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University College London School of Slavonic and East European Studies. Photo: Ethan Doyle White via Wikimedia Commons.
British Jews are not traditionally known for their activism. They usually keep their heads down, and avoid making too much of a fuss in public on issues of concern to the community.
But there was a marked and well-known departure from that approach, when it became clear that Jeremy Corbyn’s election as leader of the Labour Party had led to that great party being infected by the antisemitism so long associated with the hard left.
One of the high points in the community raising its head “above the parapet” was an unprecedented mass demonstration in parliament square in 2018, which was attended by over 1,500 people. This activism was associated with real fear, particularly as we approached the 2019 general election and the possibility that Corbyn would lead the country. I remember feeling this visceral dread myself — that a country that had always been a safe haven for Jewish life might change to one where antisemitism would be ensconced in the heart of government.
But Corbyn was defeated, and the mainstream Jewish community breathed a sigh of relief.
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Then, in late 2020, came the publication of the report by the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) about antisemitism in the Labour Party. It set out for everyone, in black and white, how Labour had permitted anti-Jewish racism to run rife, including the left’s hatred of Israel as a representation of Jews in general.
So when Keir Starmer, the new Labour leader, started putting his party back on the road to respectability (although, of course, we never forgot how he campaigned to help make Corbyn leader), the hard left started leaving.
Where did they go? Well, many went back to where they came from: academia.
Universities in the UK and the US have for many decades been one of the strongholds of the far left, featuring a regular exchange of ideas, theories, and activists with hard left politics. In particular, the University and College Union (UCU), the dominant trade union in UK academia, has had a long history of deep and ingrained anti-Zionism.
Of course, when it had become clear how Labour was tolerating anti-Jewish prejudice, there were no voices of concern from the academy (and certainly none from the union). No one started a campaign or added pithy expressions of anti-racist concern about Jews to their email signature. There was just silence — followed by more silence when the EHRC report was published.
It’s not difficult to see why this happened. It goes like this: Jews are rich and look white, and as such, in a worldview predicated on a hierarchy of identity, Jews can’t really be the object of persecution and instead must be oppressors themselves. The state of Israel, which has the impudence to have a strong army and to protect itself, must be a force of white colonialism, rather than the result of a downtrodden people’s reaching for national self-determination.
It is through this warped prism of a hierarchy of oppression, that it becomes so easy for the elision of the hard left’s anti-Zionism with anti-Jewish racism to occur.
This is the background to the call by my university’s academic board at University College London (UCL) — which consists mostly of the professoriate across UCL, and whose role is to advise the UCL Council, the key decision-making body, on academic affairs — in February 2021 to retract the original adoption, in 2019, of the IHRA definition of antisemitism.
This reversal occurred after extensive lobbying by the UCL UCU, and by some academics in the UCL Department of Hebrew and Jewish Studies with strongly anti-Zionist perspectives. I looked at those documents from the UCU, marveled at the hours and hours of work they must have taken, and pondered why no other issue, say the persecution of Uighur Muslims by the Chinese Communist Party, provoked their wrath to the same vast extent.
Reading it, I also shuddered with an echo of the fear I had felt when Corbyn came close to power. He too had Jews on the hard left cheerleading for him. But their minority posturing did not assuage the fears of the mainstream Jewish community. Of course, many of those same Jews were and are to be found in the academy, and they are entitled to their views as they continue to join with their hard left brethren in presenting us with their claims of pristine anti-racist credentials.
They claim that this controversy is all just a plot to silence criticism of Israel. But tell that to the Jewish students on campus who wonder why their university might become the first UK institution to retract the IHRA definition. And then ask them if they feel the fear, within the four walls of UCL, that we all felt when the hard left came within shouting distance of taking over the country.
Joseph Mintz is an Associate Professor (and not a member of the academic board, but currently a member of UCU) at UCL Institute of Education.
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