WeeklyWorker

19.05.2022
Battle of Khaybar: now a modern-day weapon

Making anti-Zionism a crime

Government attacks on the NUS for ‘anti-Semitism’ are part and parcel of a much wider political offensive, writes Eddie Ford

Last week the government announced that it will “temporarily disengage” with the National Union of Students due to its alleged ‘anti-Semitism’.1 This appears to mean, practically, that the NUS will be removed from all department for education (DfE) groups and replaced with “alternative” student representation - such as from the Office for Students or from individual student unions.

It also means that the NUS will not receive any government funding while the suspension lasts - though it is unclear if it actually gets any government funding. More importantly, the NUS stands to lose its charitable status in what is a thoroughly dishonest witch-hunt, but which, of course, has proved highly effective in all but destroying the left in the Labour Party. Now, perhaps, it is the turn of the left in the NUS.

Michelle Donelan, minister for higher and further education in England, has ominously announced that she had written to the electoral body that oversaw this year’s NUS presidential election, asking for information about how it was “carried out”. Donelan said she was “horrified by the thought of Jewish students feeling ostracised by an organisation which should be a voice for their community”, while education secretary Nadhim Zahawi was “seriously concerned” by the reports of alleged anti-Semitism - declaring that “Jewish students need to have confidence that this is a body that represents them”.

In response, the NUS said it was “disappointed” by the government’s behaviour - arguing or pleading that it had launched an independent investigation last month following a “crisis meeting” and will shortly be appointing a QC “in consultation” with the Union of Jewish Students “at every step of the way”, which presumably is meant to be reassuring. It need hardly be said that throughout its existence, the UJS/Inter University Jewish Federation has had very close links to the Board of Deputies of British Jews and the Zionist Federation, so it is hardly an impartial player. The NUS added that it was “looking forward” to working with the government “constructively” on this matter, which you can hardly doubt. Naturally keen to get in on the act (bourgeois politicians never miss an opportunity to parade their hatred of racism), Matt Western, Labour’s shadow universities minister, said it was important that Jewish students “felt safe” and able to participate in student organisations - hoping that the supposedly independent inquiry “resolves these issues to the satisfaction of all concerned”.

Allegations

In April more than 20 former NUS presidents with a long and ignoble history of cynical careerism - such as Jack Straw, Charles Clarke and Wes Streeting - wrote to the NUS’s trustees urging them to “address concerns” from Jewish students. For them (try not to shed a tear) this issue “is not just a matter of protecting NUS’s reputation, but honouring NUS’s proud anti-racist principles”. All quite revolting, but it is only to be expected that they have great affection for an organisation that made them the people they are today. As this paper has noted before, the NUS - despite its name and strident branding - is less of a union and more a cross between a political training organisation and a welfare association, making it a strange beast indeed. Therefore there is no particular reason why the university system should need or want a national body attached to it like the NUS - especially if it becomes an embarrassment to the ‘politically correct’ image of the institutions. As for future Jack Straws and Wes Streetings, if push comes to shove they can always promote their careers in a different way.

Of course, the government’s decision came after an increasingly aggressive campaign against the NUS over long-running allegations of “systemic anti-Semitism”. In its press notice, the DfE cited a number of incidents which had prompted it to take action. One of those was the NUS’s “unacceptable response” to questions about an invitation to the British rapper, Lowkey, to its March 2022 conference, claiming that he had a history of making comments that have “widely been seen as anti-Semitic”. But, when you look at the allegations against Lowkey - a strong supporter of Jeremy Corbyn and the Palestine Solidarity Campaign - all it seems to amount to is the rapper’s comment about how the mainstream media had “weaponised the Jewish heritage” of Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky - which for many people would sound like a simple statement of fact. Even if you dispute the rapper’s statement, fair enough, it is still extremely hard to see how it could be presented as anti-Semitic. Is this something that Jewish students have to be protected from?

Almost inevitably, the DfE also cited the case of Malia Bouattia. Elected in 2016, of Algerian descent, she was the first female and Muslim leader of the NUS. In response to her election, a number of student unions disaffiliated from the NUS, having been informed of her blog post in 2011, where she described Birmingham University as “something of a Zionist outpost” - on the premise that its Jewish Student Society is “the largest in the country”, whose “leadership is dominated by Zionist activists”. Once again, this could be viewed as a fairly straightforward factual observation - but apparently it was a ‘thought crime’ and she quickly became demonised by the mainstream media. In October 2016 a report by the House of Commons home affairs select committee described her comments as “outright racism” - a completely unfounded, not to mention moronic, accusation. Her other crimes, it seems, included speaking at a conference on “Gaza and the Palestinian revolution” in 2014, in which she stated: “With mainstream Zionist-led media outlets ... resistance is presented as an act of terrorism” and peace talks are a “strengthening of the colonial project”. What a terrible thing to say. Bouattia objected to the idea that she had a problem with Jewish societies on campuses, saying “that for me to take issue with Zionist politics is not me taking issue with being Jewish”. In a sane world, that would be a statement of the bleeding obvious.

Telling you all you need to know, Al Jazeera’s outstanding 2017 documentary, The lobby, broadcast footage showing explicitly how the UJS and the Israeli embassy in London were involved in a campaign to discredit Bouattia with claims of anti-Semitism in a bid to block her election and, later, to remove her from office. The only logical conclusion you can draw from the affair is that Bouattia’s remarks were quite right and that the people accusing her of “anti-Semitism” were in fact out to delegitimise, outlaw, anti-Zionism.

However, everything seems to have to come to a head with the election of Shaima Dallali in March - the candidate of the left - as NUS president. Unleashing a torrent of absurd accusations, the UJS and the mainstream media raised an outcry about a tweet the 27-year-old had made 10 years ago that read: “Khaybar O Jews … Muhammad’s army will return Gaza”. Obviously a reference to the Battle of Khaybar in 628 CE in present-day Saudi Arabia, in which the followers of Muhammad accused the Jews of Khaybar of having plotted to unite with other Jewish tribes (and also an anti-Muslim Arab tribe) to mount an attack on Medina and kill the prophet - a charge that seems to have some sort of historical basis.2 In the end, it was a relatively minor encounter that led to the deaths of just over a hundred people on both sides, ending with the surrender of the Khaybar Jews, who were then allowed to continue living in the region on condition that they would give half of their produce to the Muslims. Onerous peace terms.

Because she cited this event approvingly, and linked it to the terrible situation in the Gaza strip 10 years ago, Dallali has been turned into a pariah - the latest public enemy number one, now that Jeremy Corbyn has successfully been dealt with. She has also been attacked for supporting the anti-Prevent campaign group, Cage, which opposes state policies developed as part of the US-led ‘war on terror’3. Cage was originally formed to raise awareness of the plight of detainees held at Guantánamo Bay and elsewhere.

In other words, Dallali’s real crime was to be anti-imperialist, anti-Zionist and pro-Palestinian today. Feeling the pressure, she eventually apologised, despite having nothing to apologise for - an unfortunately common trait these days. To actually believe that someone like Dallali represents a threat to the safety of Jewish students is to enter the realm of madness.

Pushback

When it comes to the current anti-NUS push by the Tory government, it is vital to understand the bigger picture. The whole slander campaign that ‘Anti-Zionism equals anti-Semitism’, and that Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party was ‘institutionally anti-Semitic’ - an utterly crazy notion - was essentially part of a wider project to take out anyone who might potentially frustrate the aims of US imperialism, especially in the Middle East. The Labour right, Guardian, BBC and the likes of the UJS, Jewish Labour Movement, Community Security Trust, Board of Deputies, etc were all more than happy to play their nefarious parts.

Mike Pompeo summed it up perfectly in 2019, when as US secretary of state he was caught on tape saying that he would “push back” against Corbyn if he was elected as prime minister. When asked the ridiculous question, “Would you be willing to work with us to take on actions if life becomes very difficult for Jews in the UK?”, Pompeo strongly suggested that he would seek to ‘intervene’ in the debate before Corbyn had a chance to get into No10 and change the curtains. “You should know”, Pompeo said, that “we won’t wait for him to do those things to begin to push back.” At one stage, the Trump administration was actively considering declaring that several prominent international NGOs like Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and Oxfam were “anti-Semitic” and hence governments should not have any dealings with them.4 Similarly, Boris Johnson has toyed with the idea of effectively criminalising the BDS movement - with the announcement two years ago in the queen’s speech that under threat of prosecution, public bodies like universities and local councils will be prohibited from “imposing their own direct or indirect boycotts, disinvestment or sanctions campaigns against foreign countries”.

Another important thing to grasp, as consistently argued by the Weekly Worker, is that sections of the left have their share of the blame for the current situation. The right is not being entirely hypocritical or dishonest when it complains about the ‘cancel culture’ that it lays at the feet of the left - ie, the use of accusations of racism, sexism, transphobia, etc, etc, to deny troublesome people a platform. Though I would love to deny it, the left has become accustomed to calls for censorship - accepting the bourgeois common sense that various forms of ‘hate speech’ must be suppressed or banned. Doing otherwise, we have been constantly told, would lead inevitably to concentration camps and swastikas fluttering outside Buckingham Palace. Never again.

All this gives the enemy a big weapon that they use against us. As the government’s NUS ‘disengagement’ beautifully illustrates, leftwing anti-racist language is now being routinely deployed against the anti-Zionist/anti-imperialist left itself - against which it often has no defence. Only by upholding the principle of unrestricted free speech can we fight back effectively - something which too much of the left has abandoned, forgotten or even positively fears.

eddie.ford@weeklyworker.co.uk


  1. gov.uk/government/news/government-suspends-engagement-with-the-nus-over-antisemitism.↩︎

  2. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Khaybar.↩︎

  3. cage.ngo.↩︎

  4. politico.com/news/2020/10/21/state-department-weighs-labeling-several-prominent-human-rights-groups-anti-semitic-430882.↩︎