What’s to hate? I teach Is­raeli Stud­ies at SOAS

Is this the tough­est job in academia — teach­ing Is­raeli Stud­ies in a hot­bed of anti-Zion­ism? Stu­dents are queu­ing up. . .

The Jewish Chronicle - - Features - COLIN SHINDLER

AS A for­mer chem­istry lec­turer, Colin Shindler knows all about ex­plo­sive sit­u­a­tions. His new ap­point­ment could cer­tainly be con­strued as such. Shindler has just been made the coun­try’s first-ever Pro­fes­sor of Is­raeli Stud­ies at Lon­don Uni­ver­sity’s School of Ori­en­tal and African Stud­ies (SOAS), the col­lege with the rep­u­ta­tion of be­ing the most hos­tile anti-Is­rael cam­pus in the UK.

The Pales­tinian So­ci­ety at SOAS is the only one in the coun­try run by a pro­fes­sional or­gan­iser and has held anti-Zion­ist events, in­clud­ing an Is­rael Apartheid Week. Mean­while, posters ad­ver­tis­ing Shindler’s book,

What do Zion­ists Be­lieve?, were daubed with swastikas. Shindler is well aware of the hos­til­ity from a sec­tion of stu­dents and from lec­tur­ers, many of whom are aligned with the far-left So­cial­ist Work­ers Party. But he says he has en­coun­tered no an­tisemitism in the years he has al­ready worked there. In­deed, stu­dents are lit­er­ally queu­ing up to take his cour­ses.

In the calm of his north Lon­don liv­ing room, where the only dis­tur­bances come cour­tesy of his baby grand­daugh­ter, Shindler re­calls his first lec­ture of the new term, two weeks ago. “When you walk in for your first lec­ture, you never know how many peo­ple are go­ing to be there. This au­tumn there were peo­ple sit­ting on the floor and out­side in the corridor. I’m des­per­ately try­ing to find a big­ger room.”

Al­though some Jewish stu­dents have re­port­edly been put off at­tend­ing SOAS by the anti-Is­rael at­mos­phere, plenty do en­rol. But the Is­raeli stud­ies course is by no mean ex­clu­sively Jewish. Shindler ex­plains: “Peo­ple come to this col­lege and to the course from the de­vel­op­ing world, and many of them are from Arab and Mus­lim coun­tries. A lot of them come with their views about Is­rael pre-de­ter­mined.”

He sees this as an op­por­tu­nity rather than a hand­i­cap. “I teach as ob­jec­tively as I can and I don’t pe­nalise those who write es­says with dif­fer­ent con­clu­sions to mine, but I do ex­pect them to jus­tify their views, and to come up with a gen­uine anal­y­sis. I think peo­ple want to be in­formed. They want to ex­plore this com­plex, tragic con­flict. The best es­say on [Zion­ist re­vi­sion­ist ac­tivist] Ze’ev Jabotin­sky I’ve ever read was writ­ten by a rel­a­tive of a well-known Pales­tinian leader.”

Shindler is quick to point out that while many stu­dents and lec­tur­ers at SOAS may be vir­u­lently an­tiIs­rael, the in­sti­tu­tion has never been. More­over, on a day-to-day ba­sis he gets on well with his col­leagues. “I work with Arabs, Turks, Ira­ni­ans — there’s never any hos­til­ity. I pass them in the morn­ing and we al­ways say, hello, how are you do­ing.” How­ever, life did get more in­ter­est­ing for Shindler when the Gaza con­flict blew up in Jan­uary. “I or­gan­ised a se­ries of lec­tures on Tel Aviv which was cel­e­brat­ing its cen­te­nary. The lec­tures were on highly sub­ver­sive top­ics like town plan­ning and mu­se­ums, but there was pres­sure on me from the Uni­ver­sity and Col­lege Union [the lec­tur­ers’ union] to can­cel them. There was in­tim­i­da­tion. But my ar­gu­ment was that this was about aca­demic free­dom and free­dom of ex­pres­sion. In fact, I re­sponded by putting on more talks. Uni­ver­si­ties should be bas­tions of free ex­pres­sion. No one should be able to dic­tate that an­other nar­ra­tive shouldn’t be heard.”

This is where he parts com­pany with the UCU. While he sees him­self as a trade union­ist and feels that the UCU works hard to main­tain the rights of his col­leagues, he feels that its sup­port of the boy­cott of Is­raeli aca­demics is non­sen­si­cal. “If I can’t have con­tact with Is­raeli aca­demics, then it un­der­mines my work. As a trade union they should be sup­port­ing me. This is the dilemma for them. On the one hand they want a boy­cott and on the other they have to sup­port me be­cause I’m one of their mem­bers. They haven’t worked that out yet.”

The chang­ing at­ti­tudes of the Left to­wards Is­rael is a sub­ject which un­der­stand­ably fas­ci­nates Shindler, who grew up in a work­ing-class fam­ily in Stoke New­ing­ton, in north Lon­don, the only son of a fac­tory worker. He plans to ad­dress the topic in his in­au­gu­ral pub­lic lec­ture as pro­fes­sor of Is­raeli stud­ies next month. “The prob­lem is one of se­lec­tive out­rage. Is­rael is al­ways seen as the devil in­car­nate in all sorts of sit­u­a­tions and yet there’s si­lence from the Left on what is hap­pen­ing in places like Burma and Zim­babwe.”

He feels that Is­rael’s unique po­si­tion in the world has caused the Left a prob­lem for over 40 years — since be­fore the Six-Day War and the sub­se­quent set­tle­ment


drive in the West Bank. “In the 1940s, the fur­ther left you went, the stronger was the Zion­ism. Things be­gan to change when the Pales­tini­ans be­came a na­tional en­tity and a recog­nised force. The Left had a dilemma. Do you favour the Is­raelis or the Pales­tini­ans? The Pales­tinian cause fit­ted much bet­ter with the new era of de­coloni­sa­tion, with the cam­paign against apartheid and op­po­si­tion to the war in Viet­nam.

“There is also a gen­er­a­tional dif­fer­ence. Those who grew up in the 1930s fought with the Jews against Mosley and lived through the Shoah and the rise of the state of Is­rael. That’s what moulded their world out­look. My gen­er­a­tion never fought against fas­cism.”

Shindler is now on his sec­ond ca­reer. For years, he lec­tured on chem­istry be­fore tak­ing the risky de­ci­sion to quit at the age of 50 when his four chil­dren were still young, and change ca­reers. But he has never writ­ten a book about how Manch­ester United ru­ined his life. That was the other Colin Shindler, the well-known writer and fer­vent Manch­ester City sup­porter.

“The first I knew about the fact that there were two Colin Shindlers was when some­one from the JC rang me up to ask me why I was lec­tur­ing at the Na­tional Film The­atre on a Fri­day night. I felt like I was suf­fer­ing from am­ne­sia. I have never met him but we are in con­tact. I get his cheques and he gets mine. When he did a pro­gramme about grow­ing up in Manch­ester, the Guardian pub­lished my photo in­stead of his.”

Shindler is happy with his ca­reer choice and even hap­pier with his new post. He says: “This is a recog­ni­tion that Is­raeli stud­ies is a stand-alone sub­ject, that should not be sub­sumed in Mid­dle East stud­ies or Jewish stud­ies or Mediter­ranean stud­ies.”

Pro­test­ers against Is­rael’s in­cur­sion into Gaza demon­strate in Trafal­gar Square in Jan­uary. Anti-Is­rael feel­ing at SOAS was more no­tice­able dur­ing this pe­riod, says Pro­fes­sor Colin Shindler ( be­low). But he says he has never faced an­tisemitism from stu­dents or lec­tur­ers

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