Oxford student leader resigns as vote endorses Israel Apartheid Week

‘A large proportion of the student Left at Oxford has a problem with Jews,’ charges Alex Chalmers, quitting as co-chair of Oxford University Labour Club

Alex Chalmers was until recently the co-chairman of the Oxford University Labor Club (Facebook)
Alex Chalmers was until recently the co-chairman of the Oxford University Labor Club (Facebook)

A co-chairman of the Oxford University Labour Club (OULC) resigned Monday night in protest over the society’s endorsement of Israel Apartheid Week. In a sharply worded statement, Alex Chalmers claimed that “a large proportion of both OULC and the student Left in Oxford more generally have some kind of problem with Jews.”

Chalmers, a second-year History student at Oxford’s Oriel College, resigned after Oxford’s student Labour club voted by 18-16 to back Israel Apartheid Week. Chalmers described the week as “a movement with a history of targeting and harassing Jewish students and inviting anti-Semitic speakers to campuses.”

The annual international festival of anti-Israel events is set to return to British university campuses next week. This year it features as one of its suggested themes a controversial “solidarity with Palestinian popular resistance.” Since October, Israel has seen hundreds of terrorist attacks, most prominently stabbings, against Jews.

In his dramatic resignation statement on Facebook, Chalmers accused members of the Labour club’s executive of “throwing around the term ‘Zio’ [a term for Jews usually confined to websites run by the Ku Klux Klan] with casual abandon.” He wrote of “senior members of the club expressing their ‘solidarity’ with Hamas and explicitly defending their tactics of indiscriminately murdering civilians.” He also quoted an unnamed former co-chairperson of the club as claiming, “Most accusations of anti-Semitism are just the Zionists crying wolf.”

Britain’s Union of Jewish Students called on the Labour Party to investigate the issue “urgently” and take “appropriate action,” expressing alarm that such attitudes could be prevalent in a club whose alumni often progress to national politics. The organization stressed that Oxford “seems to be an exception to the rule” of otherwise positive relationships between the UJS and student Labour societies.

For its part, the national Labour Students organization said that it was “deeply troubled” by the dispute and will do “whatever is necessary to ensure every Labour Club is a safe space for Jewish students.” It chose not to pass comment on the society’s endorsement of Apartheid Week itself.

Britain's Labour Party Leader Jeremy Corbyn speaking at the annual Labour Party Conference in Brighton, south east England, September 29, 2015. (AFP/Leon Neal)
Britain’s Labour Party Leader Jeremy Corbyn speaking at the annual Labour Party Conference in Brighton, south east England, September 29, 2015. (AFP/Leon Neal)

The row comes in the wake of the Labour Party’s recent leftwards lurch, with the election of Jeremy Corbyn as leader in September 2015. Although the new leader of the opposition recently met with the Board of Deputies of British Jews, he is regarded as hostile to Israel, having famously called Hamas and Hezbollah “friends.”

Speaking to The Times of Israel, Chalmers said that part of the problem on the left was “people who are critical of Israel and express themselves poorly,” leading them to “unwittingly rehash age-old sinister tropes about sinister Jewish control.” In his experience, such people “rarely seem to see it as a problem” when called out.

Chalmers also stressed a problem of “old-fashioned anti-Semites,” on both the political left and right, who “find debates around Israel and Zionism to be a convenient mechanism for expressing their prejudices.”

Noni Csogor, now the sole chairperson of the OULC, defended the endorsement of Israel Apartheid Week as part of the club’s historic opposition to “racism and oppression in all its forms.” Nevertheless, she added that it was “horrifying that Jewish students feel unsafe on campuses” and promised that the society’s executive committee would discuss “how to deal with the kinds of statements Alex mentions, and what concrete steps we can take in future to preserve a club that’s been a safe haven for Jewish students in the past.”

Responding to concerns that Israel Apartheid Week is precisely the sort of activity that intimidates Jewish students on campus, Csogor told The Times of Israel that the “closeness of the vote” proves that “the safety and comfort of Jewish students was a compelling consideration” – although evidently, on balance, not a deciding factor.

Oxford Labour student head looks forward ‘to contributing to an ongoing discussion about the complex intersection of justice for Palestine and the safety of Jewish students’

In a Facebook post, Csogor wrote, “I understand Alex’s position, but am looking forward both to running the events we’ve organized for the rest of the term, and to contributing to an ongoing discussion about the complex intersection of justice for Palestine and the safety of Jewish students.”

Chalmers has expressed his “full confidence” in Csogor’s good intentions, but said that “bringing about a culture change” will be “an uphill struggle.”

“It’s not that everyone on the Left is an old-fashioned anti-Semite,” he noted, “but more that people are prepared to turn a blind eye. It’s very difficult to make people actually pay attention.”

According to one participant in the debate at Oxford, the allegation of anti-Semitism was a charge that Oxford’s Labour students were keen to deny. Supporters of the motion took pains, this participant said, to deny or disregard the connection between the “international movement to delegitimize Israel and student anti-Semitism.”

‘There’s an overwhelming attempt on the student Left to dissociate Jewish life in the UK from Israel’

Indeed, said the student, “there’s an overwhelming attempt on the student left to dissociate Jewish life in the UK from Israel,” thereby liberating critics to attack Israel without appearing hostile to Jews per se.

Nevertheless, in the context of a worldview that sees the world in terms of oppressors and the oppressed, there is “an insinuation that Jewish students are privileged whites,” which renders their concerns “irrelevant,” said this student.

Moreover, insofar as Israel is seen by many on the student left as a “settler-colonial state that is built on injustices that cannot be corrected other than by dismantling Israel as a Jewish state,” the student said, supporters of Israel are seen as “colonialists” – and thereby automatically on the wrong side of history.

Indeed, Oxford University’s Jewish Society explained in a Facebook post that it was “unsurprised” by the news of the vote and surrounding row. “It is not the first time that Oxford JSoc has had to deal with anti-Semitic incidents within the student Left and it will not be the last.”

In a scathing statement, Oxford JSoc lamented that “on many occasions” Jewish students have “felt that they are fighting alone” on this “significant and worrying issue.” It further charged that this toxic atmosphere has left progressive Jews in Oxford feeling “excluded from Left-wing political spaces,” and that concerns about anti-Semitism were “laughed at and mocked” at the OULC.

The JSoc commended Chalmers on his resignation and thanked him for bringing the “issue of anti-Semitism to the fore,” expressing hope that it would trigger “a broader awakening amongst student political movements” so that anti-Semitism could “finally be taken seriously.”

The accusations of latent anti-Semitism came as no surprise to Jonathan Hunter, an Oxford master’s student and pro-Israel activist. Hunter said that Chalmers’ “bold and important move” was a “powerful reminder of the array of brave and loyal allies whom Oxford’s Jewish students are lucky to have.”

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