SOAS is not boycotting Israel – Colin Shindler

This piece, written by Colin Shindler, is published on theJC.com

The Qatari-owned website Al Araby proudly proclaimed that “SOAS becomes the first UK university to boycott Israel”.

This was patently untrue. It was not “SOAS” the institution that voted – not the governing body, not the administration, not even formally the lecturers’ union, but an invented “SOAS community”. Anyone could vote who wanted to – including the SOAS cleaners and security guards.

The results of the student-led BDS referendum by this “SOAS community” demonstrated that 74 per cent of students did not vote for the motion- and this stretches to 86 per cent if the distance-learning students are included.

SOAS is unusual in London colleges in that its first-class programmes rightly attract many students from the Arab and Islamic worlds – and they would understandably vote for BDS.

It is patently untrue that the school has backed a boycott

On the other hand, the administration itself is neither pro-nor anti-Israel, but strongly defends freedom of expression and the right to a different narrative. When there were calls to ban a series of lectures by Tel Aviv University academics, which coincided with Operation Cast Lead in 2009, the SOAS administration steadfastedly refused to capitulate.

While Israel is certainly not the flavour of the month at SOAS, the institution is also one of the leaders in Israel studies in this country and is the headquarters of the European Association of Israel Studies.

Attending SOAS forces Jewish students to examine their Jewish identity and their relationship to Israel. They emerge stronger and better informed than their elders and peers. Many SOAS students leave to work for Jewish and Israeli organisations, including the Zionist Federation and the Israel Embassy.

Even so, selective outrage about the Israeli presence on the West Bank has instigated saturation coverage by the SOAS unions for many years. The local lecturers’ union was formerly a stronghold of the far left Socialist Workers Party. The SWP founder, Yigael Gluckstein, opposed conscription into the British Army to fight Nazism in Mandatory Palestine in the 1940s. His approach followed the Trotskyist line that World War II was a conflict between two rival imperialisms – one as bad as the other.

Such convoluted thinking has characterised other campaigns. It is therefore not surprising that there has been union silence at SOAS on the Charlie Hebdo killings as well as the Syrian tragedy.

The referendum organisers’ congratulatory self-deception at the results masks the inability of the BDS movement to make a breakthrough in changing the political reality in Israel.

Successive right-wing governments are elected. Periodic conflicts with the Islamists continue. The settlement drive moves forward. And BDS advocates preach the same mantra.

BDS has been very successful in attracting celebrities to its standard who bemoan the Palestinian plight. But public relations is not public reality. It entrenches positions and reinforces the politics of stagnation that is debilitating for Israeli and Palestinian alike.

Colin Shindler is an emeritus professor at SOAS. His book The Rise of the Israeli Right will be published by Cambridge University Press later this year

This piece, written by Colin Shindler, is published on theJC.com

7 Responses to “SOAS is not boycotting Israel – Colin Shindler”

  1. Richard Gold Says:

    A good article but it doesn’t address the concerns about alleged intimidation of Jewish students at Soas.
    http://www.thejc.com/news/uk-news/131091/students-meet-soas-head-over-campus-intimidation

  2. Brian Goldfarb Says:

    While I admire Colin Shindler’s courage in remaining at SOAS (or continuing his association with the institution after retirement, as his status as Emeritus Professor would imply), I feel that his desire to put the best possible interpretation on the “referendum” does not do justice to the situation that appears to predominate at SOAS.

    Thus, the following raises my levels of discomfort to an uncomfortable pitch: “Attending SOAS forces Jewish students to examine their Jewish identity and their relationship to Israel. They emerge stronger and better informed than their elders and peers.” Many people here will be aware that I am a retired H.E. lecturer, and I would have been (and still am) horrified that students of any ethnicity and/or religion should be forced to examine their ethnic or religious identity, other than through a conscious choice of a course of study (voluntarily adopted) designed to do just that (perhaps a non-Marxist deliberately opting for a series of lectures & seminars by a noted Marxist scholar on just that topic).

    Otherwise, education is supposed to be a process through which students acquire knowledge and skills designed to equip them for the society in which they intend to live and to assist them in coping whatever that society will throw at them. It isn’t, or shouldn’t be, an obstacle course designed to make them question the very core values that brought them to Higher Education in the first place.

    It seems to me that Prof. Shindler is excusing the institution that gave him employment for so many years.

    If I’m wrong, then I apologise to him. Sadly, without further evidence, I see no need for such an apology.

  3. josephinebacon Says:

    To paraphrase Dr. Johnson ” freedom of expression” and “autonomy” are the universities’ last resort of a scoundrel. How independent are the universities when they receive massive bribes (sorry, funding) from the Arab countries, such as the LSE’s Ghaddafi prize?

  4. Porky Scratchings (@ibngibril) Says:

    I visited SOAS with my eldest daughter who was (insanely) considering taking Middle Eastern studies there. When the lecturers opened the floor for questions I enquired whether wearing a Burqa was optional.

    Wherever you encounter Islamists, you encounter the same arguments and tactics of the Nazis. Claiming free speech rights to abuse others bullying, intimidation, Jewish boycotts, lies & violence.

    You won’t publish my views because you too are already cowed, afraid of the reaction, afraid of free speech.

    We said “never again” mainly because we believed that nothing similar could ever happen again. We were wrong, It is here, on our watch. And in large part our response is as inadequate as was Weimar’s and Jews per se in Europe in the 1930s

  5. Jacob Arnon (@Jacob_Arnon) Says:

    “The local lecturers’ union was formerly a stronghold of the far left Socialist Workers Party. The SWP founder, Yigael Gluckstein, opposed conscription into the British Army to fight Nazism in Mandatory Palestine in the 1940s. His approach followed the Trotskyist line that World War II was a conflict between two rival imperialisms – one as bad as the other.”

    The same is true for the US Trotskyite movement which opposed our entry into WW2 on the side of the anti-National Socialists.

    That some still adhere to its misguided policies of becoming accessories of murderous and genocidal regimes in the name of “anti-Capitalism” is scandalous.

    What is worse is that these organizations are not treated the way we treat fascists: social and political ostracism.

    The Trotskyite left is objectively fascisitic in that they have given and still give political aid and comfort to fascist like organizations in many parts of the world.

    Those of us on the left need to develop a strategy of “not in our name” when dealing with the Trotskyite and antisemitic left.

  6. Brian Goldfarb Says:

    On second thoughts, I’m more than horrified, I think that Colin Shindler is excusing SOAS. If we revisit the sentence “Attending SOAS forces Jewish students to examine their Jewish identity and their relationship to Israel. They emerge stronger and better informed than their elders and peers”, and substitute “female” or “black” or “Christian” or, heaven forfend, “Muslim” for Jewish (and change “Israel” as appropriate), then, I suspect, we would all immediately be condemning SOAS for allowing such a breach of faith between a higher education institution and its student body in this country.

    Instead, Prof Shindler actually defends what’s happening.


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