Another speaker on the panel proceeded to completely dismiss my concerns and insist Cage should be on as many campuses as possible. A clear example of Jewish students concerns not being taken seriously.
Let’s stop being surprised by antisemitism. It exists in British society, it definitely exists on campus and within student politics. The question is not its existence but how we will combat it.