Antisemitism cannot go unchallenged

Antisemitism cannot go unchallenged – by Joan Ryan MP for ProgressOnline. This article is available here.

Free speech and robust debate have long been at the heart of Britain’s universities. Whether it be on campus or in the classroom, nobody should go to university and not expect to hear the beliefs and ideas they have grown up with challenged, tested and possibly ridiculed. That is all part of the experience of being a student.

Over recent weeks, however, we have seen deeply disturbing evidence of a growing atmosphere of intimidation affecting Jewish students. Free speech and robust debate cannot take place in such an atmosphere.

Last week, for instance, students at York university, staged a play ‘Seven Jewish Children’ which the Jewish Chronicle’s theatre critic described as antisemitic, and which the author Howard Jacobson dubbed: ‘Jew-hating, pure and simple’.

Sadly, this is not an isolated example. Last month, there were serious allegations of antisemitism at Oxford university Labour club, including claims that members discussed an ‘international Jewish conspiracy’ and that one member stated that, ‘all Jews should be expected to publicly denounce Zionism and the state of Israel, and that we should not associate with any Jew who fails to do so.’

In January, Jewish students were abused as ‘Nazis’ when they attempted to prevent the disruption of an event by an Israeli speaker at King’s College London. An investigation by the university afterwards concluded: ‘A number of individuals intentionally disrupted the rights of others to exercise freedom of speech within the law’.

The common link in all of these incidents – as well as numerous others – is the fraught debate around the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. I have no problem at all with people criticising the policies of the Israeli government – I have plenty of my own. In my first event as chair of Labour Friends of Israel I attended a meeting with Benjamin Netanyahu and urged him to freeze settlement building.

All too often, however, legitimate criticisms of the Israeli government morph into attacks on Israel’s right to exist, on the Jewish people’s right to self-determination and into an antisemitic discourse and the use of antisemitic imagery.

We cannot allow this to go unchallenged. It is time that we establish some clear red lines which allow those who wish to protest against the policies of the Netanyahu government to do so, while protecting Jewish students – many of whom might, indeed, wish to participate in such protests – from feeling intimidated and abused. These red lines are not hard to establish. Both the European Forum On Antisemitism and the US Anti-Defamation League provide concise and clear guidance on the point at which the debate about Israel becomes infused with antisemitism.

First, the use of imagery and language which invoke classic antisemitic tropes and accusations. Some of these – the depiction of Israelis in a manner which comes straight out of the pages of Der Sturmer – are probably not hard for most people to spot. But others – suggestions of Jewish conspiracies and cabals shaping western policies towards Israel or the evocation of the medieval blood libels – are no less pernicious and, sadly, all too evident in some of the criticisms levelled against Israel.

Second, the denial of the right of the Jewish people to self-determination and claims that equate Zionism with racism.

Third, the drawing of comparisons between Israeli policies and those of the Nazis. As the ADL argues, such charges are ‘purposefully directed at Jews in an effort to associate the victims of Nazi crimes with the Nazi perpetrators and serves to diminish the significance and uniqueness of the Holocaust’.

Fourth, holding Jews collectively responsible for the actions of the state of Israel.

Finally, the application of double standards which demand of Israel behaviour not expected of any other democratic nation.

There is a responsibility on all of us – political parties, university authorities and student unions, campaign groups and trade unions – to lead, educate, and to make clear that this important debate has its boundaries, and that they will be rigorously enforced.


Joan Ryan MP is chair of Labour Friends of Israel and member of the Progress strategy board