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Not about anti-Semitism

This is a guest post by Eve Garrard

In spite of the temptation offered by the current goings-on within the Labour Party, this post will not be about anti-Semitism.  It will be about the UCU, but about another and different problem raised by some of its current activities.  I resigned from the UCU some years ago, thankfully shaking its dust from my heels as I walked off into the sunset. But looking at what it’s presently getting up to, some things just don’t seem to have changed.  Consider the motion presented by the Brighton branch for adoption at the next UCU Congress in June (http://www.ucu.org.uk/circ/html/UCU722.html, scroll down to SFC8).  It is, unsurprisingly, about boycotting Israel.  Here are the clauses I want to focus on:

Congress notes:

  1. Government guidance deterring Local Authority boycotts of unethical companies;
  2. ‘counter-radicalisation’ to prevent campus criticism of Israel, and boycott of complicit institutions;
  3. Orchestrated conflation of anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism;
  4. The drive by Israel to access UK campuses for state propaganda via faux debates with selected critics;

………..

Congress believes

  1. a. BDS responds to Western governments’ failure to hold Israel accountable for war crimes and international law violations;
  2. b. Scholars have a duty to ensure voices of the oppressed are not silenced on campuses.

Congress

  1. i. Reaffirms its support for BDS, and for the boycott of Israeli academic and cultural institutions;
  2. ii. Requires union officers to uphold Congress decisions when acting in their UCU capacity, and to resile from such external positions as create conflicts of interest.

Nowhere in the motion’s wording is there any explanation of why Israel is selected for this hostile treatment; why out of the bloodbath that currently engulfs so much of the Middle East, the UCU should choose Israel for punishment. That question, which is the most screamingly obvious one raised by demands to boycott Israel, is one to which the answers given normally range from the pathetic (‘we have to start somewhere’) to the contemptible (‘Israelis are the new Nazis’), so perhaps it’s not surprising that Brighton UCU haven’t come up with anything better, or indeed anything at all.

This will all be very familiar stuff to the readers of this blog. But any attempt to provide a more intellectually satisfying explanation of what is, in Dave Rich’s beautifully concise phrase, the ‘unique fury’ against Israel, is bound to take us to the issue of anti-Semitism, an issue which, as I’ve said, this post isn’t going to address.  So let me draw attention to a different aspect of this motion: it’s remarkably worried about conspiracies.  It refers to ‘counter-radicalisation’, not as a strategy to, you know, reduce radicalisation, but as a plot to prevent criticism of Israel and boycott of ‘complicit institutions’ (which ones are they? who decides? will it be any institution which refuses to treat Israel as a pariah State?   Any one which employs a person whose third cousin twice removed once visited Tel Aviv?) It regards the conflation of anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism as being ‘orchestrated’, though which sinister party is supposedly doing this orchestration is left unnamed.  It considers that academics who publicly argue against the boycott are engaging in false debates which are part of a propaganda drive by Israel itself – so implying that speaking out against the boycott is inevitably duplicitous (‘faux debates’), and that those academics who do so are engaging in a programme of consciously deceitful manipulation (‘propaganda’) at the behest of a foreign country.  (As if some of us would need any extra pressure or inducement to argue against so obviously discriminatory a project as BDS!)

We’re also told that the boycott movement is a response to Western failure to hold Israel responsible for violating international law; and also that the voices of the oppressed are being silenced on campus. The boycotters are merely reacting to other people’s bad behaviour – their failings and silencings – so it’s other people’s fault when boycotters attempt to single out Israel for special punishment.  Boycotters’ hands are clean; whatever they do turns out to be someone else’s – the West’s, the silencers’ – fault.

The overall picture is of a web of conspiracies that can be traced back to the hated foreign power; this to be contrasted with the virtuous behaviour of the boycotters in rushing to remedy the West’s failure to punish Israel for its misdeeds.  Now leave aside the question of which failures to punish other countries should result in boycotts, and of which oppressed people need protection from silencing.  This presentation of the boycott movement as a pure reaction to the failings –  worse, the conspiracies – of others; and the presentation of disagreement with or criticism of the boycott movement as an intentional, deliberate attempt to deceive and manipulate in the service of a foreign power, calls up unpleasant memories of an earlier and far more powerful anti-Zionist and  indeed anti-Jewish movement.  This was a movement which insisted that all should think and speak only in prescribed, approved ways against Israel and all who supported her, and which exacted terrible consequences from many of those who disagreed with it.  No, not the Nazis – it’s the Stalinist flavour of this UCU motion that’s so unpleasantly reminiscent of past moral catastrophes in which parts of the Left were complicit.

What is it about Israel which brings out the Stalinist in some of those who disagree with its policies, or indeed its existence?  A good question, but I shan’t address it, at least not here – I said this post wouldn’t be about anti-Semitism, and I’m going to stick to that …….