BDS South Africa: Esakov responds to antisemitism at Wits

Here’s an interesting response to recent events at Wits University, when a concert given by an Israeli musician, Daniel Zamir, was met with protests, including chants of ‘shoot the Jew’, echoing a well known anti-Boer song. The writer, Heidi-Jane Esakov, is a BDS activist.  In this piece she explains that her support for this policy is driven by her hopes for justice and equality for the Palestinian people, and ‘a just peace for Jewish Israelis’.  However much I disagree with BDS (particularly when it targets cultural and academic exchanges) I take her explanation at face value, as well as her repudiation of racism:

“Of course we recognise that there are those who use the Palestinian struggle as a way to camouflage their anti-Semitism, and this needs to be dealt with unequivocally. Not because it is bad for the movement, but because, fundamentally, anti-Semitism should never be tolerated.”

This seems quite a strong statement.  I have more than once felt that expressions of disapproval for antisemitism in Palestinian solidarity circles have been driven (primarily) by strategic motives – ‘bad for the movement’ as she puts it – so it is good that she addresses this possibility head on, although I am not sure she succeeds in dealing ‘unequivocally’ with the issue in the rest of the article.

The next bit is – from my perspective – not so good:

Those of us who support the struggle for Palestinian freedom and justice constantly find ourselves up against attempts to conflate challenges against Zionism and Israeli policies with anti-Semitism. These accusations are an attempt to silence criticism, and dangerously distract from real acts and expressions of anti-Semitism.

The Livingstone formulation.  With any kind of prejudice, it’s inevitable that people’s thresholds are going to be set slightly differently, and one can disagree about these without accusing people of speaking in bad faith.

Although Esakov condemns the ‘dubula e Juda’ song, she tries to (partially) excuse those responsible, by explaining that in the original ‘Boer’ song:

… the word ‘Boer’ [was] commonly understood as representing an oppressive system, not a particular ethnic group.  However the song has in fact been officially declared to be hate speech within South Africa, so this claim seems dubious.

There have been allegations by BDS supporters of ‘racial profiling’ against those who sought to ensure the concert would not be disrupted.  Esakov describes this background to the events with a confusing blend of honesty and prevarication:

 In order to prevent any disturbance of the concert by protesters, concert organisers, primarily, the South African Zionist Federation (SAZF) and South African Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD), had block-booked the venue to ensure control of who could – and, more accurately, who couldn’t – attend. Simply put, concert goers were racially profiled.

The Palestinian solidarity movement takes great pains to distinguish between Zionism and Judaism. This time, however, they got it very wrong, with various media statements asserting that they would be protesting a ‘Jewish only’ concert. This was an irresponsible oversimplification of the racial profiling that was indeed taking place. A more accurate description would have been a ‘Zionists only concert’. It is thus somewhat understandable that some of the protesters may have understood that they were protesting against Jews, and not the racism of ‘racial profiling’.

She begins by implicitly acknowledging that reports of racial profiling were misleading. But she then seems to suggest that it was in fact an instance of racial profiling – not of Jews but of Zionists.  What this really means is that people were trying to make sure the concert passed off smoothly – by Esakov’s logic any event staffed by the CST involves ‘racial profiling’.  Then in a particularly convoluted move she uses the fact the event was tendentiously described as ‘Jewish only’ to excuse the chanting – see the final bizarre sentence in bold.

But at the end of the article she returns to her starting point, and to the important fact that too many have remained silent over this issue:

Although a number of individuals and organisations linked to the Palestinian solidarity movement came out in strong condemnation of the use of the ‘shoot the Jew’ slogan, it was deeply concerning to see how many organisations aligned to the movement have remained silent. There seems to be a lack of awareness that you can only challenge racism from within a principled, anti-racist position. Challenging all expressions of racism also means challenging anti-Semitism. Not doing that severely undermines the movement and the principles it upholds.

Although it is true that she is not the only BDS activist to condemn the song, she glosses over the fact that Muhammed Desai, Chair of BDS South Africa, has not simply brushed aside criticism, but actively belittled people’s concerns about antisemitism:

He said there was no evidence of Jews being harmed because of anti-Semitic impulses, – “the whole idea anti-Semitism is blown out of proportion”.  He said if there were anti-Semitic sentiments they would flatly challenge it even if it came from within their protest

St Andrews J-Soc Ball cancelled following threats

It was reported this morning that the Golf Hotel in St Andrews had cancelled a J-Soc Ball, scheduled for tonight, because of pressure from protestors who objected to the fact that proceeds from the ball were going to support charities which included the Jewish National Fund and Friends of the Israeli Defence Forces, as well as Elem, which seeks to help homeless Jewish and Arab youth in Israel.

The hotel manager explained that he had received threatening phone calls and emails, and felt that a planned demonstration by the Scottish Palestine Solidarity Committee raised health and safety concerns for the hotel’s staff and guests.  Although people should be free to demonstrate, the SPSC typically goes further, and tries to disrupt and close down events of which it disapproves. In 2011 a member of the SPSC was found guilty of a racist breach of the peace after he abused a Jewish student’s flag of Israel.

A spokesman from the Glasgow Jewish Representative Council expressed his great disappointment that a ‘hotel of its stature had caved in so easily to intimidation’.

Update: The ball eventually went ahead in an undisclosed location.  Here’s some more information about the more aggressive responses it attracted.

Fears arose that the protest would turn violent when anti-Semitic comments were posted on Facebook. One protester wrote: “Friday we send them into hell.” Another, commenting on the police’s presence at the ball, said: “Mi5 Mossad boot boys don’t stand a chance.”

The SPSC spokesperson condemned any threats.

A brave campaign from the Union of Jewish Students

This is a cross post from Jak at Reduard

The Union of Jewish Students have announced a new Israel campaign for the upcoming academic year, one which signals a radical break from past UJS hasbara efforts.

As the JC reports:

Jewish students arriving at universities in the next fortnight will be asked to pledge their support to “two states for two peoples”, hand out Israeli and Palestinian flags, and support “freedom, justice and equality” for all.
There is a belief within UJS that standard advocacy efforts “do not cut it any more” because “students are not stupid”. Students will be encouraged to back the “liberation” of Israelis from Palestinian terror, and Palestinians through the formation of a new state.

To say this has stoked up debate online would be the understatement of the year. A Facebook group is doing the rounds, calling the campaign ‘disgraceful’ and ‘utterly crazy’.

Now, I was on campus for four years at a university widely consider to be a hotbed of extreme anti-Zionism and led a wide variety of Israel campaigns. We did all the standard campaigns that anyone who has been on a UK campus will recognise – we handed out falafel, had speakers from the Israeli Embassy, had film showings, talked about how welcoming Israel was to women/homosexuals/religious minorities etc etc. All were good campaigns, well organised and relatively successful. But what they didn’t do is change the narrative on campus. Hateful  anti-Israel diatribes would still appear in the student rag on a weekly basis, the Palestine society would still shout outside university buildings about the ‘holocaust’ in Gaza, and any ordinary student with any sense whatsoever simply ran a mile in the opposite direction – and understandably so. We are facing a new reality on our campuses – the old arguments about settlements or the security barrier are being replaced by a debate about the mere existence of Israel as a Jewish state. Zionism is a dirty word for many students – associated with oppression rather than liberation. Explaining Israel is no longer enough – what is needed is a dialogue, not just about Israel but about the very ideas behind Israel – Zionism, liberation, and self determination for the Jewish people. UJS is in a sense implementing is a back to basics campaign, focusing on ideas and concepts rather than specific policies.

As for those annoyed that UJS is advocating a Palestinian state, I would say this: it is morally dishonest to advocate self-determination for one group of people and not the other. Jews and Palestinians both need and deserve a homeland. Yes there may be a debate about the future borders or composition of those states, but the idea of self-determination is a universal one. It’s why groups like the Palestinian Solidarity Campaign and their ilk will always be hypocritical, bigoted and discriminatory organisations – they vehemently support the self-determination of one nation whilst completely ignoring the rights of others. UJS should be proud of taking such a principled stance on the issue, especially as they must have been aware of the potential backlash it could cause.

The campaign is a brave step for UJS, and it may or may not work. But at least it is attempting something different. The naysayers and critics should step back and honestly ask themselves whether they really think the current strategy is working. Surely all evidence suggests that it is not? Burying heads in the sand and pointing to Golda Meir being a female as an example of Israeli progressiveness frankly no longer cuts it.

A drunk man looks at the Israeli flag – Stan Crooke

Paul Donnachie and his friend, students at St Andrews University, turned up at Chanan Reitblat’s flat in a university hall of residence in the small hours of 12th March to check up on their friend, Reitblat’s flatmate. Donnachie saw an Israeli flag above Reitblat’s bed and flew into a rage. There followed a court case which saw Donnachie found guilty of racially aggravated breach of the peace (i.e. that he acted a manner which was racially aggravated and which caused, or was intended to cause, a person alarm or distress), sentenced to community service and fined. Through his tears Donnachie protested in all sincerity that he was an anti-racist. St Andrews was unimpressed and expelled him.

From the BBC,

“Sentencing Donnachie, a history student and member of the Scottish Palestine Solidarity Campaign, sheriff Charlie Macnair said: “This flag was his personal property. I consider that your behaviour did evince malice towards Mr Reitblat because of his presumed membership of Israel.

“I’m satisfied that you said Israel was a terrorist state and the flag was a terrorist symbol and I also hold that you said that Mr Reitblat was a terrorist.””

An account of the incident and its aftermath, with particular focus on the vindictive fury of the Scottish Palestine Solidarity Campaign and the anti-Israel fellowship, by Stan Crooke at the AWL.

Natalie Rothschild – potted Pappé

Natalie Rothschild begins her review of Ilan Pappé’s new book,

“The most astute observation in Israeli historian Ilan Pappé’s book Out of the Frame: The Struggle For Academic Freedom In Israel is that writing about himself was an ‘embarrassing’ experience. Rarely has so much poorly structured, skewed and conceited tripe been squeezed into 220 pages.”

Read on.

Noam Edry – Zionist art at Goldsmiths

This piece by Karen Glaser is from Jpost.com.

Noam Edry

Artistic defiance

Noam Edry decided to challenge demonization against Israel on her campus in her own creative way by breaking taboos through ‘zionist’ art.

That this Israeli artist has ruffled British feathers is obvious from the moment I walk through the door of the world-famous art college.  “I’ve come to see Noam Edry’s show. Could you direct me?” I ask the student- steward at reception.  “Just follow the noise,” she replies with an ironic smirk. “It’s impossible to ignore.”

It’s true: Edry’s MA graduate show at Goldsmiths College is one noisy piece of installation art. But this is not why it has been impossible to ignore. Edry’s exhibition has been impossible to ignore because it is a Zionist take on the Middle East conflict — on display in an institution that routinely refers to Israel as an apartheid state.

Actually it’s more complicated. “Conversation Pieces: Scenes of Unfashionable Life” is an installation comprising paintings, drawings, video, sound, sculpture and performance that look at the Arab-Israeli conflict through the artist’s Jewish-Israeli eyes. In so doing, it tries to challenge the ways in which people arrive at their political opinions.  A lot of the individual exhibits are ambiguous and open-ended. But knowing how reviled the Jewish state has become on many British campuses, and preempting, surely, her detractors, Edry herself writes: “Call it a Zionist show, call it what you like.” She is, in short, being provocative.

You could see this provocation as a riposte to months of antagonism from the other side. When Edry moved to London to start her master’s in Fine Art, following a first degree at the Bezalel Academy of Art and Design, she thought she was on reprieve from the Middle East. The world’s most bitter conflict was certainly the last subject on which she expected to be making art.  “I had always thought of myself as apolitical,” she says. “I was sure of one thing only – that the conflict was not as simple or clear-cut as a black-and-white painting.”

But then, on her first day at Goldsmiths, the Ramat Yohanan kibbutznik was assailed by posters at the university calling her homeland an apartheid state.

It was a punch to the stomach: “Apartheid? In what way? I had gone to art college with Arab artists where we had built our exhibitions side by side. Before that I had served in the army with Beduin, sharing the same awful, oily food and consoling ourselves with Arab coffee that we brewed for each other in makeshift pots. My army commander was a Druse.”

EDRY’S INITIAL response was to lie low, a tactic that most Israelis at Goldsmiths, of whom there is a good handful every academic year, employ for the duration of their degrees. During her first year, she never brought up the Israel-Palestine question, and she certainly didn’t make art about her Israeli identity.

But it didn’t work. Edry was constantly confronted about the conflict – on the way back from a party, over lunch or a cup of coffee in the student union bar. And there were ever more posters plastered on the university’s walls – ostensibly about her homeland, but actually depicting a place that was “barely recognizable, so crass was the misrepresentation.”

When she attended a meeting of the Palestine Twinning Campaign, it felt, she says, like the clock had rewound to 1939.  “I was expecting real dialogue, but instead they were calling for an academic boycott of Israel, rallying young people who were desperate to be passionate about something to silence people like me – artists and intellectuals who believe in human beings and mutual tolerance, the very people who are, in fact, the real hope for peace in the region,” she says. “I was horrified.  What next? Would they start burning Israeli books?”

Not yet. But what she did next was to make a complex work challenging the relentless campus demonization of the Jewish state.

The show begins in a corridor outside the studio, where Jewish Israelis serve Arab-Israeli coffee to members of the public while wearing, and giving out, T-shirts with the slogan “I come from the most hated place on earth” – continuing on the back, “second to Iran.” Before you enter the room, a security guard checks your bag; he’s part of the show, but for me, at least, it took time for the penny to drop.  Inside, there is a massage therapist rehabilitating volunteers’ left sides.

The noise to which the student-steward sniffily referred comes from various sources: a video installation screened on an ’80s portable television, entitled Groovy Little War Mix and featuring war footage (including a simulated bombing of Goldsmiths College) mixed with music that scratches back and forwards; another video of Edry talking about her work; and a live performance that includes a screaming woman running into the room before hysterically throwing herself on the floor and disappearing in what looks like a pile of mud. Two words spring immediately to mind: suicide bomb.

THE STEWARD isn’t the only person to object to the volume. Students in neighboring studios have complained that her noise is “infiltrating our space.” And a visiting gallerist asks her how she managed to get such a big room for her show. Not everyone understands her ironic answer to both questions: “I am Israeli. What do you expect?”

Irony born of bitter experience. When she was preparing her show, several of her tutors nicknamed her “The Zionist Terrorist.” She thinks they were being playful, but it can’t have been much fun. Other teachers said that because they disagreed with her political persuasion, they found it hard to discuss her ideas with her. To which she replied: “But this work is not about the politics of the Middle East – about who is right and who is wrong.”

Despite this, she says her tutors have generally been supportive and, more important, genuinely intrigued by the finished work. “They have certainly been asking me lots of questions. It shows, I think, that you can make art from an unpopular political position and it can still affect people and be open-ended.”

This open-endedness also affects, and baffles, many of the thousands of visitors who come to see her show. Yes, thousands.  This year at Goldsmiths, it is a Bezalel alumnus who has the art world talking – in all directions.

Here’s one exchange.  Visitor: “I don’t want to offend anyone, but I am pro-Palestinian. What position are you?” Edry: “Well, have a coffee, walk around and see what you think.” Visitor, after her walk-around: “You know, I don’t understand this issue of homeland. It’s not in my DNA, I’m Australian. l think I still have my prejudices, but maybe that’s because my friends are all pro-Palestinian. But I do, er, hate Zionists [pause]. Well, you wouldn’t be in favor of what’s happening in your country, that’s for sure… I guess?”

Or the man who comes in shouting, “This is just all propaganda! Everything you say about Hamas is rubbish [although nothing is directly said about Hamas in the piece]. I know what Israel is like. I read the papers” – but who, after extensive conversation with the coffee-stand volunteers, leaves saying, “Okay, maybe, I don’t know.”

And the student who tells Edry, “You seem to me to be someone who supports the demolition of Palestinian homes.” “Really?” she asks. “Why do you say that? Do you see that in my work?” “I don’t know,” the student says. “I can’t quite put my finger on it.”

Meanwhile, other Brits, perhaps more ignorant about the Middle East than they realize, can’t quite put their finger on the artist’s ethnicity, asking, “Are you Israeli or Palestinian?” And they certainly don’t know what to make of ironic graffiti such as “Zionist prick” and “The bad guys are coming.” The Hebrew graffiti scrawled across walls is, naturally, even more confusing. “For me, just writing in my mother tongue was to break a big taboo,” says Edry. “ As was writing the word ‘Zionist.’ I felt so good when I had done it.”

TABOO. THE word goes to the heart of this artwork. Zionism is arguably the most unpopular ideology in art circles, and Goldsmiths – the alma mater of artists such as Damien Hirst and Sarah Lucas – is at the center of the British art world. The London University college is also the birthplace of Engage, a campaign against academic boycotts of Israel, founded by sociology lecturer David Hirsh; its website has become a crucial resource for countering anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism in British academia.

However, it’s fair to say that most Israeli artists at Goldsmiths deal with the discomfort of campus anti-Zionism by either keeping quiet or joining in the criticism – which some would call self-abnegation.

Edry has done the precise opposite. “In my first year at Goldsmiths, I felt voiceless. I saw the daily delegitimization of my country, the dehumanization of the place which made me who I am, and I felt powerless. I didn’t have the words, the flashy slogans and the fashionable labels,” she recalls. “This work has been my voice. I have forced dialogue to take place and I have shown Israel’s detractors the faces of the people [the coffee-stand volunteers] affected by their hate campaign.  There is now an Israeli voice in Goldsmiths, and it’s loud and won’t be silenced.”

And in the process, she has also been given a voice in her native land. Since the Goldsmiths show, there has been interest aplenty from British and American galleries and art collectors. This week, the artist also had calls from two major Israeli museums. In her (noisy) video, she says she thinks her kind of political art will ruffle Israeli feathers, too. We’ll see.

This piece by Karen Glaser is from Jpost.com.

“Goldsmiths Made Me a Fundamentalist” – Noam Edry

On Thursday 14 July you are all invited to the opening of my show “Conversation Pieces: Scenes of Unfashionable Life”, a mini solo-show at the rear of the Baths Studios of Goldsmiths College as part of the MFA Fine Art Degree Show. It comprises of painting, sculpture, video and live performances all dealing with the Arab-Israeli conflict from my own Israeli point of view. Call it a Zionist show, call it what you like. If anyone would have told me two years ago, when I came to London to start my MA in Fine Art, that I would be making a show about the conflict, I would have laughed straight away. I had always thought of myself as a-political. I never thought I had an opinion about politics, right, wrong, I only knew one thing: that I didn’t know. That things were not as simple or clear-cut as a black and white painting and that there were so many other issues I could address as an artist.

But then on my first day at Goldsmiths I was confronted by propaganda posters on the student union walls calling my country an “apartheid state”. It was the first time I had heard of it. Apartheid. How? In what way? I went to art school in Jerusalem with fellow Arab artists. We built our exhibitions together side by side, helping each other. I served in the Israeli army with Arabs and ate the same oily army food with them, and consoled myself with the same Arabic coffee that we brewed together in a small makeshift pot. My own army commander was Druze. All of a sudden I felt threatened and unwelcome here in Britain. I grew up in London from the age of five until I was seventeen but this was a very different London than the one I remembered so fondly.

In the first year at Goldsmiths I lay low, I tried fitting in, I refused to make work about my Israeli identity or anything that had to do with it. But it was simply not good enough. Because I was constantly confronted with questions, accusations, labels. It would happen on the way back from a party or over a casual cup of coffee. I saw more posters and protests and boycotts slandering my home, the place that made me who I am, a place that was barely recognisable in those posters. I saw the crass misrepresentation of my region and its de-legitimisation on a daily basis and I felt powerless. I did not have the words, I did not have the flashy slogans and the fashionable labels.

When I attended a meeting of the Palestine Twinning Campaign at Goldsmiths I felt like it was 1939 all over again. I was expecting a real dialogue but instead they were calling for academic boycotts of Israel, they were rallying young students who were desperate to be passionate about something to silence people like me; to silence artists and intellectuals who believe in human beings and mutual tolerance, who are the real hope for peace and for a bright future. I was horrified. What next? Would they start burning Israeli books? I promptly made the work “Save the Date” where I dressed up as a giant boycotted Israeli date and pleaded with my fellow artists to eat me. I performed it twice at Goldsmiths but the second performance was boycotted by the students. What utter absurdity, I thought: to boycott a performance about boycotting!

Documentation of the performance “Save the Date” will be screened at my upcoming show opening this Thursday. Also on show will be “Coffee Stand”, a work that challenges the demonising of Israel on UK campuses. The stand will be situated at the entrance to my show and manned by Israeli and Jewish volunteers, who will serve Arabic-Israeli coffee to members of the public. They will wear T-shirts designed and hand-printed by me with the text: “I come from the most hated place on earth” and on the back: “(second to Iran)”. Those who wish to take part by wearing a t-shirt at the show will be given one for keeps. You are all welcome to come and see it. There will also be a holistic therapist ready to rehabilitate your left side. Those who have tried it have felt the change.

I hope to generate real dialogue here, a conversation over a friendly cup of coffee, to show the faces of those directly affected by the hate-campaign, the demonization and the de-humanisation. Because, after all, what does it mean to hate a country? What is a country if not its people? What does it mean to hate a person simply because of the place where he/she was born? What good does it do?

I believe in human beings. I believe that each and every one of us seeks happiness.  If people want to be passionate about a cause they should know what it is they are rallying for. And make sure they are not trampling on someone else in the process. Passion is good when it is channelled in positive ways. When tolerance and well-being is the real goal and not the adrenaline rush of a good fight.

There is an Israeli voice in Goldsmiths. There is a Jewish voice in Goldsmiths. It is loud and it is here and it will not be silenced.

Noam Edry

 “Conversation Pieces: Scenes of Unfashionable Life” opens Thursday 14 July 6-9pm at the Goldsmiths MFA Degree Show

 Baths Building, Laurie Grove, New Cross, SE14 6NW

Opening times: Friday 15 – Monday 19 July 10am-7pm, Sunday 18 July 10 am – 4pm

 The Coffee Stand opens for the duration of the Private View, Thursday 14 July 6-9pm

And then every day Friday15-Monday 19 from 12noon – 3pm

 Hope to see you all there!

Letters about UCU’s rejection of EUMC Antisemitism guidelines

From a piece in the Times Higher,

Vivian Wineman, president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, wrote to vice-chancellors on 1 June.

“Following these developments, and in light of UCU’s history of behaviour, we now believe it to be an institutionally racist organisation,”

Sarah Annes Brown writes:

“Delegates at the UCU congress voted overwhelmingly for a motion to reject the European Union Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia’s (EUMC) working definition of anti-Semitism, a set of guidelines drawn up in 2005.

The motion states that despite not being ratified by the UK government or by the European Union, the definition is being used by bodies such as the National Union of Students and local students’ unions in relation to activities on campus.

“Congress believes that the EUMC definition confuses criticism of Israeli government policy and actions with genuine anti-Semitism, and is being used to silence debate about Israel and Palestine on campus.”

It goes on to say: “that UCU will make no use of the EUMC definition (eg, in educating members or dealing with internal complaints); that UCU will dissociate itself from the EUMC definition in any public discussion on the matter in which UCU is involved; that UCU will campaign for open debate on campus concerning Israel’s past history and current policy, while continuing to combat all forms of racial or religious discrimination”.

This motion is related to the UCU’s longstanding preoccupation with an academic boycott of Israel. Many members have resigned over this matter and others have expressed great disquiet. The union has refused to deal with members’ concerns and in 2009 voted down a motion to investigate the resignations.

In the same year, it invited Bongani Masuku, international relations secretary of COSATU (South Africa’s equivalent of the TUC), to speak at a seminar to discuss a boycott of Israel, even though the South African Human Rights Commission had deemed that Masuku’s statements amounted to hate speech against the country’s Jewish community.

It seems quite bizarre for the union to proscribe any consideration of the working definition, to dismiss the whole document and to resolve to disassociate itself from it in any relevant public discussion.

Should this really be a priority for members when higher and further education face unprecedented cuts and a radical overhaul of fees?

Sarah Annes Brown, Professor of English literature, Anglia Ruskin University”

 

Ben Gidley – The Case of Anti-Semitism in the University and College Union

In response to the University and College Union’s Congress Motion 70 to banish the EUMC Working Definition of Antisemitism, Ben Gidley, an academic who studies racism, has a piece in the Dissent blog Arguing the World, titled ‘The Politics of Defining Racism: The Case of Anti-Semitism in the University and College Union‘, which we have permission to reproduce in full.

~~~

My trade union, the University and College Union (UCU, representing professionals in further and higher education in the United Kingdom), has its annual congress this weekend, and, under the title “Campaigning for equality,” will be debating a number of motions on racism and discrimination, including one on how anti-Semitism should be defined.

Unions need policies on such things, because union case work, on relations between employees and management and among colleagues, often involves discrimination and harassment that may be racist. At times like now, when there are huge cuts in higher education and academics are being placed under ever more performance pressure by management, harassment and workplace tensions can increase, and these issues become even more important.

But there are many difficulties in addressing racism.

Racism is mercurial. It mutates over time. Pseudoscientific racial theories are now spouted only by marginal cranks. Notions that different races are different species have come and gone; eugenics has come and gone; words like “Aryan” and “Semitic” are starting to sound quaint. The period since the 1980s has seen the rise of cultural racism, or racism that focuses on cultural differences rather than biological ones.

Racism is promiscuous. It will use whatever materials it has at hand. In the age when the Church dominated European ways of thinking, racism used a Biblical language; Jews were attacked as Christ-killers, black people were condemned as under the curse of Ham. With the modern rise of scientific disciplines, racism had access to a whole new language. When that language was discredited by the Nazi genocide, new forms of expression were found—those others don’t share our way of life, they cook food that smells, they control the media, or they have a culture of criminality.

Racism proceeds through euphemism and code. At various points, “aliens,” “cosmopolitan,” “Zionist,” and “finance capital” have served as euphemisms for Jews; while the Nazis spoke about sub-humans, today’s anti-Semites mutter about Lehman Brothers or Goldman Sachs. Sometimes it is impossible to distinguish the code from what’s behind it—are Muslims hated by racists in Western Europe because of their perceived color and culture, or are North Africans and South Asians hated because they are Muslim?

Some racists wear Ku Klux Klan uniforms, or shave their heads and perform Nazi salutes. But others wear suits and ties and talk about “free speech” or the “rights of the indigenous people.” We’re not against black people, says the British National Party, we’re just for white people. We’re not fascists, says the rebranded National Front in France, we even have a black candidate.

Libraries full of books and journals full of articles are devoted to debating, dissecting, and defining racism in general, and tracking its specific mutations. For every definition or classification proposed, there are qualifications, exceptions, counterexamples, refutations. No one-page definition would be universally accepted by scholars.

But in the streets, in the workplace, and in the courts of law, you need something more straightforward. When a grassroots civil society organization monitors racist incidents, when a union is asked to represent a colleague that has been the victim of racist bullying, when a lawyer prosecutes a racially aggravated crime, when an editorial assistant has to moderate an op-ed comment thread where temperatures have been raised—you might need some kind of working definition to rule the incident in or out. If all racists looked like booted boneheads or evil Nazis, these people would have an easy job.

A few principles have emerged from the anti-racist movement to help decide a case. Three are particularly relevant. First, the victims of racism should have at least some say in defining racism. This principle is reflected, for example, in British law. Following the racist murder and failure to prosecute the killers of Stephen Lawrence, a black teenager, in London, there was a thorough review of the case that profoundly changed how the criminal justice system in the United Kingdom addresses these issues, presided over by Sir William Macpherson of Cluny.

The ensuing Macpherson Report in 1999 recommended that a racist incident be defined as “any incident which is perceived to be racist by the victim or any other person,” and reported, recorded, and investigated as such. Of course, the offense taken by someone who sees him or herself as a victim can never be a sufficient criterion for ruling and convicting someone of a racially motivated or aggravated crime, but the victim’s voice should be heard and constitutes at least prima facie grounds for taking the allegation seriously. And this principle also means, for instance, that black people should have a role in defining anti-black racism, that Jews should have a role in defining anti-Semitism, and so on.

Second, racist intent is not necessary for a statement or action to be racist. Acting in good faith, believing oneself not to be racist, and being ignorant of what constitutes racism do not exempt us. In fact, anti-racists have long argued that racism is so pervasive that we are all often unconsciously racist. We are not aware of the implications of our words and actions, of the connotations they have, of the harm they might cause. The issue that matters, in other words, is racist deeds and words, not racist people. Combating racism does not require an inquisition into our souls; it requires attention to the impact of our actions. This principle is taken further in the concept of “institutional racism,” defined initially by Black Power activist Stokely Carmichael, whose words were drawn on in the Macpherson report, which defined it as the

collective failure of an organisation to provide an appropriate and professional service to people because of their colour, culture, or ethnic origin. It can be seen or detected in processes, attitudes and behaviour which amount to discrimination through unwitting prejudice, ignorance, thoughtlessness and racist stereotyping which disadvantage minority ethnic people.

The key word here is “unwitting”: it is not racist intent that matters, but the harm done. Saying “some of my best friends are black” doesn’t let you off the hook.

Third, context matters. A word might be racist in one context but not another. This principle is well established in British case law around racially aggravated crimes. For instance, in the case Director of Public Prosecutions v M 2004, the Divisional Court held that the phrase “‘bloody foreigners’ could, depending on the context, demonstrate hostility to a racial group.” This was cited in Rogers v Regina 2007, when one of the judges, Baroness Hale, said, “The context will illuminate what the conduct shows.” For example, the word “Zionist” means something very different in the name of the Zionist Federation than it would if a BNP member were to walk into a synagogue and shout, “Kill the Zionists.”
DEFINING ANTI-SEMITISM has become one of the most difficult instances of defining racism. This is partly because of the particularly strange mutation of anti-Semitism in recent years, including the emergence of what has contentiously been called “the new anti-Semitism.”

Far-right anti-Semitic movements increasingly borrow the language of anti-Zionism as a cover for their racism, and far-right anti-Semitic ideas have in turn increasingly gained traction among anti-Zionists. For example, anti-Zionists have taken up the old Christian anti-Semitic “blood libel” myth, while neo-Nazis have taken up ideas from the anti-Zionist movement, such as the idea of an all-powerful “Israel lobby.” So, while the British Chief Rabbi’s claim that we are experiencing a “tsunami of anti-Semitism” is almost certainly exaggerated, it is certainly the case that there has been a surge in the last decade.

This surge has mainly been seen in different sorts of places than where anti-Semitism has traditionally been encountered. In fact, it is often expressed by the intelligent, thoughtful, anti-racist academics who make up UCU’s rank and file.

In 2008, for example, a union activist circulated an anti-Semitic conspiracy theory taken from the website of the Ku Klux Klan’s David Duke to hundreds of union members on its activist list. When this was mentioned on a blog, rather than apologizing, she took the advice of a senior union member and threatened legal action, getting the blog closed down. To my knowledge, this activist was never censured within the union. (In contrast, leading campaigners against an academic boycott of Israel were excluded from the same email list for minor infringements of etiquette.) Several Jewish academics resigned in what they saw as the rise of a culture of institutional anti-Semitism.

The following year, a senior union member posted an article to a website circulating another anti-Semitic conspiracy theory, complaining that Jews are overrepresented in Parliament and that Tony Blair’s New Labour project is in thrall to Zionist money distributed by suspicious “shape-shifting” financiers. A couple of months later, a UCU branch secretary, speaking at a UCU congress fringe meeting, promoted yet another anti-Semitic conspiracy theory: lawyers ruling on union boycott policy have “bank balances from Lehman Brothers that can’t be tracked down.” Again, no censure from the union. The same year, UCU hosted South African trade unionist Bongani Masuku, allowing him to address UCU members on boycotting Israel, despite the fact that the South African Human Rights Commission (HRC) had found Masuku guilty of hate speech against Jews.

These incidents might suggest that there is a need for action and robust guidance on anti-Semitism within the union. Instead, the leadership has insisted on seeing all these instances as nothing other than legitimate criticisms of Israel. In 2006, the union executive published a formal statement denying that “criticism of the Israeli government is in itself anti-Semitic” and claiming that “defenders of the Israeli government’s actions have used a charge of anti-Semitism as a tactic in order to smother democratic debate, and in the context of Higher Education, to restrict academic freedom.” This was formalized as union policy at its 2007 congress, which resolved that “criticism of Israel cannot [emphasis added] be construed as anti-semitic”—a motion that seems to me to deny the obvious reality that some criticism of Israel is anti-Semitic. The following year, another policy passed, clarifying it: “Criticism of Israel or Israeli policy are [sic] not, as such, anti-semitic.” Again, the resolution did not acknowledge that some criticism of Israel is anti-Semitic.

By 2009, there had been so many resignations from the union because of this sort of thing that a motion was put to the congress noting the resignations and mandating that the national executive investigate the causes. This was rejected by a large majority.

When it was pointed out to UCU that its guest Bongani Masuku had been criticized by the HRC, rather than taking this institution and its findings seriously, the UCU dismissed this as “stuff doing the rounds on the internet”—shocking ignorance of post-apartheid South Africa for a union whose leaders regularly use the apartheid analogy to describe Israel, but also an a priori refusal to take racism against Jews as seriously as other racisms. A motion to UCU congress noting the HRC’s findings and disassociating congress from Masuku’s anti-Semitic views was formally rejected by an overwhelming show of hands. This near-unanimity in rejecting criticism of anti-Semitism led to a number of resignations from the union, from Jewish colleagues who took it as a sign that anti-Semitism was thoroughly institutionalized in it.

The culture in the UCU has been to dismiss in advance any criticism of racism against Jews, seeing it as merely a tactic to smother debate and criticism. While a handful of anti-Zionist Jews have applauded this, many academics from the Jewish community have felt increasingly isolated, their own understanding of racism not taken seriously, violating the principle that the victims of racism should have some voice in its definition. The a priori dismissal of allegations of anti-Semitism follows what David Hirsh has called “the Livingstone formulation”—the claim that allegations of anti-Semitism are made in bad faith to stifle debate. By alleging that Jews are merely crying anti-Semitism to stop people talking about Israel, the UCU leadership cries Israel to stop people talking about anti-Semitism.
WHICH BRINGS us up to the present, and the latest motion on anti-Semitism. This motion notes “with concern [that] the so-called ‘EUMC working definition of anti-Semitism,’ while not adopted by the EU or the UK government and having no official status,” is being used by student unions in relation to campus activities. It states a belief that “the EUMC definition confuses criticism of Israeli government policy and actions with genuine anti-Semitism, and is being used to silence debate about Israel and Palestine on campus.” Then it resolves that the union do three things: not make use of the definition (“e.g. in educating members or dealing with internal complaints”), disassociate itself from the definition in anypublic discussion on the matter in which the UCU is involved, and “campaign for an open debate on campus concerning Israel’s past history and current policy, while continuing to combat all forms of racial or religious discrimination.”

Every clause of the motion is deeply problematic. What is this “so-called” EUMC working definition? The EUMC was the European Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia, an agency of the European Union. It was itself preceded by the Commission on Racism and Xenophobia (CRX), established in 1994, known as the Kahn Commission. The CRX became the EUMC in 1998 with an official mandate from the European Commission. Among other things, the EUMC published one of the most important studies of Islamophobia in Europe, in 2002, summarizing several separate reports on specific aspects of Islamophobia from the member states of the EU. In 2007 the EUMC became the Fundamental Rights Agency (FRA). The FRA has continued the important work of the EUMC in documenting anti-Roma racism and homophobia across Europe.

It reports annually on discrimination and fundamental rights in the EU, and therefore reports on anti-Semitism and anti-Semitic incidents. It is only natural that it should seek a standard, usable, operational definition of anti-Semitism, just as its massive Islamophobia report set out a working definition of that form of racism. To this end, it published a one-page working definition in 2005. This has been adopted by the UK’s All-Party Parliamentary Enquiry into Anti-Semitism in 2006, by several branches of the National Union of Students (NUS), and more recently by the NUS itself.

The text defined anti-Semitism thus: “Anti-Semitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of anti-Semitism are directed toward Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, toward Jewish community institutions and religious facilities.” In the fifth line, it continued: “In addition, such manifestations could also target the state of Israel, conceived as a Jewish collectivity.” Note, not “do” but “could,” and not Israel as such but Israel “conceived as a Jewish collectivity.” It proceeds to give examples of what anti-Semitic incidents might look like. These include stereotyping Jews, including the myth of a “world Jewish conspiracy or of Jews controlling the media,” as well as holding all Jews responsible for the actions of some Jews.

Then, it gives examples of how anti-Semitism might manifest itself with regard to Israel, which David Hirsh summarizes concisely:

It may, in some contexts, be anti-Semitic to accuse Jews of being more loyal to Israel than to their union; to say Israel is a racist endeavour; to apply double standards; to boycott Israelis but not others for the same violations; to say that Israeli policy is like Nazi policy; to hold Jews collectively responsible for the actions of Israel.

And here too there is a caveat in the working definition: these might be anti-Semitic, “taking into account the overall context.” In other words, talking about hidden Lehman Brothers bank accounts might be completely legitimate in the context of analyzing the subprime collapse, but not when talking about the politics of people who just happen to be Jews and have no connection to the bank, at a time when conspiracy theories about it are circulating on the Internet.

After the list of examples, the report insists, “However, criticism of Israel similar to that levelled at any other country cannot be regarded as anti-Semitic.” This sentence is important, and its existence refutes the second clause of the UCU motion, that “the EUMC definition confuses criticism of Israeli government policy and actions with genuine anti-Semitism, and is being used to silence debate about Israel and Palestine on campus.” Not only does the motion name no instances when this has happened (because it is highly unlikely any such instances have ever occurred), but the working definition itself explicitly avoids the claim that criticism of Israel “in itself” is to be regarded as anti-Semitic.
FOR ALL the reasons I’ve made clear in this article, any definition of any racism is bound to be imperfect, and the EUMC working definition is no exception. I would not want it to be included without amendment in employment law, and it wouldn’t be appropriate for it to be adopted by the UK government—and, indeed, I’ve not heard of any of the working definition’s advocates arguing it should be. (In fact, it would be bizarre if the British state did adopt it formally, as the government has affirmedthat it includes anti-Semitism among the racisms covered by the Macpherson definition of a racist incident discussed above—an incident “perceived to be racist by the victim.” That definition is significantly broader than the EUMC’s.)

But the EUMC definition is a guide, a working definition, and this makes it useful in deciding when, for example, to take seriously and investigate an internal complaint. The working definition could never be used to definitively rule an incident in or out. Its uses of “could” and “context” make this clear. The specific context of an internal complaint would always have to be the determining factor. To resolve to make no use of the document in such circumstances is therefore ridiculous. Similarly, it might be useful in an education setting as a heuristic device for examining different manifestations of racism—also perversely ruled out by the motion.

For the union to disassociate itself from the working definition in any public discussion of anti-Semitism is beyond ridiculous. It means insisting that all of the organizations that do take the working definition seriously—the Community Security Trust (CST), which monitors anti-Semitism in the United Kingdom; the NUS; the Union of Jewish Students; the Fundamental Rights Agency; the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe—are dismissed in advance. It undermines their work on anti-Semitism, and it undermines their vital work on anti-Roma racism, Islamophobia, and other racisms.

In the workplace, as the CST’s director writes, this “will serve to (even) further alienate Jews from the union; and it will make it (even) harder for anti-Semitism to be raised there as a matter of concern….[I]t carries the implication that people who complain about anti-Semitism in any Israel-related context are likely to be a bunch of liars, dancing to a pre-ordained tune.”

As an academic who studies racism, I find it bizarre that my union cannot accept that there is even the faintest possibility that institutional racism might exist in our own ranks, even after a series of clearly documented incidents and a shocking number of resignations by Jewish members who perceive it as such. This motion, if passed, will in fact legitimate racism in the union and stop any allegation of anti-Semitism—in debates or in the workplace—from being taken seriously. That the motion will be tabled in a session entitled “Campaigning for equality” is ironic, but the irony tastes bitter indeed.

This piece by Ben Gidley is at Dissent’s Arguing The World blog.

University of California Debates Free Speech Vs. Federal Protection

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