In the late 1990s I taught at a primary school in Ealing, West London. The school served a diverse community of Sikh, Muslim and white British children. Run at the time by an experienced headteacher who had spent much of his career teaching in India, the school strived, successfully to celebrate the backgrounds of all its students. Assemblies were held to celebrate major festivals including Eid-Ul-Fitr, Guru Nanak’s Birthday, as well as Christmas and Easter. In my first year at the school, a passion play was put on to celebrate Easter. Unwisely perhaps in retrospect, I sat through this, but after the performance, even given its understatement in terms of any direct attribution of roles to Jews, I felt very uncomfortable. I discussed this with my headteacher, and the wise soul that he was, he recognized the complexities of this issue and in fact the school did not hold such plays any more. This choice came to mind when I heard about the staging of a passion play Easter just gone in the centre of London that featured actors dressed in Tallisim (ritual Jewish prayer shawls) to denote their roles as the Pharisees in the play.
The production was supported by the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, who lavishly praised the production. Although the staging of the play was widely reported on in local media, there was no comment in the mainstream press about this clumsy portrayal of Jews as the killers of Christ, and no mention of the centuries old entwining of the story of the passion and European antisemitism. More choices. The home secretary in the UK, Suella Braverman, in relation to the ongoing campaign of antisemitism against Jews in England, particularly concerning the daily harassment of Chareidi Jews in Stamford Hill, noted that the British Police routinely downplay and ignore antisemitic incidents, and called on them to change. Their choices and her choice. The ADL notes the massive increase in antisemitic incidents in the US in recent years. Similarly to London, we could reflect on the ongoing campaign of daily harassment against Chareidi Jews in New York and the near silence about this in the mainstream US media. A silence of choice. Jews are murdered by terrorists in Israel. The media is consistently awash with justifications – after all surely this is what white supremacist colonialists deserve? People choose – between humane and obscene perspectives. By and large, western democracies, in the shadow of the Shoah, recognizing the reality that Israel was a life-raft state that the most persecuted minority in European (and Arab) history fled to, have made a choice. A choice to stand against terrorism and against the continuation of the antisemitic tropes of Jewish international malevolence by other means.
To stand against the idea that Israel is a racist state that corrupts the world by its very existence, realizing that this ferments the deeply antisemitic idea that there can be a justification for murder. Western democracies, by and large, have stood with Jews and with Israel, for humanity and against obscenity. However, there is one key arena of national public debate where democracies are making a different choice. In the humanities and social sciences, academics are consistently creating environments where the idea that Israel is a racist white supremacist endeavour goes not just unchallenged, but is often only legitimate opinion that can be tolerated. Take, as one example, events at George Washington University and the recasting of Jewish students speaking out against such an environment as the guilty party. Take the example of my own university, where many in the professoriate made the choice, in the course of opposing the IHRA definition on antisemitism, to call for what they surely must know would risk creating an environment which by permitting the typification of Israel and Zionist Jews (the vast majority of Jews of course) as white supremacist colonialists would turn campus into a dangerous environment for Jews.
Another choice. Only UCL Council – UCL’s governing body composed of people unconnected in day to day terms with academia and the professoriate, stopped this, as of yet, from becoming a reality. A commendable choice but one that also illuminates the point that the academy – i.e. the senior academic staff, has, itself, chosen the other route. Well, surely we need academic freedom you might say. Well yes, but academic freedom entails responsibilities too – responsibilities that in the humanities and social sciences, the academy has disowned. The responsibility, for example, to balance political activism with respect for evidence.
The type of evidence that might illuminate the varied connections between say passion plays and their history and role in provoking antisemitic attacks on Jews, typifications of Zionism and Israel as the root of the world’s problems and the giving out sweets in the Palestinian Authority to celebrate the cold-blooded murder of children. Universities in democracies have a responsibility to live up to the actual ideas of democracy – not a confected version of democracy as identity politics and the hierarchy of oppression that pervades much of the humanities. This does not mean denying academic freedom. That does not equate, however, to permitting the creation of an environment where one view, that of the hard radical left, holds hegemony, and not bothering to care about the consequences for Jews or anyone else. Our universities have got away with this for too long. It’s time for change.