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University anti-Zionist twinning with Palestine

peace | 21.02.2009 15:55 | Campaign against Carmel-Agrexco | Analysis | Anti-racism | Palestine | World

Last week, at a relatively well-attended meeting, my branch Executive seconded a motion to support a twinning with a Palestinian university, building on existing Student Union work. A few of us decided to propose an additional note about “the increase in antisemitic atmosphere on British campuses associated with Israel’s conflicts”. We are all broadly supportive of the twinning but conscious that in our institution it has been a vehicle for intensifying calls for the ostracisation and dissolution of Israel. Our intervention was fairly puny and didn’t say what needed to be said about this twinning - in retrospect since it was almost certain to fall we should have made more amendments.

Five of the student twinning organisers had taken a break from their occupation of our administration building to attend the meeting and were lined up at the front. The chair (who is also the branch Secretary and an Israel boycotter) interrupted me hastily as I began to explain the problems with the current twinning. He then told the branch that acknowledging antisemitism on British campuses wouldn’t strengthen the motion and that they should reject our note. They duly voted against it. Some of us went on to vote for the twinning motion anyway.

The report of the meeting was circulated the next day made no mention of this discussion. On the branch site:

“We acknowledge that the actions of the Israeli state (such as the invasion of Gaza) could lead to an increased climate of anti-Semitism”.

For how much longer is my union going to push this fallacy that Israel is primarily responsible for British antisemitism? Where is its sense of responsibility to Jewish members? For years it’s been blatantly obvious that antisemitism lodges in the language and practice of prevalent forms of Palestine solidarity activism, and that this morphs with alarming ease into familiar allegations of Jewish conspiracy and dual loyalty. To pass over this so lightly is a shocking failure for a trade union which calls itself anti-racist.

“However, it should also be pointed out that anti-Semitism is a separate issue than support for twinning with a Palestinian university and these issues should not be conflated.”

I argue here that our twinning harbours and promulgates antisemitic ways of thinking about Israel, that this is long-standing and ongoing, and that my branch has voted to go along with it.

The twinning is an ongoing project (’campaign’) in the Student Union. In 2006 students here began seeking a Palestinian twin. They hoped to link with An Najah, famous for the Sbarro suicide bomb art installation. I understand that An Najah was much admired and received far more invitations than it could handle. Goldsmiths’ overtures came to nothing and consequently the organisers linked with a place which had been overlooked so far (this in itself is reassuring) - Al Quds Open University, a distance learning institution with branches in the UAE and Saudi. Al Quds don’t need much from us. They hope that people will visit and report back, and they also propose post-graduate scholarships. Who wouldn’t support this? But as well as being a project to extend solidarity and material support to occupied Palestinians, the twinning is also a campaign about something else.

At Goldsmiths Debating Society last week, a twinning coordinator told the floor that Ismail Haniyeh, leader of Hamas, “wasn’t antisemitic at all, actually”. But Haniyeh leads a Jew-hating organisation whose charter confirms the validity of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. If he’s not antisemitic, then nobody is.

On the twinning Facebook group, the front page for a while declared that the campaign was “under surreptitious attack from three very vocal Zionists”. ‘Zionist’ is used to mean ‘dissenter’, so perhaps one of them was me. At any rate, my posting rights were suddenly withdrawn after I criticised the aggressive anti-Zionist nature of an event I went to and warned that it would alienate Jews from becoming involved in the twinning. The correspondence that followed was grim, summarised by the coordinator’s “it doesnt alienate jewish students, just maybe zionists. and i’m not in the business of catering to racists”, and on Hamas: “it’s simply they are the palestinian resistance”. Simple is right. My ideas weren’t welcome but I was invited, or rather challenged, to donate my money instead. Not to them, I decided.

So when my local UCU Executive decided to give the twinning £200 of our subs, I notified the branch secretary of my experiences. I got a bland reply with no reassurance and certainly no undertakings. I sent a few polite messages to twinning coordinators asking to be reinstated. Some time later I found myself slung out altogether. By then I no longer wanted to get back in.

The same coordinator is an administrator of the ‘I Support the University Occupations in Solidarity with Gaza’ group on Facebook. She permitted an article containing the following to remain conspicuously for weeks - it was still there when she turned up at my union meeting last week and it took a letter from J-Soc to get it removed:

“The Jews are so dominant, I had to scour the trades to come up with six Gentiles in high positions at entertainment companies. When I called them to talk about their incredible advancement, five of them refused to talk to me, apparently out of fear of insulting Jews. The sixth, AMC President Charlie Collier, turned out to be Jewish.”

It was a satirical piece about Jewish Power from the LA Times, but it had been reposted unsatirically under a thread titled “Boycotting Hollywood”. There was no mention of Israelis or Zionists at all, just Jews.

The anti-Zionism of our twinning tends to antisemitism because it is avidly and viscerally anti-Israel rather than soberly critical of Jewish nationalism and prepared to engage with its origins and argue alternatives. This selective blindness and its corollary, antisemitism minimisation, is characteristic of the SWP and RESPECT, with whom a number, if not most, of the twinning organisers have affinity. Indeed every Palestinian speaker at twinning events is flanked by somebody with SWP-compatible views on Israel, insulting our intelligence with hollow ideology, mendacious analogy and vacuous code words - Zionist, colonialist, imperialist, apartheid, Nazi. There are no speakers who diverge from these eccentric and limited politics. You’re not supposed to think, you’re supposed to swallow the ideologies of John Rose, Sabby Sagall, Suzanne Weiss.

Suzanne Weiss (who never went near the Warsaw Ghetto, contrary to explicit statements on her publicity) was invited by the twinning campaign to tell a packed theatre that Jewish people are naturally hated, we should think of Gaza as a latter day Warsaw Ghetto, Israel as apartheid and Israelis as Nazis. This perverted set of equivalences paved the way for the assertion that Israelis intend to enact a holocaust on the Palestinians, and effortlessly on to demanding that we boycott Israel and work to end its existence. David Hirsh and I explain how Suzanne Weiss’ analysis promotes antisemitism. And yet she was invited, warmly endorsed and funded by the Student Union. At the vigil afterwards (later talked of as a march) another coordinator informed me that the twinning was completely free of antisemitism and we were all welcome at the meetings. Given what had gone before, the former statement cancelled out the latter.

The Student Union is split by the twinning. Many students recognise it as anti-Israel activism cynically posing as concern for Palestinians, the work of a small, but loud, voice in the SU. There is also widespread disapproval at the way it was pushed through on an Executive rather than membership vote. The most recent challenge to the current status quo, which proposed a three-way including Israel, fell by only two votes. There are likely to be further challenges, although not to the existing links with Al Quds - these are generally recognised as positive.

It’s hard to know what to make of the fact that my UCU branch finds antisemitism cosmically unimportant. How could a motion in support of twinning be weakened by an additional acknowledgement that antisemitism is on the rise? Perhaps it’s because this ostensibly peaceful twinning is in fact so hate-inspiring that, having harried Jews into defending Israel, it then treats them as proxy Israelis, Zionists and therefore fascists. The bottom line seems to be that if you support or defend Israel it doesn’t matter whether you also support Palestinians - you are going to have a credibility problem when you try to voice concerns about antisemitism. Quite possibly, your comrades believe that antisemitism is your fault and your problem.

Anyone tempted to write me off as a sly and bloodstained Zionist waving my antisemitism shroud to divert attention from Israel as it finishes off the Palestinians should ask themselves, what does she want? I support links with Palestinians, oppose the settlements, and if at any time in the future Israelis and Palestinians feel secure enough about each other to melt their borders, fine. But what seems to be much more immediately my business - because it’s something uncontained which affects where I live and work - is that things are going in the wrong direction for Jews here at the moment.

As I said at the meeting, I want a better twinning. Last week I was at an unedifying talk about what British Jews should do about Gaza. I went because my friend was an invited speaker. Afterwards he rounded up a small group of us with whom he was friendly and took us back to his home. The way it ended up, Palestinians, peace activists, former IDF soldiers, one or maybe two refuseniks, a person who found it very hard to be around to former IDF soldiers, an Israeli peace activist who was converted to boycotting, and an activist against British antisemitism talked and listened together, asked questions, disagreed, drew lines, talked sharply, reached agreements, put some things to one side. As David Hirsh puts it, they were reshaping the broad narratives of Israeli and Palestinian so that they were compatible with each other. This is a requirement of coexistence. The reason that group of people could come together is the kind of atmosphere my friend created - one in which Israelis and Palestinians, in Britain as equals, can grope towards the mutual understanding and trust which is so badly needed whether you support two states, one state or none.

And our twinning? Worlds away.