As a former chemistry lecturer, Colin Shindler knows all about explosive situations. His new appointment could certainly be construed as such. Shindler has just been made the country’s first-ever Professor of Israeli Studies at London University’s School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), the college with the reputation of being the most hostile anti-Israel campus in the UK.
The Palestinian Society at SOAS is the only one in the country run by a professional organiser and has held anti-Zionist events, including an Israel Apartheid Week. Meanwhile, posters advertising Shindler’s book, What do Zionists Believe?, were daubed with swastikas.
Shindler is well aware of the hostility from a section of students and from lecturers, many of whom are aligned with the far-left Socialist Workers Party. But he says he has encountered no antisemitism in the years he has already worked there. Indeed, students are literally queuing up to take his courses.
In the calm of his north London living room, where the only disturbances come courtesy of his baby granddaughter, Shindler recalls his first lecture of the new term, two weeks ago. “When you walk in for your first lecture, you never know how many people are going to be there. This autumn there were people sitting on the floor and outside in the corridor. I’m desperately trying to find a bigger room.”
Although some Jewish students have reportedly been put off attending SOAS by the anti-Israel atmosphere, plenty do enrol. But the Israeli studies course is by no mean exclusively Jewish.
There was pressure on me to cancel my lectures on Tel Aviv. There was intimidation Colin Shindler
Shindler explains: “People come to this college and to the course from the developing world, and many of them are from Arab and Muslim countries. A lot of them come with their views about Israel pre-determined.”
He sees this as an opportunity rather than a handicap. “I teach as objectively as I can and I don’t penalise those who write essays with different conclusions to mine, but I do expect them to justify their views, and to come up with a genuine analysis. I think people want to be informed. They want to explore this complex, tragic conflict. The best essay on [Zionist revisionist activist] Ze’ev Jabotinsky I’ve ever read was written by a relative of a well-known Palestinian leader.”
Shindler is quick to point out that while many students and lecturers at SOAS may be virulently anti-Israel, the institution has never been. Moreover, on a day-to-day basis he gets on well with his colleagues. “I work with Arabs, Turks, Iranians — there’s never any hostility. I pass them in the morning and we always say, hello, how are you doing.”
However, life did get more interesting for Shindler when the Gaza conflict blew up in January.
“I organised a series of lectures on Tel Aviv which was celebrating its centenary. The lectures were on highly subversive topics like town planning and museums, but there was pressure on me from the University and College Union [the lecturers’ union] to cancel them. There was intimidation. But my argument was that this was about academic freedom and freedom of expression. In fact, I responded by putting on more talks. Universities should be bastions of free expression. No one should be able to dictate that another narrative shouldn’t be heard.”
This is where he parts company with the UCU. While he sees himself as a trade unionist and feels that the UCU works hard to maintain the rights of his colleagues, he feels that its support of the boycott of Israeli academics is nonsensical.
“If I can’t have contact with Israeli academics, then it undermines my work. As a trade union they should be supporting me. This is the dilemma for them. On the one hand they want a boycott and on the other they have to support me because I’m one of their members. They haven’t worked that out yet.”
The changing attitudes of the Left towards Israel is a subject which understandably fascinates Shindler, who grew up in a working-class family in Stoke Newington, in north London, the only son of a factory worker.
He plans to address the topic in his inaugural public lecture as professor of Israeli studies next month. “The problem is one of selective outrage. Israel is always seen as the devil incarnate in all sorts of situations and yet there’s silence from the Left on what is happening in places like Burma and Zimbabwe.”
He feels that Israel’s unique position in the world has caused the Left a problem for over 40 years — since before the Six-Day War and the subsequent settlement drive in the West Bank.
“In the 1940s, the further left you went, the stronger was the Zionism. Things began to change when the Palestinians became a national entity and a recognised force. The Left had a dilemma. Do you favour the Israelis or the Palestinians? The Palestinian cause fitted much better with the new era of decolonisation, with the campaign against apartheid and opposition to the war in Vietnam.
“There is also a generational difference. Those who grew up in the 1930s fought with the Jews against Mosley and lived through the Shoah and the rise of the state of Israel. That’s what moulded their world outlook. My generation never fought against fascism.”
Shindler is now on his second career. For years, he lectured on chemistry before taking the risky decision to quit at the age of 50 when his four children were still young, and change careers. But he has never written a book about how Manchester United ruined his life. That was the other Colin Shindler, the well-known writer and fervent Manchester City supporter.
“The first I knew about the fact that there were two Colin Shindlers was when someone from the JC rang me up to ask me why I was lecturing at the National Film Theatre on a Friday night. I felt like I was suffering from amnesia. I have never met him but we are in contact. I get his cheques and he gets mine. When he did a programme about growing up in Manchester, the Guardian published my photo instead of his.”
Shindler is happy with his career choice and even happier with his new post. He says: “This is a recognition that Israeli studies is a stand-alone subject, that should not be subsumed in Middle East studies or Jewish studies or Mediterranean studies.”