Let me say it bluntly. Leftwing students and the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign have a huge problem with antisemitism. On Thursday 2 April, the night before Passover and at the last student council of the year, a motion was tabled asking Edinburgh University’s Student Association (EUSA) to affiliate with the BDS movement against Israel. The timing of the debate, the night before the Seder, meant that a number of Jewish students could not attend as they had already travelled home ahead of this important family oriented ceremony.
This clash was made known to EUSA and then to the proposers of the motion, the Black Minority Ethnic (BME) Liberation Group. The fact that this motion was still presented to council at this time was extremely disappointing. It has been emphasised by all sides of this debate that Jewish people should not be conflated with the state of Israel. If this is the case, then why is hearing Jewish voices on this issue so important?
One argument is that Jewish students may have family links in Israel. Another is that many Jewish students will have been kicked and punched and hated throughout their lives, and Israel offers them the only place in the world where they might not feel like the ‘other’. As relevant as these arguments are to many Jewish students, they do not resonate with me. The reason why I was so infuriated with the actions of the BME Liberation Group was not mentioned by anyone on Thursday, but it needs to be made clear.
There is a genuine fear among Jewish students of the antisemitism that exists within the student left wing movement and the BDS campaign. I am a Jewish student, who, because I am Jewish, and for no other reason, had ‘Boycott Israeli Goods’ stickers plastered all over my campaign posters when I ran to be president of EUSA. I have been told personally, as have others, by activists who claim to be on the student left, that it is natural for Jewish people to be treated with suspicion by those involved in left wing campaigns because we are ‘statistically more likely’ to be pro-Israel. That Jewish students like myself would never feel safe at a pro-Palestinian march for fear of racist chanting, and of placards equating the state of Israel to the Nazis, who our ancestors fled from in terror, is a symptom of the BDS movement’s huge problem with antisemitism.
It is inevitable in a flawed world that even good campaigns will have issues with racism, sexism and other forms of discrimination; but, when they are seen they must be addressed thoroughly and immediately. That this was not done by the BME Liberation Group is unacceptable.
Faatima Osman, the Convenor of the BME Liberation Group, gave a speech on the motion at the student council. Half of the speech blamed EUSA for the timing issue, but the other half was a speech in favour of the motion. I am not interested in who is to blame for the scheduling. What is clear is that there was an option for the motion to be withdrawn by the BME Group after this clash was noticed. The BME Group’s leaders knew, or should have known, that allowing this motion to be debated on the eve of Passover would invoke a heightened fear of racism and exclusion within the Jewish community.
It was conceded by the BME group that voters should abstain on the motion. This compromise was not good enough, particularly as Osman still took the opportunity to speak in favour of BDS as a whole, rather than to just encourage an abstention. Osman did this even though many Jewish students could not be present to share their experiences of racism.
This issue should be simple. When a group of people who have consistently experienced violence, hatred and exclusion throughout their lives because of who they are, tell you that you are heightening their fear of violence, hatred and exclusion, then you must sit up, take notice and back down. That this was not done by a liberation group that should represent ethnic minorities was a spectacular failure.