Campus Chaos: Why they really hate Zionists
GIVEN THE concerns that we hear today about antisemitism and anti-Zionism on university campuses, it is worth remembering that there was a time when Jewish student societies were banned outright in some students’ unions. This happened when many of the parents of today’s Jewish student generation were themselves students, and many of its lessons about antisemitism, anti-Zionism and Jewish identity are as relevant now as they were then. The story begins 40 years ago this month, when one of Israel’s greatest political figures, Chaim Herzog, addressed the United Nations to respond to the UN’s notorious resolution that “Zionism is a form of racism and racial discrimination.”
Herzog felt that he was speaking not just for Israel, but on behalf of the entire Jewish people. “I stand here not as a supplicant”, he told the UN General Assembly. “I stand here before you as the representative of a strong and flourishing people”. Herzog condemned the resolution as “an antisemitic attack of the foulest type”, noting that it had been adopted on the anniversary of the Nazi pogrom of Kristallnacht, and dismissed it as having no “moral or legal value.”
He concluded by saying that “for us, the Jewish people, this is no more than a piece of paper, and we shall treat it as such” and, then, with a theatrical flourish, he ripped up a copy of the resolution and left the podium.
Unfortunately for Herzog and Israel, the resolution carried great moral value for many others. The ‘‘Zionism equals racism’’ slogan has become the core mobilising idea of modern, leftwing anti-Zionism, despite the resolution’s subsequent revocation in 1991.
The resolution was the culmination of a two-year campaign by a coalition of Communist and Arab states. The original aim had been for Israel’s UN membership to be suspended (as had happened to South Africa in 1974) but this met strong resistance from the United States and West European countries. In a deft move, Israel’s opponents sought instead to have Zionism defined as a form of racism, alongside apartheid and colonialism.
They were making their move based on a strongly biased interpretation of the words of United States’ Ambassador to the UN, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who wrote: “Only regimes based on racism and racial discrimination were held to be unacceptable”.
The resolution effectively meant that Israel itself, and the Jewish national movement that built it, were illegitimate. Expulsion from the UN might have been a more lenient sentence.
Integral to the success of left wing anti-Zionism has been the ability to place opposition to Israel within this wider anti-colonial, anti-racist politics. Until the mid-1970s, though, the British far left had shown relatively little interest in Palestine. In 1973, Peter Hain, then chair of the Young Liberals, complained that “despite the justice of the Palestinian case, the left in Britain has responded to their side in an incredibly feeble manner. Radicals and revolutionaries have never campaigned on Palestine with the strength of, for example, the Vietnam protests.”
Hain was one of a group of Young Liberal activists who, working with Arab nationalists and Fatah supporters through the Free Palestine newspaper and the Palestine Action campaign group, sought to change this. The left wing anti-Zionism that emerged from their anti-colonial and anti-apartheid networks proved more influential than the revolutionary socialist variant offered by Trotskyists during the same period. To those who viewed Zionism through this anticolonial lens, the language of the UN resolution resonated strongly.
On British university campuses, some pro-Palestinian campaigners put the UN resolution alongside the National Union of Students’ policy of “No Platform” for racism, passed a year earlier, and reached the logical conclusion that Zionism should be banned from students’ unions.
In March 1977, the Jewish Society at Salford University was told that it could not hold an ‘‘Israel Week’’ meeting at which a visiting rabbi was due to talk about Zionism. By the end of the month, the Times Higher Educational Supplement reported claims by the Union of Jewish Students that motions equating Zionism with racism had been debated by at least 17 Students’ Unions, and that York, Salford, Warwick and Lancaster University students’ unions had all passed motions “expelling Jewish societies on the grounds that they are Zionist and therefore racist.”
A policy adopted at the School of Oriental and African Studies included explicit instruction to “refuse money and facilities to societies whose aim is to propagate Zionism and organise support for the state of Israel.” Others simply defined Zionism as a form of racism, usually referencing the UN “Zionism is racism” resolution in the process. As UJS was keenly aware, the implications were clear whether or not an explicit ‘‘No Platform’’ clause was included. By the end of 1977, the
question of antisemitism in students’ unions had been debated in the House of Commons and led NUS to send a fact-finding trip to Israel and Lebanon to recommend a Middle-East policy for the union.
These anti-Zionist campaigns divided the left within itself. They were mostly the work of Trotskyist and Maoist students (including Jewish anti-Zionists), with the General Union of Palestinian Students following in their wake, but the campaigns were not organised by any faction.
The International Marxist Group opposed the use of No Platform for Zionism, but the International Socialists (the forerunner of today’s Socialist Workers Party) was more equivocal. It tried to finesse its position by arguing that “student unions should refuse money and facilities to societies whose aim is to propagate Zionism and support for the state of Israel.
“This does not mean banning Jewish societies; it means not paying money for Zionist propaganda or paying speakers’ fees for Zionists”. In reality, though, cutting students’ union funding and denying facilities often meant that the Jewish Society would fold.
The problem for anti-Zionists was that most Jewish students were Zionist and the only campus organisations promoting Zionism were the Jewish Societies. UJS was still a young and politically inexperienced organisation but its activists were determined to force home the consequences of this approach. They found important and powerful friends among the Communist-dominated broad left coalition that controlled NUS at that time. The leaders of NUS were sym- pathetic to UJS’s position, and saw an opportunity to attack their Trotskyist opponents. This led to the irony of Communist Party students defending Zionism against the consequences of Soviet policy at the UN. It bore fruit in December 1977, when NUS Conference adopted a two-state policy for the Middle East, and NUS mediated an agreement between UJS and GUPS that “No limitations on the rights of Jewish or Palestinian students or Jewish or Palestinian societies whether they are religious, political or social groupings, should be contemplated.” The No Platform policy was temporarily thrown out and the right of Jewish students to support Israel and Zionism was confirmed.
These campus debates anticipated contemporary arguments about antiZionism, anti-Israel boycotts and the idea of a “new antisemitism”. They raise the question of whether it was, and is, possible to turn the “Zionism equals racism” slogan into a political campaign without it leading to concrete actions that discriminate against Jews, given that most Jews consider Zionism to be a part of their Jewish identity. UJS did not claim that its political opponents were antisemites, although there were isolated complaints of antisemitic comments or antisemitic literature at some campuses. Rather, their argument that campus restrictions on Zionism were antisemitic was based on the impact that they had on the collective rights of Jewish students.
At the root of the “campus war”, as the Jewish Chronicle dubbed it, was a chasm between the far left’s view of Zionism as a political issue and those Jewish students who felt it to be part of their Jewish identity. UJS activists viewed their successes not as a propaganda triumph for Israel, but as validation for their own place as Jewish students in Britain. As UJS wrote in its journal after the crucial NUS conference of December 1977: “the national union decided that Jews have as many rights as anyone else. And that, after all, was all we ever wanted.”
Demonstrators at last year’s “Celebrate Israel” parade in New York march in protest against Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement supporters