On Monday, Alex Chalmers, a second-year student at Oxford University, resigned his position as the co-chair of the school’s Labour Club. In a Facebook post, he explained that he could no longer lead the organization in good conscience, given what he saw as its increasing unwillingness to confront anti-Jewish prejudice:
Whether it be members of the Executive throwing around the term ‘Zio’ (a term for Jews usually confined to websites run by the Ku Klux Klan) with casual abandon, senior members of the club expressing their ‘solidarity’ with Hamas and explicitly defending their tactics of indiscriminately murdering civilians, or a former Co-Chair claiming that ‘most accusations of antisemitism are just the Zionists crying wolf’, a large proportion of both OULC and the student left in Oxford more generally have some kind of problem with Jews.
For Chalmers, the last straw was the Labour Club’s decision—by a close 18-16 vote—to endorse “Israel Apartheid Week” on campus. Speaking to the Times of Israel, he elaborated further:
Chalmers said that part of the problem on the left was “people who are critical of Israel and express themselves poorly,” leading them to “unwittingly rehash age-old sinister tropes about sinister Jewish control.” In his experience, such people “rarely seem to see it as a problem” when called out.
Chalmers also stressed a problem of “old-fashioned anti-Semites,” on both the political left and right, who “find debates around Israel and Zionism to be a convenient mechanism for expressing their prejudices.”
By resigning publicly, Chalmers hoped to spotlight this growing problem, which he said is too often ignored. “It’s not that everyone on the Left is an old-fashioned anti-Semite,” he told the Times of Israel, “but more that people are prepared to turn a blind eye. It’s very difficult to make people actually pay attention.”
Following Chalmers’ resignation, other students came forward to testify to their experiences of anti-Semitism emanating from the Labour Club’s radical left. This evening, the Oxford University Jewish Society published a list of these incidents. A sampling:
• One member stated specifically that it was ‘not anti-Semitic’ to allege the existence of a ‘New York-Tel Aviv axis’ that rigs elections, and said that ‘we should be aware of the influence wielded over elections by high net-worth Jewish individuals’. He also stated that it was ‘not anti-Semitic’ to allege the existence of an international Jewish conspiracy, even though he did not endorse the idea himself.
• One member, then on committee, stated that all Jews should be expected to publicly denounce Zionism and the state of Israel, and that we should not associate with any Jew who fails to do so.
• One member of OULC was formally disciplined by their College for organising a group of students to harass a Jewish student and to shout ‘filthy Zionist’ whenever they saw her.
• In a public discussion on the OULC Facebook group one member argued that Hamas was justified in its policy of killing Jewish civilians and claimed that all Jews were legitimate targets. Several other members, including two former co-chairs and one then on committee, defended the member as making ‘a legitimate point clumsily expressed’.
Chalmers’ dramatic move comes amidst immense upheaval in the British left, whose flagship Labour party was recently taken over by the radical MP Jeremy Corbyn, who is infamous for his associations with Holocaust deniers, blood libel promoters, and other anti-Semites. In August 2015, shortly before Corbyn’s election to the party leadership, Scottish columnist Stephen Daisley warned that his ascension reflected the fact that “the Left, and not just the fringes, has an anti-Semitism problem.” (Earlier in the year, Amnesty International had rejected a motion to combat anti-Semitism in the U.K., despite it being at record-high levels.)
Judging by the sympathetic hearing given by liberal voices to Daisley’s piece (it was shared by, among others, J.K. Rowling) and to Chalmers’ resignation statement, many on the British left today are increasingly alarmed by this state of affairs.
After Chalmers resigned, Toni Pearce, the immediate past president of Britain’s National Union of Students, shared her frustration on Twitter:
I have seen so much “It’s not anti-semitism, it’s anti-Israel” that I just want to go and repeatedly punch myself in the face with an axe.
— Toni Pearce (@toni_pearce) February 16, 2016
If you’re incapable of articulating your critique of Israeli state actions without threatening Jewish people, maybe reassess your views.
— Toni Pearce (@toni_pearce) February 16, 2016
Longtime Labour MP John Mann was similarly outspoken. “Overt anti-Semitism [is] rife amongst certain elements at Oxford University,” he said. “These casual racists need to be directly challenged and more.”