As a young man I spent several months in Israel, working as a volunteer on a Kibbutz and travelling around the country. It was a fascinating and educating time in my life, seeing up close a society that you have read so much about. Unsurprisingly I found that Israel and Israelis came in all shapes and sizes, with characters as varied as anyone else’s, and with a multitude of political views; I met racists and I met peaceniks and I met people who preferred to talk about premier league football. One thing I did find was a willingness to discuss issues frankly, and a realisation that those issues were complicated.
On my return to England I found that most people found the issues less complicated, that discussions about Israel often contained simplistic assumptions that belied either anti Semitism, anti Arab racism, or both. In such discussions I was often cast as the ‘Zionist’, which was neither accurate nor meant as a compliment. For many years, however my involvement in Middle Eastern politics went no further than these occasional pub debates.
This changed when in my early thirties I had a career change and started teaching at a further education college. I have always been a trade unionist and became active in the local UCU branch as soon as I could. This led to me attending last year’s UCU congress as my branch’s delegate. Before I went I was, of course, aware of the ongoing controversy of the academic boycott debate and had given the issue much thought. I set off to congress ready to vote in favour of motion 25, after all I felt that Israeli government policies were resulting in the oppression of many Palestinians; I felt that Israel had achieved the security it craved; that no one now spoke of destroying Israel; that even the PLO now recognised its right to exist; that Israel was building a wall that destroyed much Palestinian property and hindering progress towards Palestinian statehood. I felt that perhaps motion 25 might be a way of registering my opposition to these policies and helping to persuade the Israeli government to reverse them. I was not going to be voting against Israel, I was going to be voting in favour of those Israelis I had met who appreciated the need for a lasting peace, who favoured the return of land to the Palestinians, who were sick of the toll war took on their society and were aware of the greater toll it took on Palestinians.
What I found when I arrived at congress shocked me. Banners in the hall proclaimed Israel was a racist, colonial usurper state, that Zionism was racism. Whereas Yasser Arafat and most of the Arab world had accepted Israel’s right to exist and a two state solution, many delegates of the UCU had not. Amendments to the motion that would have assuaged my fears about its one sided nature were voted down. The debate was a deeply uncomfortable spectacle for me. The speakers against the motion were openly barracked and denied the opportunity to speak. At one point the chair rose to give her opinion (in favour). When one speaker complained that the motion may be racist, he was shouted down. I didn’t want to vote with these people, so abstained.
Outside the conference hall I spoke with a delegate who was manning an exhibition called ‘another Israel’ highlighting the work of Israeli groups who fight oppression, the occupation and try to foster greater understanding between Israelis and Palestinians. These were surely exactly the type of groups with whom those at congress so concerned about the plight of Palestinians should be making common cause. As it turns out I was the first non Jewish delegate who had shown interest in this exhibition, and this was at four in the afternoon. It appeared that a Jewish delegate manning an exhibition about Israel was viewed with some suspicion.
I believe that the majority of those who voted for motion 25, the majority of those who wish to show solidarity with the Palestinian people, hope for a fair peace in the Middle East and have no problem with Israel beyond the policies of recent governments that hinder peace and show a disregard for Palestinian life and property. As trades unionists it is incumbent upon us to help those who are oppressed and the Palestinians are being oppressed. What worries me is that when talking with life long anti racist campaigners about this issue I end out wincing as the anti Semitic stereotypes fall from their lips. I attended a Gaza solidarity march earlier this year. The march itself was angry, the speeches prone to exaggeration and lacking balance, but there was no anti Semitism voiced from the platform. In the pub afterwards though, I hadn’t finished my first pint before tales of Jewish power and control were being told, that it was hardly surprising that people blamed British Jews in some way, given their overwhelming support for Israel. More recently fellow trade unionists seem to have been angrier at the white boycott of Durban 2 than the fact that a racist was invited to be a keynote speaker.
I know Engage is not about Israel, not about the Palestinians, it’s about anti Semitism. However most anti Semitism I hear is during conversation about Israel; most times I bring the subject up I am accused of missing the point, or diverting attention from the real issue, which is Palestinian suffering. Therefore what I hope to do at congress this year is argue for a solidarity with the Palestinian people that is unequivocal in its criticism of Israeli government and military action where that criticism is due (and it is due far too often). I will also argue against those who distort history to suit their arguments or who slip into racism in their ‘criticisms’. I imagine I will be hoarse by the end!!
History lecturer, Halesowen college.