The snake of UK antisemitism is stirring as Israel is under attack

The search for truth has been entirely forgotten by the forces that seek to dominate the debate on Israel in British universities


Highlighted English word "anti semitism" and its definition in the dictionary.

May 20, 2021 11:22

After the phoney quiet following Jeremy Corbyn’s defeat and the preoccupations of pandemic, something nasty is stirring again in the undergrowth of our universities. It hasn’t been asleep. The snake of antisemitism never sleeps. But the latest fighting between Israelis and Palestinians has roused it from its nest.

Professor David Miller of Bristol University needs no new provocation to asperse Jews. A university wouldn’t be a university that didn’t have a conspiracist sociologist on its staff, and I doubt Miller should lose his job for it (removing him would be like staging Aladdin without the Widow Twankey), but the mouldering medievalism of his conspiracy theories and the fanatic circularity of his reasoning — whoever disagrees with his belief that Jews are in the pay of Israel must be in the pay of Israel — raise questions about his intellectual credibility. “On a huge hill Truth stands”wrote the poet John Donne. Miller thinks it is to be found in his seminar room.

But he is by no means the only member of his profession to mistake the hearing of voices for the revelation of truth. Over at University College London an Academic Board Working Group, with no Jewish student representation, is campaigning to secede from the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s working definition of antisemitism, which it adopted in 2019, on the grounds that it denies free speech to whosoever chooses to be critical of Israel.

An impartial observer with a sense of the ridiculous might ask how good a job of silencing Israel’s critics the IHRA is doing, given the omnipresence and vociferousness of their attacks. Jewish students at UCL report a pervasive atmosphere of antisemitism, much of it unchecked and not all of it confined to the student body. While some of this is old-fashioned name-calling (references to big noses, world domination, greed etc), and some thinly disguised Holocaust-denial, a considerable amount is the wash from the habituated academic anti-Zionism which the IHRA has been powerless to stop and was never intended to stop anyway.

Nowhere, for example, does the IHRA say that the Students Union should not be allowed to show the Palestinian flag or co-operate in Israeli-Apartheid Week. Nowhere does it enjoin against BDS. Nowhere does it prohibit anti-Zionist protestors from violently breaking up a meeting of the sort organized by the UCL Friends of Israel Society because the speaker Hen Mazzig had formerly worked with the IDF. Nowhere does it ban academic staff from marching through London to demand an end to “Israeli State Terror”. So in what sense exactly — our impartial observer must still be wondering — are those who want to express their full-throated hatred of Israel on campus hindered from doing so?

On the face of it, the IHRA’s concessionary statement that “criticism of Israel similar to that levelled against any other country cannot be regarded as antisemitic,” offers all the latitude a critic of Israel could want, short of the right to describe what Israel does as uniquely criminal and Jews as uniquely mired in its crimes.

But what if that is precisely what academic critics of the IHRA believe themselves to be denied? Not the right to denounce Israel but the right to denounce it egregiously, without qualification, without argument, without having to confront a single dissenting voice. As opponents of the IHRA pore through its definitions and exemptions for hindrances to their freedom — absurdly complaining, for instance, that holding Israel to the same standards by which they judge other countries means having to cite each of those other countries every time they mention Israel — it starts to look as though what they are really after is an end to disagreement altogether. If the virtue of the IHRA in the view of the countless organisations who support it is that it is only intended as a guide to the perplexed, its vice, in the eyes of its UCL opponents, would seem to be that it leaves anything open to discussion. The uniqueness of Israel’s infamy must be foreclosed, beyond argument, a fixity by which all teachers and all students can set their moral compass. There must be no loophole through which it might dodge damnation.

In wanting to call Zionism a racist endeavour without sounding antisemitic — a contortion the IHRA finds hard to countenance — much valuable research and teaching time has been expended. One might, with equal usefulness and justice, call humanity a racist endeavour. For Zionism never was a single endeavour. As an idea, it doesn’t have a start date or an originator. As a practical proposal, it changed as the people and countries who saw its merits and demerits changed. From a spiritual pipedream, to a secular utopianism, to a humanitarian necessity, to a bolthole, to an act of nationalism, to whatever you want to call it now, Zionism has been owned by parties of different political complexions to serve different ends.

The mind of an ideologist does not like what’s protean. It wants the object of its certainties hammered down. But it’s incumbent on a university to go on chasing what won’t stay still. That should be the thrill and challenge of scholarship. Let’s be candid: an institution whose members are unable to deal with the shifting shape of words and principles is not fit to be called a university.

If, in some of its manifestations, Zionism once bore a nobler aspect than it does now, that is a tragedy for the ideas that in its early days inspired it, and for the people it lets down today.

When Amos Oz described Israeli-Palestinian relations as a tragedy of two rights and later, in more bitter mood, a tragedy of two wrongs, he wasn’t merely balancing competing claims. He was confronting the intractability of things, the impossibility, sometimes, of solution, the inadequacy of judgmental language, the inevitability of unfair, unsatisfying compromise, the pity and the sorrow of it all.

A university like UCL should not find the concept of tragedy inimical. How better to speak to its Jewish and its Muslim students at such a time as this than in language drenched in grief? Incitement to grievance is wickedly irresponsible, whichever side you’re on. Tell Palestinians and their supporters that Israel was a racist-colonialist endeavour from the start and you do nothing to show them a way to peace. Tell the same lie to already troubled Jewish students and you not only make the campus a hateful place to them, you harden their hearts.

It is said of the British Labour Party that it would rather hold to its principles than govern. It can as fairly be said of those who reject the moderacy of the IHRA in the name of protecting a freedom of speech that isn’t under threat, that they would rather stigmatise than pacify. It isn’t ideas they teach, but propaganda; at the further reaches, in David Miller’s Bristol say, it isn’t history, it’s hysteria.

We who live outside the university could be forgiven thinking that the gains of the enlightenment have been forgone in favour of the inculcation of demonology, a bastard branch of divinity whose only text is the Book of Revelation retold in the context of Zionism and Hamas.

Well maybe these are Apocalyptic times. But isn’t it the job of a university to probe the eschatological impulses of all parties to a conflict, not inflame them?

On a huge hill

Cragged and steep, Truth stands, and hee that will

Reach her, about must, and about must goe

Is it too much to expect that teachers in our universities be equipped and willing to make that arduous ascent?

May 20, 2021 11:22

Want more from the JC?

To continue reading, we just need a few details...

Want more from
the JC?

To continue reading, we just
need a few details...

Get the best news and views from across the Jewish world Get subscriber-only offers from our partners Subscribe to get access to our e-paper and archive