Academia,  antisemitism

Whispering in the Lift: on the LSE and anti-Semitism

This is a guest post by Saul Freeman

A Jewish UK academic with a career long interest in anti-Semitism recently shared an anecdote with me. We were sat in a café discussing the tsunami of anti-Jewish feeling coming from the Corbynite Left when we both noticed how we had instinctively moderated the level of our voices.

The academic recounted how he had been in a lift at Haifa University and was carrying on a discussion with a colleague on some element of the history of Zionism when his fellow academic asked him why he was whispering. He laughed as he remembered the fact that 3 of the 5 people in the lift were Arab Israelis. But that wasn’t why he was whispering. He was whispering because that had become his instinctive behaviour, learned through years of working in a leading London University.

It’s a funny story, isn’t it?

This vignette of the “cloak of invisibility” that is required in order to try and survive, thrive and retain your sanity and dignity in UK Universities is instructive when faced with the latest triumph from the London School of Economics. The LSE Centre for Human Rights published an article last week that expounded a truly racist and stupid argument, using its own cloak – this one a “cloak of academic respectability”. The argument from Dr. Sandra Nasr was that stateless Palestinians suffer because Israel is inevitably bad, because Jews are intrinsically an evil, corrosive force due to the supremacist ideology contained in the Torah. Zionism as the ultimate expression of the inherent evil of Judaism.[1]

This academic blog piece predictably included a quotation and link to the notorious Journal of Historical Review – a publication that exists to propagate Holocaust denial.[2]

So this is where the LSE Centre for Human Rights finds itself in 2015 – open anti-Semitism and quotations from professional Holocaust deniers. If it weren’t so predictable and appalling it would be comical.

I’m not going to pick apart the crude anti-Semitic tropes contained in the article, I’ll leave that to those with stronger stomachs and more patience than me. Suffice to say that use of a deliberately inverted reading of the “Chosen” concept, to prove that Jews believe they are superior to non-Jews, is a little lacking in intellectual weight and creativity.

The LSE found itself (again) being publicly called to explain its actions by the Board of Deputies and the Community Support Trust, two organisations that are the epitome of measure and restraint in the face of mounting pressure on the UK’s Jewish communities. [3]The blog piece was duly removed and the LSE issued a statement regretting that editorial guidelines were not followed. No apology for the thing itself, merely regret over process.[4] As a response to formal concerns issued by those that seek to safeguard the safety and wellbeing of a minority ethnic group, the LSE’s response is shockingly inadequate.

This in a week during which the LSE had to issue a public statement distancing itself from the actions of the LSE Student Union Palestinian Society on University premises after an exhibition in October that glorified Palestinian “martyrs” busy murdering Israeli Jews.[5]

I was under the impression that University academic departments might be filled (to at least some degree) with lively, informed and enquiring minds. Yet apparently it is beyond the collective academic intelligence at LSE and other UK Universities to wonder if there might perhaps be some connection between the student-Left obsessive anti-Semitism (I publicly refuse from hereon in to toe the line and refer to it as “anti-Zionism”) and its analogue found throughout academe. So let’s do the scoping out of that one for them.

Social Science and Arts academic practice has long been defined by the seismic paradigmatic shifts of post-structuralism and post-Marxism. Back in the 1980s, new touchstones emerged to replace the economistic structuralism of classic Marxist analysis of State and civil society. Sources as diverse as the feminist literary criticism of Kristeva, the Frankfurt School thinkers, Lacan, Foucault, Bob Jessop and Anthony Giddens’ Euro Communist inspired political sociology and the work of many others mirrored the end of Cold-War certainties in academic discourse.

We cheered at the creation of new tools for understanding the world around us and embraced those that equipped us to engage that world in a newly open struggle for primacy at sites of meaning and identity.

Then, some of us undergraduates went off out into that world and did stuff.  Some of it new, creative and exciting, much of it humdrum and dull. We retained the insights of what we’d learnt and applied them as and when it seemed relevant and helpful.

Others stayed and did doctorates in Critical Theory and Post-Colonial Studies and taught both under-graduates and post-graduates. 25 years later we now live with the multi-generational offspring – Identity Politics. The bastard son (and daughter, obviously) of Franz Fanon et al. [6]

Identity politics has provided a key nexus (see what I just did there) where the post-Marxist theory meets post Cold-War political practice in joyous praxis. Writers smarter than me (yes, I’m regurgitating Nick Cohen yet again) have identified the way that the European Hard Left – faced with the growing realization that the historical inevitability contained in Marxist shibboleths seemed a little less certain than it ought to be – latched on to new revolutionary movements that offered more promise. The Iranian revolution lit the touch-paper of this new emergent thinking, when elements of the Left celebrated the intrinsic anti-West nature of the Revolution (it was an actual revolution!) whilst ignoring the uncomfortable reality that it was a fascistic, theocratic revolution (hey, the world’s an imperfect place, after all).

And here the Hard Left needed our third cloak -the “cloak of identity politics” – in order to distract both itself and those it sought to recruit to the struggle from the inherent contradictions in its new post Soviet positioning.

Contradictions may abound in this shotgun marriage between Islamist revolutionary discourse and the European secular hard Left, but in anti-Semitism they were and are able to unite in ecstatic bliss. The Soviet influenced and derived Left had long shape-shifted around the comings and goings of Soviet State pogroms, anti-Jewish rhetoric and petty oppression of its Jewish citizens. And of course Islamist movements  – and an eye-watering number of Islamic nation states – have made anti-Semitic beliefs a core mobilising element of their discourse and structure.

An identity politics forged around an a priori definition of political Zionism (self determination for Jews, in the form of an autonomous nation State) as the epitome of Western colonialism was the historical inevitability belonging to this new politics. And in academic departments in Universities across Western Democracies there’s been no shortage of academics willing to embrace and legitimise this thinking and use the full weight of identity politics to define oppressors and oppressed. Palestinians and Israelis in the Middle East, Muslims and Zionist Jews in the West. Subtle, granular and critical thinking has transmogrified into crude, blunt, rigid and regressively racist polemical certainties.

In 2011 the UCU -the union with the largest on-campus membership of UK University academic staff– passed a motion that rejected the European Working Definition on Anti-Semitism. In a subsequent Employment tribunal case brought by UCU member Ronnie Fraser, the alleged institutionalised anti-Semitism of the union was documented; though the tribunal exonerated the union. [7]The UCU has long tussled with regular membership/activist demands for BDS contrasted with legal advice that restrains the union from formally adopting an academic boycott of Israeli and pro-Israel institutions and individuals.[8]

The creation of Israel Studies fellowships at Sussex University and SOAS (no jokes about the School of Organised Anti-Semitism from me) resulted in bitter hostility from academics and students alike, citing Zionist conspiracy. [9] Conferences that seek to find new and creative ways to de-legitimise the existence of the world’s only Jewish State have become part of the annual routine of the conference circuit  – this year Southampton University was forced to cancel their event but the University of Exeter duly stepped up with their Conference on Settler Colonialism in Palestine. [10]

And we wonder why student political and identity-based activities have descended into the land of the truly mad and bad, with Palestinian lone wolf terrorists idiolised as innocent victims of Israeli oppression and Israel Apartheid Week a fixture on the campus calendar? There is a problem on UK campuses.

There are two equally serious consequences of the failure by UK Universities such as the LSE to confront and contest this anti-Semitism on campuses. Firstly, Jewish students are increasingly reporting that they feel marginalized and threatened.[11] For UK Jews, that means knowingly placing our children into a hostile environment. This isn’t about imagined threats to imaginary “safe spaces”. It’s about children not being thrown to the racist lions. Of course, if the Left and the academic establishment chooses to adopt the logic of the Livingstone Formulation[12] and dismiss these fears as an attempt by disingenuous Jews to silence criticism of Israeli government policy, then we know where we are.

Secondly, all higher education institutions in the UK have a statutory duty under the PREVENT strategy to work to counter terrorism and radicalisation. There is a growing realisation within Government that anti-Semitism may be one of the “gateway drugs” on the route to Islamist and other extremist positions and activities. If UK Universities continue to stand back and fail to examine and challenge the nature and scale of the problem, this may represent not just a moral and ethical catastrophe but may also have serious implications for future University governance and academic freedoms.

The crudely racist LSE paper of last week will inevitably be replaced by another – perhaps more carefully worded- example in weeks or months to come. And for every paper, article or lecture that makes the headlines, countless others will go un-noticed. Perhaps we’ll all be too busy having a die-in somewhere to notice

Honestly, I see no light at the end of this bleakly lit tunnel for at least a generation or three. It’s self-propagating. And in the meantime, academics and students who are trying to survive this institutionally legitimised anti-Semitism will just have to continue whispering in lifts.



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