Norm with a further UCU chestnut.
Instead of annual discussions of boycotts, the UCU might be trying with equal zeal to implement various measures against Islamic extremism. As well as outlawing speakers with extreme views it might, rather like some governments in Europe, have ended up trying to pass motions to ban the niqab and even the hijab from campus. It would be easy to imagine that, faced with such a sustained focus on Islam, even Muslims who thought the veil unnecessary and appreciated that *some* women were being coerced into wearing it, might begin to feel beleaguered. Some might resign, others, worried about their jobs, wouldn’t but would find the atmosphere within the union unwelcome. On the activists’ list ‘Islamism’ would slip into ‘Islam’ and fair points about hate preachers would drift into discussions of (for example) Cambridge being under the thumb of terrorists. When raising their anxieties Muslim UCU members would get accused of being apologists for HuT, or of wanting to close down debates about human rights abuses.
University societies might begin to devote whole weeks to campaigning against Islamism. Clearly some of their targets would be valid ones – yet the relentless and exclusive focus on Islam(ism) as the problem would make Muslim students feel still more beleaguered. If they tried to point out a counterexample, or identify an exaggerated claim, they might get shouted down, or accused of being terrorists.
More resignations follow, But the UCU doesn’t seem that interested, and decides to arrange a conference on the subject of combatting extremism. One invited speaker has been accused of stirring up hatred against Muslims in his own country, of implying that bad things will happen to them if they don’t denounce extremism, of suggesting that should move to countries more compatible with their (supposed) views. Although he claims to have Muslim friends, he said ‘Muslims are savage’ in an online discussion. But the UCU still doesn’t seem that concerned.
… Being on the left has always been about supporting the downtrodden, and since anti-Semitism is and always was about accusing Jews of being insufficiently downtrodden, there are only these rare moments when the obvious left-wing position is to get worked up about anti-Semitism – moments when anti-Semitism’s on-the-ground influence is so great (think the Dreyfus Affair, the Holocaust) that thinking of Jews as victims becomes uncontroversial.
Where does Israel fit into this? The idea that Zionism was and continues to be the national liberation movement of the Jewish people, a flawed movement but a legitimate liberation movement akin to the postcolonial ones all the same, this gets lost because Israel is a wealthy enough country with a white-ish population. The fact that Israel was founded by those Europe had rejected on account of their “Oriental” “race” and told to “go back to Palestine” gets lost and replaced by the idea that Israel’s a country dominated by a bunch of white Europeans – with all the global privilege that entails – who have no place in the Middle East. But the issue isn’t really Israel, or even the fact that the Palestinians are indisputably suffering, somewhat more disputably the non-white party in the conflict (disputably because, Ohad Knoller aside, Jewish Israeli’s aren’t all that white) – it’s about how Jews are perceived at home. I suspect that many in America picture Israel as basically a wealthy American suburb, a great big West End Avenue by the sea….
… The extensive and intensive spread of such global conspiratorial thought was dramatically revealed recently by the Egyptian television series Horseman without a Horse, which made use of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion as a historical source, and the spread in the Arab media of medieval Christian blood libel charges — that Jews kill non-Jewish children in order to use their blood for ritual purposes.
This development should be taken seriously. It should neither be treated as a somewhat exaggerated manifestation of an understandable reaction to Israeli and American policies, nor should it be bracketed as a result of the dualistically grounded fear that focusing on it can only further Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. Grasping its political significance, however, requires understanding modern anti-Semitism. On the one hand, modern anti-Semitism is a form of
essentializing discourse that, like all such forms, understands social and historical phenomena in biologistic or culturalistic terms. On the other hand, anti-Semitism can be distinguished from other essentializing forms, such as most forms of racism, by its populist and apparently antihegemonic, antiglobal character. Whereas most forms of race thinking commonly impute concrete bodily and sexual power to the Other, modern anti-Semitism attributes enormous power to Jews, which is abstract, universal, global, and intangible. At the heart of modern anti-Semitism is a notion of the Jews as an immensely powerful, secret international conspiracy.
I have argued elsewhere that the modern anti-Semitic worldview understands the abstract domination of capital — which subjects people to the compulsion of mysterious forces they cannot perceive — as the domination of International Jewry.
Anti-Semitism, consequently, can appear to be antihegemonic. This is the reason why a century ago August Bebel, the German Social Democratic leader, characterized it as the socialism of fools. Given its subsequent development, it could also have been called the anti-imperialism of fools. As a fetishized form of oppositional consciousness, it is particularly dangerous because it appears to be antihegemonic, the expression of a movement of the little people against an intangible, global form of domination. It is as a fetishized, profoundly reactionary form of anti-capitalism that I would like to begin discussing the recent surge of modern anti-Semitism in the Arab World….
“The working definition notes that, with all these possible diagnostic criteria, the overall context must be taken into account when making a judgement. One probably isn’t going to fret too much about the ‘overall context’ of a call to genocide. But it is true that some of the criteria are calculated to help identify rather less threatening cases, including the accidental use of an antisemitic trope, which – just like a single chance use of the epithet ‘narcissistic’ to describe a homosexual – should probably be overlooked. But where there is a whole cluster of subtle innuendos in a single article the Working Definition can help pinpoint a real problem. For in order to be truly useful any guidelines for helping identify prejudice must go beyond the obvious. For example, burning a mosque is pretty clearly Islamophobic, but what about criticising Halal slaughter? Here, as with antisemitic tropes, there would be a need to look at the overall context. The issue of Halal food is certainly often manipulated by anti-Muslim bigots – but that fact shouldn’t be used to close down debate about animal welfare. “
30 June 2011
Dear Sally Hunt,
We have all been members of UCU and its predecessors throughout our careers. We are also, however, members of the Scottish Council of Jewish Communities, the representative council for Scotland’s Jewish communities. Now that UCU has adopted a racist policy towards Jews, these positions have become incompatible. We are resigning in consequence.
At the end of May, the UCU Congress adopted motion 70 on antisemitism. The resolution criticises the definition of antisemitism proposed by the European Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia (EUMC) and now sponsored by the European Union’s Agency for Fundamental Rights. The resolution states that UCU will make no use of this definition of antisemitism, and that it will dissociate itself from the definition. It takes the view that the effect of objecting to antisemitic comment is to “silence debate”. In other words, UCU is claiming a licence to vilify Jews in service of its political aims.
The EUMC definition, which you have rejected, reflects the perceptions of many people in the Jewish community at large. The Macpherson report’s test for racist action is widely accepted: “a racist incident is any incident which is perceived to be racist by the victim or any other person.” The problems identified in the EUMC definition are all problems of which the Jewish community in the UK is acutely aware, and the denial of those problems is a denial of our experience.
The definition gives a range of examples of positions to avoid. Antisemitism is often presented covertly – holocaust denial is an example – and it has become common for antisemitic comments to be masquerade as comments about Israel. Last year, SCoJeC explained the problems to the Scottish Trades Union Congress in these terms:
“… criticism of Israel is often expressed in racist terms. When you read, for example, that Israel’s behaviour is determined by the character of the Jewish people, that a powerful Zionist lobby exerts a sinister influence on Western governments, or that Israel is setting out to kill non-Jewish children, you are reading the politics of hate.”
The issues identified by the EUMC, such as “holding Jews collectively responsible for actions of the state of Israel”, have been at the root of intimidation and harassment of Jews in Britain.
As officers and members of the Scottish Council of Jewish Communities, we take no position on Israel. Our role, and democratic remit, is to represent the interests of Jewish people in Scotland. We have grave concerns in this respect. The racist propaganda brought in the wake of the Middle East crisis has exposed Jewish people in Scotland and the UK to a wave of hostility. From a recent survey, more than half the Jews witnessing antisemitic incidents attribute those incidents to anti-Israeli sentiment. This is the situation you are feeding.
The UCU resolution claims that the effect of accepting restrictions on what might be said is to “silence debate”. The motion declares that defining antisemitism in the terms of the EUMC definition “confuses criticism of Israeli government policy and actions with genuine antisemitism”. On the contrary, that distinction is made by the document you are attacking: it says explicitly that “criticism of Israel similar to that leveled against any other country cannot be regarded as antisemitic”. It is UCU that has failed to recognise the distinction. The heading on the order paper states openly that the resolution is about antisemitism. The resolution seeks to remove restrictions on people’s ability to make antisemitic statements, so long as they appear in the form of criticism of Israel. Your resolution gives licence to racists.
UCU continues to claim, despite all the evidence to the contrary, that it remains opposed to racism. Congress chose to ignore what they were told in the debate: Ronnie Fraser said: “I, a Jewish member of this union, am telling you, that I feel an antisemitic mood in
this union and even in this room. I would feel your refusal to engage with the EUMC definition of antisemitism, if you pass this motion, as a racist act.” By the Macpherson test, you had a duty to listen. You did not listen. This is a racist policy.
We cannot continue to participate in a union which legitimises antisemitism.
Professor Paul Spicker, The Robert Gordon University, UCU no 7561
Ephraim Borowski, formerly Glasgow University; former President, Glasgow AUT and national Trustee; AUT member no 9975
Walter Sneader, formerly University of Strathclyde, UCU no 28619 (resigned May 2011)
Prof Gillian Raab, St Andrews University, UCU no 5741
In 2009 UCU Congress was asked to mandate the union to investigate resignations. But Congress said no, it didn’t want an investigation into why people were resigning from the union citing antisemitism as a reason.
Other UCU members who have spoken out:
39 UCU members signed a public protest at the UCU’s refusal to meet with Ger Weisskirchen at his request. Weisskirchen is the OSCE’s Chairman-in-Office Representative on antisemitism. The protest, which went unheeded and ignored by the UCU.
In Slate, Rutgers professor of History David Greenberg reflects on Yale’s closure of YIISA, its establishment of YPSA, and how his political left ceded concern about antisemitism to the conservatives.
He ends with a not very optimistic assessment of general historical awareness of antisemitism which had served to chill anti-Jewish sentiment in recent decades, and a call for attention to how a commitment to concern about antisemitism can be renewed among progressives.
(Caution, the 247 comments to the piece get off to a bad start – not sure if they improve.)
Hat tip: @EquusontheBuses
Addendum: in the comments below Ignoblus links to an response by Phoebe who is “neck deep in 1840s France”, a piece about the historically populist appeal of economic antisemitism in the ‘first world’ – a world which today is experiencing fresh schism between marginalised and privileged.
Solidarity with the Palestinians is good – who could argue against it?
But the Palestine Solidarity Campaign is not good. See Mira’s links.
… Stephen Leah, a lay preacher from York PSC who worked up a report on Israel calling for Methodists to boycott settlement goods from the Occupied Territories. In compiling his report, Leah drew heavily from a variety of anti-Jewish sources – mostly linked to the Sabeel and Friends of Sabeel networks.
In short, UCU, supposedly representing the cream of our intelligent people has, in its ignorance, rather shown itself deserving of our condemnation.
We must always be aware of the dangers of race-paranoia. But the reverse is also true: we are sometimes not aware of racism that really exists – like, for example, when institutional racism in the Met was highlighted by the MacPherson report – and that not everyone quite is as enlightened as we think.
UCU is just an example of a worrying wider trend. We spend a lot of time rightly criticising the white racists of the BNP and the EDL. But it’s high time we confronted those who condone those other kinds of racism around us. Before they really start to hurt the credibility, and the ethos, of the whole Labour movement.