I've been swithering for days over whether to write about this, which is usually a sign that I'm about to annoy somebody or to make a damn fool of myself, or both. Since I have a few minutes free though...
Anyway, I was thinking this week about my student days. When I was there in the mid-to-late nineties, the university I went to had the highest proportion of Northern Irish undergraduates on mainland Britain, so pretty much everyone's classes and social circles would feature a relatively large number of people with sharp accents from the various counties, usually mercilessly mocking each other.
Which may seem like an odd point to raise, but I think it might be mildly useful in making sense of the circumstances around the Royall inquiry into anti-semitism at the Labour Club at Oxford, for people who like me who haven't been students for a very long time. The inquiry has now concluded with a rough verdict of - no institutional racism, but several issues that need to be urgently addressed.
So what are the similarities? Well, on any given night out, I'd say that there was a reasonable chance that any Northern Irish friend would bump into somebody who would drop something pretty crass or daft or just plain offensive about Northern Ireland into the conversation. Northern Ireland may now be better known for Game of Thrones and the European Championships, but bombings and shootings were still big news back then, especially after one of our fellow students was killed in the Omagh bombing in 1998.
Mostly, this was of the Oh, you're from Bangor? I hear there's a lot of terrorism in Northern Ireland variety - basically well-meaning chatter from people who have grown up on BBC News broadcasts and crap Hollywood action movies, and are just saying the first thing that comes into their heads.
Other people probably just had some thoughts on the topic that they wanted to bounce off someone who could tell them how right they were, and I get the impression that some folk found Northern Ireland a bit dangerous and exotic. I think others maybe just really liked U2 and didn't have a very good grasp of geography.
Most of the Northern Irish folk I knew had a story to tell about the daftest things that people had said to them - my mate Gavin, for example, once had a guy relate a story about how his soldier uncle had nearly been blown up in Belfast by "the UCLA", which is news that would've shocked the administrators at the University of California. The same guy later backed up and announced that actually, the terrorist organisation in question was "the ULA", i.e. the one that Sean Bean belongs to in the movie Patriot Games. Either way, quite a surprising amount of Scottish people had friends and relatives who had nearly been blown up, at one time or another.
On the other hand, there were quite a lot of people around with some
very daft ideas, and more than a few with some outright unpleasant
ones. This was Scotland after all, and even twenty years ago people were less reticent about unexpectedly raising touchy sectarian issues than they are now. As you can imagine, there were plenty of zoomers knocking about with extremely wacky ideas about Ireland, Britain and the paramilitaries, and I can remember more than one occasion where some guy from Glasgow or Ayrshire decided that a random Wednesday night out was the perfect time to get into a deep discussion about e.g. who blew up which pub in which county in nineteen-diddly-five. And this could get quite heated, if the drinks had been flowing, or if some idiot started up with the old traditional tunes.
Most of the people I knew used to basically dick this stuff off as an annoyance by silly folk, employing the level of biting sarcasm that you'd expect. For the most part, this stuff really was daft and even occasionally aggravating, but perfectly survivable.
Apply this to the kind of issues that Lady Royall is talking about however, and I can see why people would be far less inclined to treat this type of behaviour with equanimity. There are major differences between the situation I'm talking about, and the one that she investigated, not least
- Most Northern Irish people are distinguishable as Northern Irish because of their accents, whereas most Jewish people aren't. If I was Jewish and people kept striking up conversations with me about the Palestinians out of the blue, I'd probably start to wonder what people were saying about me when I wasn't around.
- Northern Ireland is a country, whereas Judaism is a religion. I doubt whether any of the people I knew had any direct experience of terrorism beyond being huckled out of the swimming baths after a phoned-in bomb threat, but they were at least from the same geographical location as the issue being discussed.
If folk regularly showed great enthusiasm for talking to me about the same godawful conflict on the other side of the planet, one that had nothing to do with me... Well, that's the kind of thing that would get my goat in pretty short order and I doubt I'd be inclined to be polite about it either.
(Note here: It's certainly true that the current Israeli government is one of the world's most egregious conflators of religion and nationality, but that's no excuse at all for not showing discernment yourself).
- And, annoying as all of these enthusiasts could be to the average Northern Irish student, there was at least a variety of political theorist to speak to. Whenever some joker opened his cakehole to talk about The Troubles, there was at least a little mystery as to the content of his chat.
On Israel/Palestine, I imagine that the patter is a bit more predictable. British universities are full of young, weakly leftish people and demographically speaking, it's likely that any of them who have political views about Israel as a country are going to have quite negative ones*. Additionally, for all that talk about Northern Ireland may have been hotter and nastier in 1996 than it is now, the
average student then probably got their information from the Beeb or
the newspaper, rather than from the type of poisonous nonsense that
proliferates online these days.
Hell, I'd only been bickering about wars on the internet for a short while before I learned to heave a sigh of exasperation whenever somebody decided to arbitrarily crowbar Hamas or the Israeli Defence Force into a conversation, and that's with "faceless people communicating with strangers using text", rather than face-to-face chats at the Student Union about very touchy political and personal issues.
Anyway, I could go on. My point here is that I can see precisely why some Jewish students might find British universities less than congenial places, and I'm talking here about apolitical types who are just trying to get through an average day like the rest of us, rather than people who arrive there with an axe or two to grind, or who find themselves sharpening a couple after a few months.
In the end-up, I'm not at all surprised to find that Lady Royall found issues to be addressed, and I'd be even less surprised if they extend further than the Oxford Labour Club**. A lot of this is just people being people but I suspect that a lot of it is people being insensitive or unpleasant arseholes, and occasionally a good bit worse.
As for what to do about this, well, I have few ideas about how we go about improving this situation. The Northern Ireland one kind of sorted itself out after a mere few hundred years of war, recrimination and negotiation, and it certainly doesn't look much like any amount of inquiries are likely to help in the short term.
(Generally speaking, I'd close this type of Oh-Why-Can't-We-All-Get-Along post by recommending greater accuracy and mutual understanding. Given that I've just wilfully smashed together two wildly different conflicts in entirely different contexts in very different eras however, that's probably a bit of a hypocritical request to be making today).
*I don't think there's much need to get into why this is here, but I'd guess that Dan's view on the matter is closer to reality than most other commentary I've seen has got.
**Although this really has been an odd issue, this Oxford story - one that apparently tells us a great deal about the Labour Party but one that, surprisingly, tells us very little about Oxford itself or the type of person that studies there.