There is something Orwellian about the times in which we live. In a recent debate about free speech on the BBC2 Victoria Derbyshire programme, Richard Brooks – the newly-elected Vice-President of the National Union of Students (NUS) – said ‘everyone has an equal right to freedom of speech; however, some people have more equal rights than others.’
However striking the resemblance (presumably not unconscious) between Brooks’s assertion and the famous line from Animal Farm may be, there is yet a more worrying similarity between today’s public discourse and the brutal 1930s and 1940s. Malia Bouattia – another NUS officer who has just been elected President – recently appeared on Channel 4 News, where she evaded a question about Israel’s right to exist. She preferred to say that ‘Israel as it behaves is problematic to me.’ This was not the first time Bouattia had spoken about this issue. In a speech of 2014, she denounced what she called ‘mainstream Zionist-led media outlets’ and approved of armed and aggressive resistance, whilst describing peace talks between Israel and Palestine as ‘the strengthening of the colonial project’.
Such choices of words like these are far from insignificant. The NUS and more than 25 British student unions have now passed Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) motions against the State of Israel. The BDS movement claims to fight for Palestinian rights by targeting Israeli companies, goods and institutions, but the outcome of its efforts has been in the main renewed campus tension, proliferation of anti-semitic language, and marginalisation of Israeli as well indeed as Jewish students. Moreover, the processes by which such motions have been passed are also deeply problematic. The students’ union at University College London (UCL), for instance, endorsed the BDS movement days after the same motion had been rejected by the UCL Debating Society. They did so behind closed doors, without consulting the student body at large, via a meeting which had been poorly advertised. Those with longer memories will recall such tactics being employed in the 1960s and 1970s.
Last February, Alex Chalmers – Chair of the Oxford University Labour Club (OULC) – resigned on realising that ‘a large proportion of both OULC and the student left in Oxford more generally have some kind of problem with Jews’. He claimed that prominent members of OULC often use the profoundly derogatory term ‘Zio’ – associated as it is with the KKK and Neo-Nazi groups – and that they also support Hamas, a demonstrably terrorist organisation.
One of the most disquieting aspects of this whole new movement is that it transcends campuses and radical student unions. Antisemitism is creeping into politics as well. Labour MP Naz Shah – until now parliamentary private secretary to the shadow chancellor – suggested that transporting all of Israel’s population to America would constitute a ‘solution’ for the Middle Eastern conflict, although she later apologised for such remarks. In 2014, Mohammad Shabbir – a Labour councillor employed by Ms Shah – refused to fly an Israeli flag at Bradford town hall, stating that it was a ‘symbol of despotism and genocide’ and even comparing it to the Nazi flag. Then Ken Livingstone – Mayor of London 2000–2008 – popped up in support of Ms Shah, claiming that Hitler’s 1932 policy was essentially Zionist. All three have been suspended from the Labour Party.
Rampant anti-semitism must alarm all thinking people. Whilst it can never be acceptable that policies of Israeli governments past and present – alone amongst world institutions – should be immune from criticism – even the vigorous criticism normal in democratic societies –, Israel’s right to exist as an independent nation ought not to be assailed. The aggressive language of current anti-Israeli statements recalls the horrors of the mid-twentieth century. If today’s political correctness grants ‘more equal rights’ to those who oppose Zionism, its ‘safe spaces’ are seemingly not open to Israeli or even Jewish individuals. Equality is at stake, as are democracy and freedom, in our disturbingly Orwellian era.