Stephen Games

Encampments, Antisemitism and Unintended Consequences

The BBC’s James Coomarasamy did not have enough information to ask the right questions, on Wednesday’s The World Tonight, when interviewing a Hamas-supporting student at Edinburgh University who, with others, has joined a hunger strike to persuade the Scottish university to boycott and divest from any links with Israel.

He put it to her that the protest encampment at Edinburgh has created an intimidating environment for Jewish students and that it encourages an atmosphere of toxic antisemitism and confrontation.

Gaza solidarity encampment.

The student, who characteristically refused to be identified, denied that the encampment was in any way antisemitic—though that’s surely for those on the receiving end to judge—because there were Jewish students among the protestors.

This is a defence that is always used by extremists, and it’s the same defence that was used by the British Labour Party to avoid facing up to the anti-Jewish hostility of some of its most raucous activists, especially when it was led by Jeremy Corbyn.

The defence is inadequate because, though not wholly, very many of the Jews who side with Hamas supporters are people who do not identify in any obvious way with what Judaism means to most of its practitioners.

Like the actress Miriam Margolyes, they make much of the fact that they come from a Jewish past but there is little about them that suggests any commitment to a Jewish future.

Their Judaism, such as it is, is self-defined—which is against the spirit and the custom of traditional Judaism. They do not abide by the laws that define religious behaviour, such as participation in established communal prayer, or synagogue attendance on religious festivals, or dietary restrictions, for example.

Their Judaism is more akin to a generalised morality which, at the most, they will trace to Biblical roots but which is stripped of any specific Jewish characteristics.

In terms of who they keep company with, they prefer to be absorbed into the White—and now increasingly Muslim—mainstream, and find themselves uncomfortable with Jews who continue to practise Judaism in ways they regard as narrow, conformist and intolerant.

While pro-Hamas activists like to deny their antisemitism on the grounds that they have Jews in their ranks, the fact is that many of those Jews strongly dislike the Jewish mainstream and are indeed not just opposed to it but hostile to it.

Religiously conventional Jews, for their part, see these Miriam Margolyes Jews as quislings, traitors to the Jewish cause, and—to quote their much overused cliché—self-haters.

The key issue here is that, largely speaking, pro-Hamas supporters who are Jewish do not tend to have a spiritual investment in Israel in the way that more traditional Jews do, and therefore have no problem identifying with a political movement  that seeks to attack Israel rather than defend it.

Indeed, their participation in the hostility encampments at universities is precisely motivated by their opposition both to Israel and to the support of Israel by the Jewish mainstream—and, moreover, by their wish to win the approval of the non-Jewish majority by evincing a shared distaste for Israel and Jewish conformity.

(And there is one other strand to Jewish support for the hostility encampments, and that comes from some extremist religious zealots—the ultra-religious Neturei Karta, for example—who have always opposed Israel on the grounds that no Jewish homeland could be religiously legitimate until created by God when the messiah comes, rather than by human agency as a result of politics.)

In short, it is no defence to say that student campaigners who are disrupting university life cannot possibly be antisemitic and that this is proved by the fact that some of them may be Jewish. Those campaigners certainly can—and do—promote poisonous, provocative and divisive environments in which violent hatred (of Israel and those who value it as Judaism’s ultimate sanctuary) is made to appear righteous.

None of this should be taken as suggesting, by the way, that more traditionalist practitioners of Judaism are necessarily knee-jerk supporters of Israel’s current administration or of the way that the administration has conducted its offensive against Hamas over the last seven months.

Many of us are perfectly clear-sighted about the duplicitous and mixed motivations of Israel’s prime minister, of his historic inability to act creatively in respect of the Arabs under Israel’s control, and of the offensive racism of at least two of the cabinet ministers who sustain his government.

But we know, also, that there are rational and appropriate ways to conduct our opposition—and that joining in the juvenile tantrums of attention-seeking students and their narcissistic professors is not one of them.

We know this because such tantrums are so obviously counter-productive. We are already seeing the inevitable response in the pro-fascist counter-demonstrations now coming together in America.

Americans do not like to see their sacred institutions defaced. The fact that those most implicated in doing so are Muslims, Arabs and the radical Left means that there is now a surging opposition in America against Muslims, Arabs and the radical Left.

Student hostility camps have also become a lightning rod in Europe for ultra-nationalist groupings. In Germany, the AfD party and others like it are enjoying a huge boost in popularity, as are Marine Le Pen’s National Rally in France, and Georgia Meloni’s Fratelli d’Italia in Italy. All are now far more confident in claiming that they are not racist, merely defending Europe from “outsiders” bent on destroying European culture and values.

Hatred breeds hatred. It would have been good if the naive babies who populate our university encampments had been better briefed. It would have been good if James Coomarasamy at the BBC had been better briefed too.

About the Author
Stephen Games is a designer, publisher and award-winning architectural journalist, formerly with the Guardian, BBC and Independent. He was until Spring 2018 a member of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, habitually questioning its unwillingness to raise difficult questions about Israel, and was a board member of his synagogue with responsibility for building maintenance and repair. In his spare time he is involved in editing volumes of the Tanach and is a much-liked barmitzvah teacher with an original approach, having posted several videos to YouTube on the cantillation of haftarot and the Purim Megillah.