The Left's 'anti-Semitism' can't go unchallenged

Something nasty is happening on UK campuses, says David Cesarani, where anti-Jewish sentiment increasingly manifests intself as anti-Zionism.

Newspaper reports in Israel and the US have depicted British universities as being in the grip of an anti-Zionist frenzy that veers into anti-Semitism following a boycott of Israel agreed this week by lecturers' union Natfhe. The decision comes soon after a similar move by the Association of University Teachers was overturned. The conviction that something nasty is happening on British campuses is shared closer to home.

Engage, the web-based campaign that emerged from opposition to the AUT boycott, was founded by academics to "challenge Left and liberal anti-Semitism in the labour movement, in our universities and in public life". Its manifesto announces that "anti-Semitism here manifests itself mainly as anti-Zionism". Engage is careful to stress that criticism of Israel's Government or Israeli society is not a priori anti-Semitic. What Engage objects to is the demonisation of Israel, the application of double standards intended to criminalise one state and those who support it, and the unique denial to the Jews of any right to nationhood.

Affiliates of Engage believe that consciously or inadvertently anti-Zionist rhetoric increasingly transposes traditional anti-Jewish tropes, such as the myth of Jewish power, on to Israel and its supporters.

In February, Luciana Berger and Mitch Simmons, who resigned from the National Union of Students executive in protest against its "apathy to anti-Semitism", gave evidence to the All-Party Parliamentary Committee against Anti-Semitism. They cited scores of anti-Jewish incidents on campus and bemoaned the lacklustre response of teaching staff and administrators.

Many of the incidents coincided with campaigns for anti-Israel motions in student unions intended to declare Zionism racist and thereby force the suspension of Jewish societies.

In 2002, during a tussle over one motion at Manchester University, the General Union of Palestinian Students distributed a leaflet describing Jews as "vampires". A brick was thrown through the window of a Jewish hall of residence and a poster with the sloganJ"Slaughter for the Jews", referring to the motion, was pasted to the front door.

In 2004, the School of Oriental and African Studies voted that Zionism was racist, forcing the Soas administration to intervene to protect the existence of the Jewish Society. The union then came up with an ideological test for the society, demanding that its members "publicly distance themselves from all Zionist events, speakers and positions". In 2005, the student union tried to ban a speaker from the Israeli Embassy addressing the Jewish Society. But Soas later hosted the controversial jazz musician Gilad Atzmon, who on his website declares that "after so many years of independence, the United States of America is becoming a remote colony of an apparently far greater state, the Jewish state".

The NUS and universities have condemned such extremism, but often they have acted only after repeated pleas. The Union of Jewish Students is critical of the example some academics have set, citing Andrew Wilkie, professor of pathology at Oxford University, who refused to supervise an Israeli student for a PhD, and Mona Baker, a translation expert at what was then the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology, who purged Israeli Jews from her journal.

The UJS complains that "radical and violent groups on campus have been emboldened by perceived support from their surroundings". This support ranges from the endorsement of murderous attacks on Jews to double standards that suggest Jewish sensitivities matter less. For example, Ted Honderich, professor emeritus at University College London, deems the massacre of Israeli civilians by Palestinian suicide bombers "a paradigm case of terrorism for humanity" while asserting that "9/11 was wrong". UK universities have hosted meetings at which Azzam Tamimi, a leading member of the Muslim Association of Britain, has extolled the killing of Jews in Israel.

The case of the suspended lecturer at Leeds University, Frank Ellis, might not seem relevant, but it exposes what the UJS calls "the silent collusion of the 'progressive' Left" in anti-Semitism. The suspension of Ellis, who claims black people have a lower IQ than whites, has been endorsed by the AUT with barely a murmur in his defence from the champions of free speech who spoke up for historian David Irving and London Mayor Ken Livingstone.

Christopher Hitchens and Rod Liddell, among other commentators, vociferously defended the right of Irving, a Holocaust denier, to spout his lies but have been silent over Ellis. The politicians and academics who rushed to defend Livingstone when he was suspended from office for an anti-Jewish gibe have not been queuing up to challenge the Ellis suspension.

This selective indignation has left many Jews, students and academics alike, feeling isolated and vulnerable. Most Jews in Britain have ties to or identify with Israel, so the claim that the campaign is against "Zionists" and not Jews is bogus. At best, anti-Zionists apply discriminatory tests to Jews; at worst, they attack Jews indiscriminately.

This is not classic anti-Semitism but, says Shalom Lappin of King's College London, the effect is "devastating". "Campuses have become a battleground where Jewish students face a continuing barrage of anti-Zionist rhetoric, boycott campaigns and attempts to exclude Jewish student organisations from campus life because of their connections with Israel," he says. On many campuses, male Jewish students now wear hats to conceal their yarmulkes for fear of making themselves targets for abuse or attack.

It should not be like this. It is possible to support the Palestinian struggle against the occupation and for a viable state without endorsing the murder of innocents or conspiracy theories about Jews.

British universities are a meeting place of different nationalities and ethnic and faith groups. The boycott campaign, anti-Israel motions, double standards and violent rhetoric poison this precious environment.

David Cesarani is research professor in history at Royal Holloway, University of London. He is a trustee of British Friends of Peace Now and an advisory editor of Engage.

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