An offensive against the elected Labour leadership and the Palestine solidarity movement is being waged under the guise of fighting antisemitism. The attack began back in February, when a co-chair of the Oxford University Labour Club (OULC) resigned claiming that ‘a large proportion of both OULC and the student left in Oxford more generally have some kind of problem with Jews’. This sweeping condemnation boiled down to a handful of allegations, most of which were made anonymously and none of which were accompanied by evidence. The only claim whose veracity can at this point be checked – that an OULC member was disciplined by his college for organising a group of students to harass and shout ‘filthy Zionist’ at a Jewish student – turns out to be a sheer fabrication: according to the (late) Principal of that college, the student in question has never been the subject of complaint or disciplinary proceedings, for antisemitism or anything else.
The OULC allegations were used to smear two left-wing candidates in the Young Labour elections in February. These baseless attacks were likely decisive in securing the Labour Right candidate’s wafer-thin victory in the race for Youth Representative to the party’s National Executive Committee. Next came a torrent of media headlines alleging that as a result of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership the Labour party is increasingly, and perhaps pervasively, antisemitic. This is an extraordinary allegation to level against the UK’s largest political party and a pillar of mainstream British politics. The evidence for it comprised, in addition to the unproven allegations against the OULC, a handful of alleged antisemitic tweets and Facebook posts, some of which date back years, by eight low and mid-level party members. Most of these individuals had joined Labour before Corbyn’s leadership campaign; hardly any were close to the Corbyn leadership or prominent in the Corbyn-aligned Momentum movement; and all were suspended or expelled from the party as soon as the allegations were aired.
Yet despite the almost comical paucity of supporting evidence, the notion that antisemitism is a growing problem on the Labour left is rapidly congealing into conventional wisdom. Labour rightists and pro-Israel activists have seized the opportunity afforded by the febrile atmosphere to prosecute petty vendettas, wage factional warfare and advance long-held political objectives. The smear campaign against Malia Bouattia, who was last week elected the first black Muslim woman president of the National Union of Students (NUS), must be understood in this context. She is the latest victim of this juggernaut.
In an open letter published ahead of the NUS vote, presidents of more than 50 university Jewish Societies (J-Socs) all but accused Bouattia of antisemitism:
You referred to the University of Birmingham as a ‘Zionist outpost’ and referenced that it has the ‘largest [Jewish Society] in the country’ when describing the challenges you were facing at the time . . . We are shocked that someone who is seeking to represent this organisation could possibly see a large Jewish student population as a challenge and not something to be welcomed.
Our question for you is clear: why do you see a large Jewish Society as a problem?
In fact, Bouattia said no such thing. An article she co-authored in 2011 quite clearly referred, not to the existence of a large J-Soc, but the existence of a large J-Soc ‘whose leadership is dominated by Zionist activists’. That is, a Palestine solidarity campaigner noted the existence on campus of a sizeable organisation engaged in pro-Israel activism. I hope the reader was sitting down.
By eliminating crucial words from Bouattia’s article, the letter left open to readers the suspicion that Bouattia was using ‘Zionists’ as code for ‘Jews’. The irony is, whereas Bouattia did not do this, the University of Birmingham J-Soc itself encourages just this conflation, by campaigning for Israel under a ‘Jewish Society’ banner. In March 2011 – the month of Bouattia’s offending article – Birmingham J-Soc helped organise an ‘Israel Awareness Week’ on campus, and it has continued to mobilise against Palestinian solidarity campaigns since. The lead signatory on the open letter to Bouattia was Daniel Clements, president of Birmingham J-Soc. In a subsequent missive to Bouattia, Clements cast doubt upon her claim to have ‘upheld a distinction between Jewish people and Zionist policies’. But Clements himself campaigned for J-Soc president on the promise to ‘ensure constant Israel education and advocacy’ and himself informed the Guardian that ‘when someone attacks Zionism they’re indirectly attacking Judaism as a religion, because the two go hand in hand’. In other words, the J-Soc itself conflates its Jewish and Zionist identities, and then condemns Bouattia for such conflation even as she explicitly avoided it.
Birmingham J-Soc is not alone in seeking to have its cake and eat it; that is, to simultaneously campaign for Israel under a ‘Jewish’ banner, condemn critics of Israel who conflate Israel or Zionism with Jews, and immunise itself from criticism on the grounds that it has nothing to do with Israel. A guide to antisemitism on campus produced by the Union of Jewish Students and the Community Security Trust cites, as an example of antisemitic rhetoric, making reference to the Board of Deputies of British Jews as part of an ‘Israel lobby’ – ‘thus failing to make the crucial distinction between Israel and Jews’. Indeed, who but an antisemite could possibly class as pro-Israel an organisation which helped stage rallies in support of Israel’s 2008-9 and 2014 massacres in Gaza and proudly boasts of its ‘Israel-related work’, which in 2014 included hosting ‘over 50 delegates from 26 pro-Israel organisations’ and ‘leading the fight against the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israel’?
It is, in my view, politically imprudent for Palestinian solidarity activists to present their case in the language of ‘Zionists’ and ‘Zionism’. First, most people don’t know what ‘Zionism’ is. Second, this ambiguity of meaning gives apologists for Israel room to impute sinister motives where none exist, and hands them a pretext to engage in interminable linguistic debates that distract from what really matters: Israel’s diplomatic rejectionism and gross violations of international law and human rights, and the role of the UK government in enabling this. Torture; house demolitions; the illegal and inhuman Gaza siege; the settlements; the periodic massacres of civilians and wholesale devastation of civilian infrastructure – all of this can be discussed and criticised in language that resonates with people, rather than confusing and alienating them.
But if ‘Zionism’ is unhelpful as a term of political rhetoric, that does not make its use as a pejorative antisemitic. Indeed, even where activists do confuse ‘Israel’ or ‘Zionism’ with ‘Jews’ – which Bouattia did not – the State of Israel and its supporters abroad must bear some responsibility. When Israel’s hated prime minister declares himself ‘representative of the entire Jewish people’; when Israel’s apologists cast wholly legitimate criticism of Israel as antisemitic; and when leading Jewish communal organisations take every opportunity to come out in support of Israeli war crimes – in short, when Israel and its supporters systematically blur the boundary between Israel and Jews – they cannot complain if some people take them at their word.
One of the most inspiring aspects of Bernie Sanders’s campaign for the Democratic Party nomination has been the level of support he has attracted from Arab and Muslim Americans. The New York primary may have ended his bid for the White House, but even in defeat, who could fail to be moved by the sight of Arabs and Muslims uniting overwhelmingly behind a man who would be the first Jewish president of the United States? The way to combat antisemitism is by coming together in a common struggle for a fairer world. By contrast, if the authors of the unscrupulous letter attacking Bouattia had set out to poison Muslim-Jewish relations and ensure that charges of ‘antisemitism’ become synonymous with cynical attacks against individuals and movements struggling for justice, they could scarcely have done a better job.