Friday, May 20, 2016

I Hear There's a Lot Of Terrorism

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.


Metatone said...

I too was fascinated by the issue referred to in your last footnote.
Are these people truly more "Labour" than "Oxford"?

Gary Othic said...

"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."

It does often seem to escape commentators notice that the independent variable here is not 'Labour Party Student Union' (of which there are many, most of which haven't had a problem) but is in fact 'Oxford University' (of which there is only one.

Phil said...

This article has some telling detail on OULC (the first couple of screens are a bit shouty, but stick with it).

Favourite quote:

One supporter, Josh Woolas – son of former Labour MP Phil Woolas – cautioned it “needs to look like a genuine complaint about racism and not a smear campaign!”

Rangjan said...

Your post reminds me that there is a black South African student at Oxford by the name of Ntokozo Qwabe. Apparently he was a bit of a boor on a trip back home to Cape Town: He refused to tip a white waitress, and made a comment about his ancestors being dispossessed of the land by her ancestors, and this situation not having been fully restituted yet. Not in as many words mind. She cried, he bragged about what he did on Facebook, and white South Africans rallied to her support. They raised a small fortune for her (to compensate her loss of earnings and dignity) and they petitioned Oxford University to rusticate the boorish fellow. Of course Oxford University declined to do so. If they expelled every student who was rude to a waitress (or worse) who would be left? This is just another example of a story which tells you more about "Oxford students" than a particular type of student (white/black/etc). And I guess it also tells you more about "white South Africans" and the type of thing that upsets them (e.g. pretty white women being made to cry from time to time, rather than poor black people being made to starve from day to day).

Anonymous said...

Personally, I thought dsquared's article was truthy, but Adam Ramsay's on opendemocracy was arguably better. The Labour party is largely anti-Semitic to the extent that wider society is anti-Semitic. A few parts of it are more anti-Semitic than that and are also linked with support for the Palestinians in complex ways (the relationship can run both ways too). Equally there are people who support the Palestinians without being anti-Semitic.

The situation in the OULC seems to be a result of some of this combined with circumstances which are unique to Oxford. ISTR a number of controversies about the OUCA (OU Conservative Association) over the years - including a few incidences of singing Nazi songs, giving Nazi salutes and so on.

Phil said...

Qwabe and his friend were revolting bullies to the waitress in question and then bragged about it, in person & online. It's all a bit Bullingdon, albeit cloaked in unimpeachable righteousness. Qwabe's not just a student but a Rhodes Scholar; the suggestion was that his scholarship should be revoked on the grounds that he'd fallen short of the standards expected of Rhodes Scholars, which would be ironic in the circs. I don't see any evidence that the petition was signed only or mainly by white South Africans.

The OP, meanwhile, gets to the really difficult and uncomfortable part of the anti-Zionism/anti-semitism issue, viz: while anti-Zionism generally isn't anti-semitic, an atmosphere of anti-Zionism will tend to make life difficult for Jews, with the partial exception of anti-Zionist Jews (partial because they'd probably prefer to talk about something else sometimes). Particularly when it's taken-for-granted, righteous anti-Zionism, let alone unargued, ill-informed anti-Zionism. And yet anti-Zionism is a legitimate political position; it would be quite wrong to delegitimise it or label it as inherently anti-semitic, because some of its adherents are making life uncomfortable for Jewish students. That said, if anti-Zionism on campus is making life uncomfortable for Jewish students, that's a major, major issue, and something ought to be done about it. I've just got no clue what.

levi9909 said...


in your previous comment you mention an article but don't link to it. Is this the article: ?

By the way, I don't think this is an Oxford students thing. It seems to be of a piece with the same smear campaign against Labour left at the mo. Nay more, it is part of the same thing and all kicked off by a former BICOM intern at OULC.

Igor Belanov said...

I think where the Northern Irish issue differs from Israel/Palestine and the Qwabe story is that I think an awful lot of the misunderstandings relating to Northern Ireland were precisely that- misunderstandings. Relatively few people outside Northern Ireland really took sides in the conflict or comprehended its history, and plenty of people would have seen the news footage and assumed it was like living in a warzone. Add to this the fact that Ireland as a whole is both the root of, and at the receiving end of, some of the most ridiculous cultural stereotypes, and you have a recipe for gross daftness.

Israel/Palestine on the other hand, and the Qwabe story, are more rooted in identity politics and the competition to prove who is/was most oppressed. This gets to the stupid situation where individuals are held to be the embodiment of a nationality/race/religion and this is held to justify or excuse any behaviour or argument made by an individual of an 'oppressed' group against their 'oppressors'. Unfortunately identity politics, like its ancestor, nationalism, is a very useful tool for obfuscating real issues, and only seems to be getting more childish at the moment.

levi9909 said...

Flying Rodent,

I'm surprised you didn't note that Baroness Royall didn't just not find any "institutional antisemitism" at OULC, she said she was "disappointed and frustrated" not to have done so. That was downright weird.

"Institutional antisemitism" is what Zionists usually fall back on when they can't come up with concrete evidence of antisemitic incidents or speech. It's their not so tasteful way of exploiting the Stephen Lawrence murder and the McPherson Report that came out of it.

But Royall couldn't or didn't want to find even institutional stuff so she fell back on a "culture" and gave as an example (without any evidence or examples) the idea that people snigger when a person says they are speaking "As a Jew". Now you, FR, have taken issue with Zionists using this particular putdown but have you ever known an anti-Zionist to use it or to snigger when someone prefaces their words in that way?

The plain fact is that Baroness Royall has found nothing, nothing at all and yet her recommendation is that the OULC conform to what it was the complainants were demanding in the UCU case, ie, "anti-racist" training from a Zionist organisation, the so-called Jewish Labour Movement (formerly known as Poale Zion or Workers of Zion). JLM is led by one of the two people accused of lying by the tribunal in the UCU case, Jeremy Newmark.

Something you might not have known is that this whole thing was set off by a former intern for the Israel lobby group, BICOM when he resigned as chair of OULC following their decision to endorse Israeli Apartheid Week.

What we see here is the failure of an "impermissible attempt to achieve a political end by litigious means" being rescued by procedural and propaganda means. And it's not just being used in a small students's club in Oxford but right across the Labour Party and trade union movement.

Now I know how futile you claim the idea of campaigning for the liberation of Palestine is but whether or not this attack on people for expressing solidarity with the Palestinians helps Israel or hinders the Palestinians we can't possibly know but what should be obvious is that this protection being given to a specifically Jewish form of racism is a disaster for community relations. Also it can't be doing wonders for the perception of Jews among other minority groups who face actual demonstrable cases of racism all the time.

organic cheeseboard said...

This is just another example of a story which tells you more about "Oxford students" than a particular type of student (white/black/etc).

I really don't think you can use either that, or this OULC storm in a teacup (which is genuinely what it is - a bunch of twats being twats), to make generalisations about students at Oxford or students generally or anything really. (Most of the below is based on this

From memory of my time as an Oxford undergrad in the distant past, the Labour Club consisted mainly of a) well-meaning geeky types who were often fairly far to the left - though not usually proper commie type 'far left' since there were lots of societies catering for that; and b) vaguely lefty people who had decided that they wanted a career in politics and saw the OULC as part of a well-trodden path to Westminster, just like OUSU and the NUS, and just like the Oxford Union is for right-wing types. As such the levels of backstabbing and personal grudges in all those groups were, and are, often ridiculously high, and the detailed accounts of this 'antisemitism crisis' bear all the hallmarks of that kind of embarrassing 'power struggle'.

Witness what Alexander Chalmers, the bloke who quit OULC, says himself of the supposedly 'pervasive' term 'Zio': "Returning to the term “Zio”, in OULC it started off as the preserve of one or two individuals, but over the course of a year or so it began to inflect the vocabulary of a number of people who should have known better." Here he is almost certainly talking about c.4 people IN TOTAL, the latter 'number' almost certainly being '2', who he'd probably fallen out with anyway, and who probably proposed a motion to support Israeli Apartheid Week in part to piss him off - I sincerely doubt, based on his article (see below), that he is even-handed on the issue of Israel/Palestine. That's not to say there may not have been problems, and as many have said up there, if Jewish students feel uncomfortable on campus that's a serious problem. I feel that it's slightly separate from the OULC issue though. The political is personal in this kind of organisation, as well as vice versa. You'll note here that it was a non-Jewish student who'd interned for a pro-Israeli Govt propaganda organisation who launched the whole 'storm', for instance. He's as likely one of those people FR describes who brings this stuff up when it's not welcome, as he is someone who patiently suffers as fools bring it up. E.G. he himself admits attending specific events at Labour conference concerning the Middle East. He's not disinterested.

On antisemitism more generally, and to expand outwards - I think that it definitely is the case that Israel/Palestine is used as a proxy issue by people all over the place, often despite their good intentions. As Dsquared says, you can see this in how the issue has been coopted in Northern Irish discourse; people end up picking sides like it's football and the result is an escalation of rhetoric you rarely see elsewhere - and an indulgence, too, of this kind of rhetoric on 'both sides'.

organic cheeseboard said...

Off topic but if you want to look at this Tristram Hunt 'book' (80 pages) on Labour and Englishness, it's free here:

I've only skimmed it but one of the pieces (Jamie Reed's) seems to genuinely be saying that 'in order for Labour to win in Scotland, Scots need to see that it's capable of winning in England, therefore it should market itself as an exclusively English party'. Yup, I'm sure that'll work.

Phil said...

May 2015:

"We're on the side of the underprivileged, on the side of the NHS, on the side of a fantastic state education system. But we"re also on the side of those families who want to shop at John Lewis and go on holiday and build their extension. And that wasn't coming through in Worcester, in Southampton, or Lincoln or Carlisle and that's where we lost."

October 2015, addressing Cambridge Universities Labour Club:

"You are the top one per cent. The Labour Party is in the shit. It is your job and your responsibility to take leadership going forward."

Hunt also highlighted the gulf between public views on the two party leaders, showing that although Corbyn was believed to be more sincere and principled, Cameron was overwhelmingly preferred as a strong, competent and patriotic leader. When asked about Corbyn’s leadership, Hunt replied that “60 per cent of members voted for Corbyn” and that he “is the leader until he is not”.

May 2016:

when, in 2015, English voters raised cultural concerns about changes in language, dress and social norms, we answered with crass, material responses. ... A failure to appreciate the value of Englishness played an important role in our 2015 defeat and nothing Corbyn has done as leader has changed this. Indeed, his cosmopolitan views on immigration, benefits, the monarchy and armed forces are likely to have exacerbated the disconnect.

He's a piece of work.

organic cheeseboard said...

his cosmopolitan views on immigration, benefits, the monarchy and armed forces are likely to have exacerbated the disconnect.

This is what I don't understand. Notwithstanding Corbyn's republicanism and general opposition to wars, neither of which are votewinners (the latter of which does not actually demonstrate a 'cosmopolitan view' on the armed forces but rather an unwillingness to send them off to get killed for no reason), what is Hunt suggesting Labour do? Run on an anti-immigration and anti-benefits ticket, it would seem, while loudly proclaiming how brilliant England is all the time. Now: A) I realise Hunt thinks all party members are idiots, but I'm still not sure how that's possible to sell to them (there surely is no point in Labour being in power if it's going to e.g. oppose the welfare state) - and B) Hunt doesn't even believe in this shit himself,it's all anti-Corbyn blether. It's hilarious to read the 'Rochester' chapter in that pamphlet - the candidate bemoans Emily Thornberry's tweet of the white van and an England flag and then says 'the irony is that I was campaigning in a white van that very day'. The candidate in question, of fucking course, is a PR consultant who works in London (even if she does still live in Medway). Truly fucking sincere politics there. I wonder how that went down with White Van Man? 'Look at me, I'm spending the day in the thing you work in, aren't I empathetic to your concerns about immigration?!'

I just watched his interview on Sky, that he promoted via his own Twitter account, and therein he literally praises the Conservative government repeatedly for its 'immigration policies' and then says we need to 'understand' people who are uncomfortable hearing foreign languages spoken near them, and that the govt needs to direct lots of cash their way for some reason. Agreeing with the Tories about everything and in fact directly praising them? Paying lip service to people whose opposition to foreigners is of course in no way linked to race, since being upset by Eastern Europeans can't be racist (he actually says that)? This might well be the Genuine Opposition we've been searching for!

Witchsmeller Pursuivant said...

Interesting article on Nick Cohen:

organic cheeseboard said...

I like that Kriss piece. Added bonus of Aaro deciding that attacks on people's apeparance are beyond the pale, despite poor sensitive Nick Cohen having done it himself.

In Nick obsession news - he recently enthusiastically retweeted a quotation from the New Statesman:

"The more Michael Gove is on TV, the better for Remain"

But less recently, on the subject of debating Nick Griffin on Question Time in 2009:

Originally, the Conservatives put up Michael Gove, one of their best debaters. [From the Observer]

Go Sayeeda! She's dreadful and fishes in the same polluted stream as Griffin. You should have sent in the Gove monster [From Nick's old Twitter account]

Yet more Genuine Opposition here I guess. People are allowed to change their minds, but Nick has been a fairly regular cheerleader for Gove.

levi9909 said...

Organic Cheeseboard

I thought the insult about Nick Cohen's face/mouth was so cruel and unnecessary I didn't realise til I read your comment that I hadn't read the whole Sam Kriss piece. In fact I didn't get past the insult. It really is a good post sadly spoiled by the insult. I wonder how many others didn't get past the first para.

Anonymous said...

I read the whole thing, and wondered why it was necessary to make a comment about Nick's appearance when there is so much to say about his crazy logic.


organic cheeseboard said...

Today in Real Opposition news we have Suzanne Moore on Labour voters and immigration.

Wages are down, escape routes blocked, and yet the London political class venture to these half-empty shopping centres to bring glad tidings of the contribution of immigrants. They will care for us when we are old, and, anyway, there is a new Eritrean restaurant you should try. Loft conversion, you say? Here is the number of my Polish/Brazilian builders.

for a start, I think that's meant to be funny, though to me it's funnier that someone who named her daughter 'Bliss' is complaining about out of touch wanky metropolitans. But also, this has never happened. Every mainstream political party, for at least 20 if not 40 years, has painted itself implicitly or explicitly opposed to large-scale immigration. Did she just ignore the Edstone, with its 'controls on Immigration' policy? She claims:

We have a moral duty to deal with the refugee crisis and another to recalibrate spending to help areas that are absorbing migrants, where wages are down and services stretched, instead of vaguely insisting that it is all good.

you hear this a lot, and it's nice in theory - throw money at these 'problems'. But she also says that we're not allowed to blame this kind of thing on austerity - yet money is the answer. This is just totally incoherent. Real Opposition!

I'm also assuming that while bemoaning the 'hollowing out' of the Labour vote, she ignored her own attempt to become an MP, when she stood against Diane Abbott, and her manifesto says nothing about immigration at all, though it does want the Stoke Newington Festival brought back, so you know, seriousness, and it has a fundraising event (in central Londo, not Hackney) called 'Salon Intoxicante', so you, know, working-class, non-poncey, non-metropolitan, etc. For Moore to be complaining about the 'hollowing out' of the Labour vote as a result of poncey Londoners is really very impressive, given that she tried to defeat a Labour candidate in an election just 6 years ago running on the platform of being a poncey Londoner.

Anonymous said...

Phrases like "London political class" and "contempt" have to do a lot of heavy lifting these days.

If Moore had said "hollowing out of the Labour Party" rather than "hollowing out of the Labour vote" she would have been closer to the mark.