Oxford Firestorm Highlights Heated British Debate Over anti-Semitism and Zionism

Some Oxford students claim anti-Semitic abuse from the radical left; others note that Jewish students find the mere display of Palestinian flags offensive.

This week, the British Labour Party’s national student organization launched an investigation into claims of anti-Semitism at its Oxford University chapter amid claims that pro-Palestinian activism was being used as a way to bully Jewish students.

Alex Chalmers, co-chair of the Oxford University Labour Club (OULC) resigned on February 15 immediately after the body decided to support Israel Apartheid Week (IAW), an annual event held around the world on university campuses to draw attention to the Israel-Palestinian conflict.

Chalmers said that many OULC members “have some kind of problem with Jews.” The discord was further fuelled after the Oxford Jewish Society released a swathe of allegations in a Facebook post, including claims that former OULC members expressed support for Hamas attacks against Israeli civilians, referred to Jewish students as “Zio” (a derogatory word often found on neo-Nazi websites), and actively harassed Jewish students.

Oxford, along with Cambridge, is the U.K.’s most elite university. Radical student politics there have won international attention before, most recently with attempts to remove a statue of the nineteenth century mining magnate and colonialist pioneer Cecil Rhodes, echoing similar recent campaigns on universities in the United States.

These latest events further an ongoing debate about the political climate on British campuses and how that feeds and reflects the broader political scene.

Jewish students who support Israel, however critically, say that they are falling victim to an increasingly popular creed of “intersectionality.” According to this theory, oppressive institutions such as racism, sexism and homophobia are all interconnected and cannot be separated from one another. Zionism of any flavor is seen as just another of these tyrannical structures. 

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The Labour Party is currently embroiled in a struggle between a more radical left wing, led by its new leader Jeremy Corbyn, who firmly subscribes to socialist economics and an anti-colonial reading of foreign affairs, and more centrist traditionalists. 

Nowhere is this crystallised more sharply than when it comes to Israel-Palestine. Many Jewish Labour party activists have found it hard to reconcile themselves to the leadership of Corbyn, who once famously described representatives of Hezbollah and Hamas as his friends.

One Labour source said that the on-going power struggle between the right and left of the party formed the backdrop to the Oxford affair. The left, he claimed, had instigated the crisis to increase its chances of placing its own candidate as OULC chair. 

(Each campus club sends delegates to the Labour youth conference, which selects a representative for the National Executive Committee, the party’s chief administrative body. Oxford is a particularly important battleground when it comes to such selections.)

“The motion [on IAW] was specifically designed to precipitate Alex's resignation to help solidify left control of the club,” the source alleged. “In other words, they used anti-Semitism for the election.” 

Some argue that university politics have become dominated by a disproportionate and extreme focus on the Israel-Palestinian conflict, spilling over into expressions of anti-Jewish bigotry.

Eleanor Sharman, a theology and philosophy student at Oxford, said she was “not remotely surprised” by the allegations. 

“The anti-Semitic abuse is astonishing, a lot of it on Facebook,” she said, stating that terms such as “white boy Zios” were bandied around by supposedly liberal groups.

“The farther left you go the more aggressively anti-Israel they are and the more they venture into anti-Semitic territory,” she said. “In practice, the way they speak and treat Jewish students, there’s no difference” between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism.

The Community Security Trust, the body that monitors threats to U.K. Jews, said that events such as IAW, for instance, are a divisive force on campus. Eylon Aslan-Levy, an Oxford graduate in Philosophy, Politics & Economics, went further.

In theory, he said, pro-Palestinian campaigning could be perfectly civil. Anti-Zionism, however, was an “eliminationist ideology, with its contempt for the concerns and interests of Jews, [and] is the latest mutation of the ancient anti-Semitic virus." 

In 2013, during a debate at Oxford, far-left politician George Galloway notoriously walked out of a panel with Aslan-Levy, telling him, “I don’t debate with Israelis.”

There have been claims that Jewish students often feel threatened and vulnerable on campus, but it has been hard to define the point at which pro-Palestine activity tips over into unacceptable behaviour.

“It's not clear-cut,” said one Jewish student active in university politics, who asked not to be identified. “IAW and BDS are not inherently anti-Semitic. I don't buy the whole ‘BDS is anti-Semitic because it singles out Israel’ line but the overlap is there.”

He said that most Jewish students at Oxford were not what he called “the right-wing, over-sensitive hasbara types,” using the Hebrew work for pro-Israel campaigning. Rather, he said the scene at the university was largely made up of liberal Zionists, with outspoken fringes on both the right and the left.

Others acknowledge that there is a problem on the fringes of left-wing politics, but warn that allegations of anti-Semitism are also manipulated by activists with a pro-Israel agenda. 

They argue that Jewish students should be able to deal with more robust arguments against the actions of the Israeli state and Zionism itself. Barnaby Raine, a third-year history and politics student at Oxford, who is also Jewish, is an outspoken advocate of Palestinian rights and self-declared anti-Zionist. As an example, he noted that some Jewish students find the mere display of Palestinian flags offensive.

“I have encountered quite a lot of anti-Semitism but never from within the student left,” Raine said. At a recent debate on BDS in London, a member of the audience called him a “kapo” for supporting a boycott of Israel, referring to the slang for a Jew who helped Nazis during the Holocaust. 

“If the allegations are as reported then it’s concerning, but I am really active within Labour student politics and I’ve never encountered anti-Semitism.”

Others involved in pro-Palestinian activism are frank about the problem they face weeding out anti-Jewish prejudice and conspiracy theories.

“If campaigners are incapable of reasoned criticism towards Israel without making Jews feel intimidated, anxious, insecure and isolated then they are doing something seriously wrong,” said Gary Spedding, a veteran campaigner on Israel-Palestine. 

Spedding, who was deported from Israel in 2014 and barred from entering for 10 years due to his pro-Palestine activism, said he was constantly harassed for attempting to introduce nuance into the debate. 

“I'm frequently accused of taking Jewish money in order to be a ‘disruptive influence’ in the Palestine solidarity movement," he said. "A year or two ago someone thought I was Jewish and suggested I should have been put in an oven,” he said, adding, “I still get accused of being an anti-Semite at least three times a week.”

One issue the left struggles with, he said, was confronting anti-Semitism in its ranks. By admitting to any strain of anti-Jewish sentiment in the movement, they worry that pro-Israel groups would use this to dismiss the entire pro-Palestinian cause.

“It gets complicated because there are some instances where right-wing Israel advocacy organizations use anti-Semitism as a smear,” Spedding said. “But just because they do that doesn't mean we can sit back and say every accusation of anti-Semitism is just a Zionist ploy.”