Academia,  antisemitism

Dealing with antisemitism: advice from UCU

The previous post is a reminder of why unions are important – increasingly important.  There are all sorts of ways in which the UCU – or the people in the UCU – do a great deal of good: standing up for members’ interests, helping colleagues with particular problems, engaging assertively, but also constructively, with management over workplace issues, taking training courses in order to help colleagues with concerns over pensions or redundancy.  My personal experience of the UCU, at a branch and regional level, is a positive one. But.

I probably don’t need to give the full back story to the UCU’s problems with antisemitism – problems which go beyond the familiar boycott issue.  It’s interesting – within the context of the whole saga – to look at the union’s new leaflet on antisemitism (pdf). It seems to have been available for a little while – the text was reproduced on the jfjfp website back in March – but it’s flagged as a new publication in the April edition of UCU’s anti-fascist newssheet, and I don’t think I’ve seen it discussed elsewhere.

It opens with a quotation from Brian Klug which is presented as a ‘definition’:

“At the heart of antisemitism is the negative stereotype of ‘the Jew’: sinister, cunning, parasitic, money-grubbing, mysteriously powerful, and so on. Antisemitism consists in projecting this figure onto individual Jews, Jewish groups and Jewish institutions.”

However Klug’s quote only invokes one stereotype, one element of the problem –  and the leaflet makes no further effort to engage seriously with antisemitic tropes.  This is the list it offers of the ways antisemitism may manifest itself at work:

* jokes, banter, insults and taunts
* the dissemination of antisemitic literature
* excluding people because they are Jewish
* physical attacks
* excluding people based on perceptions or assumptions.

The problems are either totally obvious – physical attacks – or dependent on value judgements (is this publication/website/tweet antisemitic?) which the leaflet won’t help you answer.  A great deal of the content is vague or completely generic.

This is clearly an important section:

The UCU will vigorously defend the rights of its members to exercise their academic freedom at work and to engage in political debate within the union, including on sensitive and difficult issues such the Middle East.

But the union will not tolerate discriminatory language or behaviour. The rules of the union require all its members to refrain from all forms of harassment, prejudice and discrimination and this includes antisemitic speech or behaviour.

Academic freedom is certainly important, and it is indeed difficult to police this boundary – actually, it would have been helpful simply to acknowledge that fact.  But no clue is given as to what kind of language or behaviour might be discriminatory.  Nazi/Israel comparisons? The use of the word ‘apartheid’, ruled out of order at a recent debate?

Most of the leaflet’s concrete suggestions relate to religious observance – not always holding meetings late on Friday, avoiding clashes with religious holidays.  Not surprisingly there is no mention of any possible intersection between antisemitism and antizionism.

Another associated publication is a Holocaust wall chart (pdf).  This has now been updated to include modern developments – most of which seem to relate to the EDL.  Two quotes are highlighted here:

“The Yids, the yids, we gotta get rid of the Yids” (British Union of Fascists chant 1936)

“Muslim scum off our streets” (English Defence League chant, 2010)

Obviously anti-Muslim bigotry is an important topic in its own right, and could have its own posters and leaflets.  But so is antisemitism, and it is not helpful to give the impression that the forces which gave rise to antisemitism have simply mutated into anti-Muslim bigotry.  There is probably an element of truth in that – but it is also the case that antisemitism is very good at mutating into new forms of itself – the new antisemitism is (at least sometimes) the new antisemitism – and this is what the UCU still seems to refuse to engage with.

The problems with the leaflet become clearer when you compare it with something like the motion on antisemitism rejected at the Green Party conference a few months ago, or the LSESU’s rather fuller guidelines (pdf). These are both much more helpful than the UCU leaflet – both make appropriate (I think) mention of Nazi/Israel comparisons. (Incidentally, I thought banning the use of the word ‘apartheid’ at that Birmingham debate was daft.)

It would be fascinating to know what went on in the head(s) of whoever put the UCU’s leaflet together.  There is a certain sort of skill involved, I suppose, in creating something so spectacularly vapid.