Hard-hitting campaigns or outright anti-Semitism?

This is a guest post from Jak Codd, Communications and Internal Affairs Officer for Leeds University Union.

Having been a student at Leeds for over three years, I am used to the rough and tumble of the student political environment. However, recent events on campus have shocked even myself. Leeds has always had one of the largest Jewish societies in the country, and coupled with an active Palestinian Solidarity Group, this often results in a robust political environment – especially where the Middle East is concerned.

Leeds Palestinian Solidarity Group has often been accused of having, at best, a dismissive attitude towards the anti-Semitism many students feel exists within the organisation’s midst. In November 2008, Jewish students decided that their student union needed to do more to combat the worrying rise in anti-Semitic incidents on British campuses, which resulted in a referendum motion proposing the adoption of the EUMC’s working definition of anti-Semitism. Rather than accepting that anti-Semitism was a major issue facing Jewish students, Leeds PSG and their so-called ‘progressive’ allies unleashed a ferocious campaign in response – peaking with a banner picturing an Orthodox Jew holding a placard stating ‘End the Holocaust in Gaza’. It was argued that the passing of the definition may shut down the Palestinian society but, as Bernard Harrison succinctly points out, surely anyone that claims that a restriction on anti-Semitism will deprive them of their best arguments is de facto admitting being complicit in anti-Jewish racism? Rather than self-reflect as to why the National Union of Students, the State Department of the USA, and the European Union to name but a few, considers their group to fall under the EUMC Definition, all Leeds PSG could do was pour petrol on the flames of their offensive discourse. This worrying attitude towards anti-Semitism is the context for the disturbing events that have embroiled Leeds PSG in 2010.

In January of this year, Leeds PSG ran a series of events to mark a year since Israel’s war in Gaza, which was conveniently timed to coincide with the student union’s week long commemoration of Holocaust Memorial Day.

One event, hosted in conjunction with the Leeds city Palestinian solidarity campaign, was a lecture given by Sameh Habeeb. Habeeb is the editor and founder of the dubious newspaper the Palestinian Telegraph, and a cheerleader for the anti-Semite Gilad Atzmon. Habeeb published an article by Atzmon on Holocaust Memorial Day, which stated that “the true interpritation of the Goldstone report is that Israelis are the Nazis of our time”, and that “Israeli… involvement in organ harvesting is well documented and an accepted fact”. Leeds PSG are no strangers to hosting speakers that are near the knuckle, having supported BRICUP’s tour of Bongani Masuku, the South African trade unionist found guilty by the South African Human Rights Commission for hate speech. However, it was their behaviour at another event that show the true colours of Leeds Palestinian Solidarity Group.

Ishmael Khaldi is an Israeli diplomat of Bedouin origin who was invited to speak on campus by the student Jewish society, to address the issue of a boycott of Israel. Instead of engaging and debating with the speaker, Leeds Palestinian Solidarity Group attempted to stop the event going ahead by repeatedly banging on the windows of the lecture theatre and storming the venue. As a result, a female security guard and a representative of University security were both shoved; with one being kicked in the back by a protestor. Most seriously, a Jewish student has recently complained to the University of Leeds that they heard chants of “throw the Jews into the sea” outside the lecture theatre. Of course, the Palestinian society vigorously denies this claim. Leeds PSG’s behavior that night has resulted in the society being banned by the student union from booking rooms for the foreseeable future.

On the back of this, Leeds University Union recently held their annual sabbatical elections. As a result of hard work and excellent campaigns, four Jewish students were elected to sabbatical positions within the student union. These students were of varying political affiliations, their only common connection their religion. Amid the celebrations in the union bar, a student entered and proceeded to wave a Palestinian flag silently. A protest at the recent room booking ban? Or was there something more sinister at play? It could be merely a coincidence that a Palestinian flag was waved as four Jewish students are elected to office, but having experienced the rhetoric and tactics of Leeds PSG and their comrades for four years, I am not so sure.

These single examples could probably be explained away as merely hard-hitting direct action against the Israeli state. But put into context, there is clearly a worrying pattern of behaviour from Leeds PSG that at best is intimidation of Jewish students, but at worst is outright naked anti-Semitism. I know which one I believe.