by Ben Rich
When I was President of York University Students Union in the late 1980s, a rather nasty and stupid member of the extreme right wing York Federation of Conservative Students (FCS) decided it would be fun to put a flyer round campus attacking “the yid`’ who was controlling the students’ union.
Although he had carefully cut and pasted the York FCS logo onto the otherwise scrappy handwritten note decorated with swastikas, I very much doubt that anyone else on his committee had even seen it, let alone approved it.
Within hours, to the best of my recollection, the left wing dominated students union executive – who largely despised me as a Liberal – had convened a meeting to ban the FCS. My concerns as the target of the stunningly juvenile attack were overruled.
By the next day, the story of York students “banning the government of the day from their campus” was in running in the Daily Mail. It was not terribly sympathetic to the Union. My colleague, Matt Cole, and I convened a special meeting to review the executive’s decision.
I suppose I made an alright speech, defending free speech, pointing out the self-defeating nature of no platform on campus and generally labelling my attacker a lone nutter. I say “I suppose” because I can’t remember it, but I remember almost word for word Matt’s brilliant contribution.
Instead of making a traditional speech, he simply told the strange assortment of Trotskyites, Stalinists and members of the Athletic Union, fearful for their grant, about Brer Rabbit. The Georgian fairytale tells the story of Brer Rabbit, who is captured by a fox he has constantly taunted. The fox says he will eat him to which Brer Rabbit says “that’s fine, but whatever you do don’t throw me in the briar-patch”. So the fox conjures up ever more terrible deaths for Brer Rabbit who accepts them with equanimity with the refrain “… just don’t throw me in the briar-patch.” And so of course in the end the fox does indeed toss the rabbit into the briar-patch, and Brer Rabbit hops away free.
A couple of years previously, after student protests had led to meetings by senior cabinet members being cancelled or abandoned on a number of campuses under no platform policies, the Conservative Government had introduced legislation to defend the right to free speech on campus.
But the legislation had not gone far enough for the FCS, which wanted the end of automatic membership of students union or possibly their outlawing altogether.
The attack on me was intended to provoke exactly the response which it got from the student executive and provide the ammunition for legislation to dismantle students’ unions altogether. Don’t through us in the briar-patch!
Unfortunately for the FCS, and thanks to Matt, the student body finally got the point, overturned the executive’s ban and left the university authorities to suspend the student who wrote the offensive flyer.
Thirty years later I have been struggling with the appropriate response to the staging at my old university of the play Seven Jewish Children, which is undeniably anti-Zionist and which many – but not all – see as anti-Semitic.
The play was part of the student “Israeli Apartheid Week” (IAW) a concept that I personally find offensive in the extreme. The play had, as I understand it, merited little attention and would have passed without incident, seen only by a handful of IAW organisers who would merely have had their prejudices reinforced. However, a few days before a representative of the Israeli Embassy came to address students on campus and, seeing a poster, told the students they should launch a protest.
Given the late notice the protest probably did little to increase to the play’s original audience, other than adding a few members of the JSoc executive who went to see what the play was all about, but by the weekend the incident was being reported in the national and Jewish media and understandably the JSoc officers felt besieged and unsupported.
Complaints to the students union and university authorities fell on deaf ears, unsurprisingly as many of the organisers of IAW were themselves Jewish and I doubt either body felt qualified to referee a dispute between Jews on what constituted anti-Semitism.
At a time when Israel is fighting BDS on numerous fronts, the defence of free speech on campus and opposition to the academic boycott should be our trump card. If we cannot debate ideas and disagree civilly at our universities what hope is there for those of us who believe in dialogue as the only long term solution to the Middle East crisis? But how can we hope to make this moral case if we too leap to no platform, whenever we are offended by those whose views on Israel make us squirm?
What’s more, if we cannot disagree civilly between ourselves what hope have we of extending the dialogue to engage the non-Jews, let alone the Palestinians, who will need to be our partners in peace?
It is time for our community leaders to stop launching rabbits into briar-patches, recognize that our right to defend Israel is intrinsically linked to the right of others to attack it, and instead consider how we best engage with them and the fair-minded between us to win the debate.
- Ben Rich is Chair of the York Liberal Jewish Community and was President of the York University Students Union and York J-Soc from 1987-88