How I ended up worried about Anti Semitism : Duncan Bryson

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!!

Duncan Bryson,

History lecturer, Halesowen college.

10 Responses to “How I ended up worried about Anti Semitism : Duncan Bryson”

  1. 701 Says:

    Thank you for this post. There is virtually no word of it with which I disagree.

    My only comment is your assumption that UCU is a level playing field – it is not.

    The antisemitism you note is part and parcel of the “debate” on Israel. The elected officials of UCU have done nothing, I repeat nothing, to stem its flow (oh, forgive me, they banned a poster from the list for linking to a neo-nazi (a poster heavily defended by the anti-ZIonists). They sat back whilst members expressed views about the power of “the Lobby”; they sat back when (mainly Jewish) members were intimidated, bullied and libeled; (I know of one member who felt so uncomfortable that she has now left the UK – it did not help that one of those attacking them was meant to protect her interests in the institution in which she worked). Many others resigned; still the Union did nothing.

    From the boycott’s first defeat by its membership in the emergency congress, its proponents have spoken of the power of the Israel Lobby in ensuring that result.

    Issues of antisemitism across campus are said by UCU members to be the work of the Zionist Lobby.

    The mood of the boycotters is that of being “brave enough” – i.e. to give a good kicking – to the powerful Jews. The question of Palestine which you articulate is no longer part of their concern.

    (The response of the NGO’s in the wake of Durban II with their obsession with the “Jewish Lobby” indicates the nature of this mood amongst many sections of the left.)

    In other words, the boycott movement is so infected by antisemitism that they no longer pretend to hide it.

    The UCU have played a leading role in ensuring that the antisemitism that has always sought to hang on the coat tails of criticism of Israel is in the driving seat. Impotent in the face of a membership who opposes them at every turn, they have no alternative other than to project their own inadequacies onto a mythical powerful monster – the Jews.

  2. UCU member Says:

    For years now, members of my union have complained of antisemitism within its ranks.
    Not only have the UCU refused to do anything in response, they have continually allowed the vilification of all those who dare raise it.
    E.g. Sue Blackwell states that the Union is better off without those that do raise antisemitism and who oppose the boycott.
    Interestingly, it was the membership, the “rank and file” who acted in voting her off the NEC.
    The UCU bureaucracy did nothing.

  3. Bialik Says:

    Good luck, DB.

  4. Academic Says:

    I know this is a side issue, and I appreciate the author’s article and commitment to fighting against antisemitism in UCU. But I would really be interested to understand why he writes:

    “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. ”

    Duncan, please can you explain why you say “no one now spoke of destroying Israel” given what the leaders of Iran and Hamas and Hezbollah have been saying lately? Also, while I would agree with you in criticizing the route of the wall, I’d be interested to hear you confirm that you are aware that the wall was only conceived as an (initially reluctant) response to a suicide bombing campaign around 6 years ago which killed around a thousand and injured many more Israelis.

  5. Jacob Says:

    There is a picture of Gordon Brown on a Times article online with a swastika in the background. Next to it there are a number of what looks like Stars of David.

    Here is the headline:

    “Gordon Brown’s YouTube fightback (shame about that swastika though)”-

    Shame about the swastika, but what about the Star of David?

  6. Duncan Bryson Says:

    I was aware of what Hamas and Hezbollah were saying, I wasn’t aware that there were some within my union who regarded Israel as, at best, a mistake. I was trying to say that the criticisms of Israel I was hearing before my first congress were criticisms in the true sense of the word rather than suggestions that Israel itself should be dismantled. It was at congress that I realised what the true views of many supporting the boycottt was.

    I understand your point about the wall, but it is built on Palestinian land and looks like a way of securing more land at Palestinian expense.

  7. Academic Says:

    Tx Duncan. I take all your points after your opening phrase. But concerning my “side issue” which you address in your opening phrase, I would just like to add, if I may, 19 more keystrokes:

    ….. and Iran? ….

  8. Mark Gardner Says:

    Duncan – thank you for your sincerity in having posted this.

  9. UCU’s poster of far right antisemitism « Engage – the anti-racist campaign against antisemitism Says:

    […] about the Holocaust in relation to its own activities hasn’t been sufficient to keep it free of other forms of antisemitism. Posted in Holocaust, UCU. Leave a Comment […]

  10. UCU’s poster on the Holocaust « Engage – the anti-racist campaign against antisemitism Says:

    […] about the Holocaust in relation to its own activities hasn’t been sufficient to keep it free of other forms of antisemitism. Posted in Holocaust, UCU. Leave a Comment […]

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