Is the antisemitism debate in the UK is being weaponised to stifle debate on criticising Israeli?

The ongoing accusations against Jeremy Corbyn and claims of antisemitism in the Labour Party, the UKs main opposition party, and more recently, racism, show little sign of abating. The lurking fears of the right are slowly being realised, as it would appear that change is indeed on the horizon. 

Whenever opinion polls show a lead for Labour, the antisemitism stories start resurfacing again. The discourse of antisemitism has been a central symbol over the past few years to destabilise, delegitimise, and derail the Corbyn project by undermining his historic support for the liberation of the Palestinian people. 

Such attacks are part and parcel of the broader political Western landscape, whereby any challenge to Israel’s settler-colonial project is (falsely) treated as a vicious antisemitic attack.

The Israeli state, along with its neoconservative allies, has been responsible for pushing an agenda where any legitimate criticism that seeks to call out and expose the systematic human rights abuses and violations of Palestinians is simply deemed antisemitic. 

This is a misguided and dangerous path to follow. Not only does it work to erase critical Jewish voices that have also pointed to the way in which antisemitism is being mobilised to deny the agency of Palestinians, but it also functions to shut down and censor wider, analytical debate. 

Supporters and opponents of Israel should avoid conflating antisemitism with anti-Zionism. To suggest that the two terms are synonymous is unhelpful and only contributes to the continued silencing and criminalisation of any form of valid opposition that pursues justice for the hundreds of thousands of dispossessed Palestinians.

Over the years this narrative has steadily seeped into academic institutions across the UK, Europe, and the US. 

In the UK, there has been sustained surveillance of ‘pro-Palestinian activity’ on university campuses, heightened by the toxic counter-terrorism Prevent strategy. For example, in order to comply with the policy, it was reported last year that university staff had been advised to “risk assess” and “manage” supposedly “controversial” issues including Palestine. This led to the University of Central Lancashire (UCLan), to take the decision to cancel an event organised by a Friends of Palestine society, citing concerns that it would not be “neutral”. 

In addition to this, various blacklists of ‘topics’ or ‘speakers’ have been produced, undermining freedom of expression even further. Moreover, various scholars who have dedicated years of research and activism to the Palestinian struggle have faced a torrent of abuse and frequent attempts to shut them down.

Universities in the UK have conventionally been assumed to be spaces that emphasise and promote critical thinking - and in times of major global political transformations the cultivation of new, alternative ideas is perhaps more necessary now than ever. 

Unfortunately, this appears to be far from the reality on the ground whereby securitisation and censorship are taking a firm grip on educational settings throughout the West. In the UK this has been both legitimised through the expansion of draconian counter-terrorism measures, and bolstered by associated campaigns to redefine, reconfigure, and rewrite the parameters of antisemitism.

However, even in universities and states where pro-Palestinian activity is tolerated, there are still wider attempts made to silence academic expression. For example, Professor Ronit Lentin who is based in Ireland has written about, documented, and campaigned extensively on Israeli settler colonialism and racism, and while she has not encountered direct opposition from her university (Trinity College, Dublin), external attempts to silence her persist. 

As a result of her important interventions she continues to receive online hate and harassment with insults such as ‘self-loathing Jew’ often thrown her way. This demonstrates that even when academics are not shut down within their own universities, they still face outside threats to their academic freedoms from organised, right wing, settler-supporting groups.

The oppressive monitoring, obsessive scrutiny, and ongoing harassment of those who engage with Palestinian issues has become institutionalised within academic spaces and beyond, and this continues to pose real threats to academic freedom (and safety). 

Through the suppressing of open debate in such a way, a disturbing and hostile climate is being fostered to stifle dissent and opposition to Israeli state practices, as Lentin (2017) argues, surveillance is no longer solely directed at Israel’s colonised subjects, but has expanded to also monitor and criminalise dissent by Israeli citizens, and criticism by diaspora Jews and the international community.

Debate is the foundation of any democracy, however in the current landscape we have witnessed the limiting of free speech and the policing of dissenting voices. 

Denying political figures, journalists, activists, and academics the right to challenge abhorrent practices enacted by the Israeli state is a direct attack on our civil liberties, and halts the development of an open society that promotes and values dialogue as an important tool to broaden understandings and shape ideas for progress. 

Freedom of expression is a fundamental human right and can no longer be denied to the many voices seeking justice for the Palestinian people. In increasingly unstable and unpredictable times we should be expanding our knowledge and channels for debate rather than containing and negating them. 

Universities and other civil society organisations can no longer allow themselves to be coerced into succumbing to the wider pressures and intimidations imposed by neoconservative, securocrat bullies. 

In troubling times like these the need for academic freedom is essential to help enable us all to navigate the treacherous currents that we face today. 

Disclaimer: The viewpoints expressed by the authors do not necessarily reflect the opinions, viewpoints and editorial policies of TRT World.

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