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Dave Osler on anti-semitism & anti-Zionism


Jewish student groups: the 1985 banning campaign

Posted on Sunday 7 March, 2010

A MOMENT from my past has just caught up with me. Last week I received an email from Dave Rich of the Community Security Trust, the Jewish-led charity that monitors anti-semitism in Britain.

Rich informed me that the CST is currently researching the campaign conducted 25 years ago – with the involvement of at least some Socialist Worker Student Society branches – to get campus Jewish societies disbanded, on the grounds that they were ‘racist’. Such a stance is in obvious contrast to SWSS’s overtly friendly attitude towards comparable Islamist-dominated Muslim student groupings over the last period.

He added, quite correctly, that I had spoken in support of a resolution to scrap the JSoc at a meeting of City of London Polytechnic students’ union in 1985. Yep, that long-haired skinny Trot kid on the platform was me. What’s more, Rich requested a meeting to talk about this episode.

Now, I am aware that the CST is held in some suspicion by many on the Jewish left, who dismiss it on grounds of its self-appointed nature. I am also bewildered that anybody has kept records of such minutiae, decades after the event.

But throughout my journalistic career, I have often written articles contrasting the actions of present-day politicians with what they said and did as college radicals. Therefore logical consistency dictates that the I should apply the standards I apply to others to myself.

So I will be getting together with Rich at some point in the week ahead. I have his assurance that the object of the exercise is not to paint me as some kind of swivel-eyed anti-semite.

In brief, I was in 1985 a member of both the Socialist Workers’ Party and City Poly SWSS, and as such, had no qualms about arguing for SWP politics. Nor can I claim to have been an ingenue; I was a young man of 24, overly booked up on Marxist theory, and well aware of what I was doing. But I was too far down the food chain to know whether hostility towards the JSoc flowed from a national or a purely local inititive.

My attitude had very much been shaped by the war in Lebanon three years earlier, especially the Sabra and Shatila massacre. So I saw things in black and white.

Zionism, I then believed, was a form of racism. Self-evidently, no student union should permit a racist student group to function under its auspices. Ipso facto, City Poly JSoc had to go.

This is not a position I now hold. I am, of course, still critical of the state of Israel from a leftwing socialist perspective, and remain convinced that a democratic secular state is the only basis on which lasting peace is possible in the Middle East.

But I have had the benefit of the intervening years to think things through. In particular, I have read Theodor Herzl’s ‘The Jewish State’, the founding manifesto of Zionism. Clearly it is a nationalist work, and I excoriate nationalism in 2010 as I did in 1985. However – and crucially, in this context – ‘The Jewish State’ is equally clearly not a book premised on racism or Jewish supremacism.

Although it would be wrong to call Zionism a racist doctrine per se,  that adjective may fairly be applied to some components of the current political leadership of Israel, who define themselves primarily as Zionists. On top of that, the establishment of the state of Israel represents, in historic terms, an injustice against the Palestinian people.

Just to complicate this picture, the borderline between anti-Zionism and anti-semitism is sometimes illegitimately crossed by sections of the far left. But by the same token, supporters of Israel frequently conflate the terms for base polemical advantage. While I now consider my support for the JSoc ban a gross mistake, I remain on balance an anti-Zionist.

In short, I guess I am not expecting a meeting of minds when I do get together with Mr Rich. I naturally hope we can have a reasoned exchange of views. But some differences, as they say, are too important to split.

UPDATE: I have slightly amended the original text of the post in the light of comments below from johng, who insists that the SWP did not co-ordinate a national attack against JSocs. He is evidently better placed to comment on this than I am. But the line taken by City Poly SWSS is beyond dispute.

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