This week’s scandal over alleged anti-Semitism within Oxford University’s Labour Club and the plans announced by the British government to prevent local councils from boycotting foreign governments both contain disturbing elements indicating how toxic one issue — Israel — has become in British politics. It has further muddied the waters in the debate of where to place the line between legitimate criticism of Israel and Judeophobia masquerading as anti-Zionism.
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Oxford’s Labour Club is a well-known springboard for aspiring young politicians and has launched more than a few parliamentary careers. What began earlier in the week as a Facebook post in which the club’s co-chairman Alex Chalmers resigned in wake of the organization’s endorsement of Israel Apartheid Week has ballooned into a furore in the Labour Party at large. “[A] large proportion of both OULC and the student left in Oxford more generally have some kind of problem with Jews,” said Chalmers in the post. He wrote of the club’s executive members “throwing around the term 'Zio' (a term for Jews usually confined to websites run by the Ku Klux Klan) with casual abandon, senior members of the club expressing their 'solidarity' with Hamas and explicitly defending their tactics of indiscriminately murdering civilians, or a former Co-Chair claiming that 'most accusations of antisemitism are just the Zionists crying wolf.’”
After Chalmers’ accusations, Labour parliament members called on the party to disassociate itself from the club. On Wednesday, the party’s national student organization announced that it was launching an investigation into allegations of anti-Semitism, and former party leader Ed Miliband postponed a speech he planned to deliver there. The British national media has prominently covered the controversy, especially considering that this, after all, is just a student debating club. But then the media is on the watch for any fresh signs of extremism within the Labour Party since the election of Jeremy Corbyn as its new leader five months ago.
The other Israel-related development in Britain this week is the announcement by the Conservative government that local authorities and other publicly-funded bodies would not be allowed to boycott countries which are members of the World Trade Organization.
There is a good deal of common sense in the new regulations. Local councils are elected and funded to provide services to their residents. That is hard enough to do credibly without embarking on international diplomatic initiatives. Foreign policy is the mandate of national governments, and while David Cameron’s government has actually been seeking to devolve powers to local government authorities, it is anxious to delineate the lines between the roles of the different levels. But inevitably, this has been linked to a few isolated cases of local authorities in Britain voting to boycott Israel.
This interpretation of the new regulations — that they are basically intended to shield Israeli companies from BDS initiatives — was already raised back in October when the plans were first mooted. But if there was any lingering doubt over the matter, Cabinet Office Minister Matt Hancock decided to announce the guidelines on the eve of his official visit to Israel, and specifically link them to the importance of British-Israeli trade.
Why was he doing this? For a start, David Cameron’s government is genuinely pro-Israel and anti-boycott and resents the anti-Israeli initiatives of left-wing local councils. But it would seem that they are also eager to differentiate the Conservatives from Labour, which opposes the new regulations, on this issue. Ever since Corbyn won the leadership last September, the Tories have not missed a chance to portray him and his party as extreme, anti-Western and “a danger to Britain’s national security.” Coming from the far-left wing of the party, Corbyn affords them with ample chances to do so. His checkered past of sharing platforms with assorted anti-Semites and Holocaust deniers as well as endorsing Hamas and Hezbollah as “friends” has opened him up to criticism on the Israel front.
But while both the Israeli government and Jewish community organizations in Britain have welcomed the new regulations, they should be asking themselves whether the Conservatives are doing them any real favors. BDS, for all the media attention it gets, causes no real damage to Israel. The tiny handful of local councils passing boycott resolutions were not about to sign major import deals with the Jewish state. The best policy for Israel and its supporters would have been to ignore them. Turning policy over Israel to a dividing line between the two major political parties could easily backfire. The goings-on in Oxford’s Labour Club, even though it involves only students, is actually much more worrying than the antics of council leaders in Britain’s famously rotten boroughs.
Student unions in Britain have recently banned, or tried to ban, human-rights activists from their platforms for such ideological sins as criticizing radical Islam or not being supportive enough of transexuals. They have shied away from condemning ISIS, and one senior member of the National Union of Students is currently refusing to share a panel with the country’s most celebrated gay rights campaigner for an imagined slight too absurd even to begin explaining. But the Oxford Labour Club isn’t just another wacky union, and it seems believe that Jews are not among those minority groups whose concerns should be taken seriously. If its members are indeed veering dangerously over the line between Israel-criticism and wink-wink Jew-bashing, as Chalmers claims, it’s another sign of how such elements are becoming more embedded in the party that at least claims to represent the mainstream British left. The serious response from Labour’s establishment shows that the party still contains enough decent level-headed members, at least at the senior parliamentarian level. But if the Conservatives intend to choose Israel as another battlefield against their rivals, this may not remain the case.