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At Oxford, Education Proves No Barrier to Bigotry and anti-Semitism

Ilan Manor
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Ilan Manor

Of all the Godfather films, the third is the least impressive. Although it had the same director, featured the same actors and had a similar plot, the cinematic magic of the Corleone family was gone. But, the film does include one classic scene in which an aging Al Pacino laments his inability to escape the world of organized crime: “Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in!”

I felt a similar sentiment last week when confronted with anti-Semitism at Oxford for the first time. I moved to the UK more than a year ago to begin my PhD studies. Although I had heard many times that anti-Semitism was rampant in Europe, and that anti-Israel activists were flourishing in UK universities, I encountered neither. Over the past year there have been no anti-Israel protests at Oxford and no calls to boycott Israeli products. Additionally, the BDS activists so often depicted as titans in the news in Israel were nowhere to be seen. 

Yet even more importantly, I soon learned that Jewish life and culture are actually celebrated at Oxford. Many of my friends watch Israeli TV dramas on Netflix, academics often ask me if the latest David Grossman book is out, while the “Tradition! Tradition!” chant of Tevye the milkman has become idiomatic. Jewish philanthropists such as George Soros and George Weidenfeld have left their mark on the University while Israeli academics frequently visit to lecture. I soon came to feel safe in Oxford and confident that the prejudice spreading across Europe and across the Atlantic would not reach me here.

But then it happened.

A close friend and fellow PhD student invited me to have drinks with his father. His father in question immediately asked if I was a Zionist. While this is a difficult question under any circumstances, it is even more complicated in the UK, given that it is a code word for "Israeli zealot". If you wear a Super-Jew t-shirt and dream of Naftali Bennett you are what the Brits consider a Zionist. I answered that I was a Zionist, and that Zionism as a movement originally recognized the religious and national rights of the Palestinians.

On hearing this my friend’s father embarked on a tirade. Like the hot-tempered Sonny Corleone he angrily remonstrated: “You went too far! You tried to buy the U.S. elections and the people wouldn’t have it”. When I asked who he was referring to, he explained, “the Zionists of course.”

Apparently, we Zionists had not only backed Hillary Clinton in the elections, but also used our financial leverage to ensure that she would go to war with Russia to increase the price of oil. “Your money also ensured that Russia would lose through your sanctions on Putin. But you lost!” he said, smiling.

By the end of the evening the extent of the Zionist plot against America became apparent. Anglo-Saxons, a code word for white people, had decided to back Donald Trump and avoid Hillary’s war. “But you were not content”, explained the father. According to his theory, this is why the leader of the plot, George Soros, orchestrated protests throughout the world against Trump. “Like most Zionists, Soros is a sore loser,” said the father.

I was not sure how to contend with these comments coming from a successful businessman who was himself a university graduate.

Was I supposed to declare war? To follow the Corleone family’s example and settle all debts? Or, was I supposed to be polite and let the old man rant, politeness being a virtue on which Oxford thrives. I decided to say goodnight and made for the door.

Walking home I was baffled by my friend's reaction. Not only did he fail to counter his father's arguments, but he was actually inquisitive, asking how Soros made his money, how one could manipulate oil prices and why the Zionists had favored Clinton.

The following morning my friend came to apologize, stating that his father often drinks too much. “I’m really sorry," he said, "that my father forgot to pay for the drinks. But I could tell he really liked you. ”

It is not surprising to learn that prejudice, including anti-Semitism, exists in the UK. But I was surprised to encounter it at Oxford and among its scholars. It caused to me to question whether education can really counter ignorance, whether knowledge can fight bigotry and whether the wave of hatred towards minorities now felt across Europe has even reached communities who so pride themselves on their education.

Was my friend's father able to speak so confidently about Zionist plots having been emboldened by the xenophobic climate created by Le Pen and Nigel Farage? Or perhaps such statements have been legitimized by British reactionary politicians, namely far left members of the Labour party such as Ken Livingston and Jackie Walker who also find Zionist plots wherever they turn.

I had come to assume that Oxford's tall spires would protect me and my fellow students from the prejudice animated by Brexit and the rise of populism. Now I am not so sure.

Just when I thought I was out of reach, an old prejudice redressed pulled me back to reality.

Ilan Manor is a PhD candidate at the University of Oxford and a Weidenfeld Scholar. Follow him on Twitter: @Ilan_Manor

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