Universities can be challenging places for Jews but they don’t need IHRA

Anti-Israel demonstrators at SOAS (Jewish News)
Anti-Israel demonstrators at SOAS (Jewish News)

Some of you might have read that SOAS University of London has refunded Noah Lewis, a Jewish Canadian student £15,000 in fees after he said he was forced to abandon his studies because of a “toxic antisemitic environment”.

You might not be surprised, as you might have heard the joke that SOAS stands from School of Anti-Semitism. But is it so? Is it because at SOAS “ many people publicly stated their support for the BDS movement” which made it win this crown? Or is it genuine antisemitism, or perhaps a bit of each?

According to the CST report on antisemitism on campus, SOAS wasn’t among the universities nominated for bad practice on dealing with antisemitism. Also, by holding 2 panels on the case of Lewis, SOAS has actually shown that it does cope with manifestations of antisemitism on campus, and takes responsibility for them. So why, nevertheless, SOAS has “won” the above-mentioned crown? One should wonder.

I was lucky to know SOAS a bit from the inside (but really a tiny bit) because I teach Hebrew in their Language Centre. SOAS is known to be a university of activists, where students are encouraged to think outside of the box.  The university whose original aim was to train the British officials to know the colonies where they were to be serving, has become the hub of anti-imperialism thought and act.

“it’s very imperialistic”, a German student of mine suggested when I asked the class “Is buying a land from natives problematic?”,  after reading about Rothchild and Hirsch. For us, Israelis, questioning our belonging to this land by suggesting this country was created like any other former European settlement is troubling. As it is for Zionist Jews.

This journal also mentioned that SOAS does not have an active Jewish society, though actually along the years there have been Jewish and Israel societies at SOAS. And if indeed there have been relatively less J-socs at SOAS, I wonder why. The anti-imperialism hub, some might think, is not a place for white supremacists, as some at SOAS may see Jewish Israelis/British Zionist Jews.

How offensive! Even an anti-Occupation activist as myself would find this offensive: To put us in line with the American rednecks/evangelists/Trump supporters/etc.

So SOAS can be a challenging place for Jews, let alone for those of us who were raised on, and still adhere to the Zionist Israel-can-do-no-harm mentality.

For Zionists of that kind, studying at SOAS could be either a challenging, even traumatic experience, especially if you were raised in Jewish bubble and have never come across anti-imperialist, BDS supporting activists in person. Just like I haven’t, until I went abroad. And this might have been the case of Noah, whom I haven’t spoken to and I therefore cannot really tell.

On a second thought, this could also be a challengingly empowering experience for him, though draining at times, to fight for Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state in a bubble of BDS supporters. And even if he could make some people think different, at SOAS this might be a lost battle.

Noah claimed that during his time at SOAS, Jews and people who were pro-Israel were labelled as “Zionists”. And as UKLFI perhaps rightly reaffirms: “to them Zionism in general is akin to fascism and racism.”

But seriously: If I was that kind of Zionist, I would fight my right to be called Zionist proudly! What is there to fear from, a bunch of ineffective BDS supporters?! Israel is much stronger than those pro-Palestinian supporters, I would think. We have even made peace with a few Arab states!

SOAS would have made me a tougher Zionist. Even prof Colin Shindler says so.

Would I actually have developed a fear that people in the world would end up thinking like those at SOAS? that Israel would eventually lose the Hasbara battle and be nominated the next (apartheid) South Africa? Maybe.

I actually remember that when I was a fellow student for StandWithUs, I really feared that. Maybe so do right wing Jewish students at SOAS.

So let’s assume that the fight to get Israel’s name purified of occupation and oppression is almost a lost battle at SOAS. Surely, there’s some gain for Noah, UKLFI and the other pro-Israeli lobbyists to make. Much greater than the 15,000£: that’s small money in this game.

So SOAS, in the eyes of Lawyers for Israel (and SWU and all the pro-Occupation lobbyists) is not just anti-Occupation; but is anti-Israeli, anti-Zionist, and as they see, therefore, the modern antisemitism. And this is what motivates those groups: for us to accept that Anti-Zionism is antisemitism. But is it?

Surely, there was genuine antisemitic incidents at SOAS for which they took responsibility, in which Noah’s claims were proved correct. We don’t know what exactly happen, and SOAS cannot reveal the content of those panels, but representing Noah, UKLFI wins the opportunity to tell the story:

  •       Noah is a Jewish (pro-Israeli, of course) student who studies at SOAS.
  •       The atmosphere was hostile to Israel and there were many BDS and Palestinian flags.
  •       SOAS is antisemitic.

This is the tactic: they find the anti-Israelis and blame them for being antisemitic. Or in cases in which antisemitism and Israel-criticism overlap, they only highlight the anti-Israel elements. it serves their aim: more fear to talk about Israel, more silence, and less people question what Israel does.

This case and the IHRA definition

And this case is happening in a wider context of rising antisemitism in the UK, a Labour leader who was accused of antisemitism and replaced by another Labor leader who promised to eliminate antisemitism in his party; a fogginess about the distinction between antisemitism and criticism of Israel (and when the latter falls into the first); an IHRA definition which doesn’t really help to mark clear boundaries, and a political pressure on universities to adopt it

UJS naively thinks that adopting the IHRA definition is the right thing to do for combating antisemitism in the UK. But is it?

SOAS has not adopted the IHRA, but in this case seems to have been able to deal with the student’s complaint nonetheless.

By pressuring universities to adopt the IHRA definition, do you think there’ll be less cases like Noah’s? Would it create an atmosphere of respect and understanding? Will those who are anti-Zionist suddenly start believing that their anti-Zionism is antisemitic? Will the pro-Palestinian activists forced to remain silent suddenly?

Probably not. Instead, what it does is making groups like UKLFI win their case, that the alleged obsession with Israel on campuses is simply antisemitic and should therefore be silenced. 

Their aim is to protect Israel from being criticized publicly, and the IHRA definition is a fantastic tool for them to implement that. This is typical of what Yair Wallach (Senior Lecturer in ISraeli Studies at SOAS) calls an “Israel-centred” understanding of antisemitism, one that privileges the protection of the Jewish state. According to this right wing interpretation, the best way to fight antisemitism is not to struggle for civic equality for all minorities, but rather to defend Israel – even when Israel becomes less and less democratic.

The IHRA is not used to protect pro-israeli freedom of expression, but to shut any critical discussion on Israel, labeling those who dare to speak too much about Israel antisemitic.

Universities who are considering to adopt, or have adopted the IHRA definition, UJS students who advocate for universities to adopt the IHRA definition: are you truly not bothered by that?

*This article is written in a personal capacity.



About the Author
Matan is an Israeli peace activist living in London. He is an organiser of Meretz UK and a consultant of The Balfour Project. In the past, he coordinated the global work of the SISO Diaspora-Israeli partnership for ending the occupation, and helped establish the Jewish Democratic Initiative in South Africa
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