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OULC Co-Chair resigns, citing antisemitism within club

Alex Chalmers, Co-Chair of the Oxford University Labour Club, resigned Monday evening, stating that he could “no longer in good conscience defend club policy.”

In a Facebook post Monday explaining his decision, Chalmers wrote that he perceived that, “A large proportion of both OULC and the student left in Oxford more generally have some kind of problem with Jews.”

He cited OULC’s decision on Monday to endorse Israel Apartheid Week (IAW) as the immediate cause of his resignation. Israel Apartheid Week is an annual series of lectures against Israel occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, and in support of Boycott, Divest and Sanction (BDS) movements.

He wrote that he felt the club was “becoming increasingly riven by factional splits, and despite its avowed committment to liberation, the attitudes of certain members of the club towards certain disadvantaged groups was becoming posionous. Whether it be members of the Executive throwing around the term ‘Zio’ (a term for Jews usually confined to websites run by the Ku Klux Klan) with casual abandon, senior members of the club expressing their ‘solidarity’ with Hamas and explitictly defending their tactics of indiscriminately murdering civilians, or a former Co-Chair claiming that ‘most accusations of antisemitism are just the Zionists crying wolf’, a large proportion of both OULC and the student left in Oxford more generally have some kind of problem with Jews.

“The decision of the club to endorse a movement with a history of targetting and harassing Jewish students and inviting antisemitic speakers to campuses, despite the concerns of Jewish students, illustrates how uneven and insincere much of the active membership is when it comes to liberation. I had hoped during my tenure as Co-Chair to move the club away from some of its more intolerant tendencies: sadly, it only continued to move away from me, to a place I could no longer hope to retrieve it from.”

Chalmers was referring to a motion passed by a vote of 18-16 at Monday’s OULC meeting which stated that the group “formally [endorsed] Oxford IAW.” OULC further resolved to publicize this decision to its “members so a wide audience of people attend IAW events” and “mandate the Co-Chairs,” which would have included Chalmers, “to make our opposition to the apartheid in Palestine if invited to comment by the media on related subject matters”.

Chalmers told Cherwell, ”Leaving OULC was a difficult decision, but it had reached the stage where I no longer recognised the club that I joined last Michaelmas. I hope my decision will go some way in raising awareness of the campus antisemitism that has gone unnoticed for far too long in Oxford.”

His Co-Chair Noni Csogor said, “I’m deeply upset by Alex’s decision to resign, but it’s one I respect; his commitment to his principles is honestly admirable, and he is – and will remain – one of my close friends.

“That said, I was heartened by the healthy and – while passionate – civil nature of the debate this evening. The persuasiveness of both sides of the argument is obvious from the result, 18-16 in favour, and I’m glad we as a club can be a place for this kind of democratic debate. We did not vote on a blanket position on the Israel-Palestine conflict; we voted to support Oxford’s Israeli Apartheid Week. At Oxford, IAW has hosted a wide variety of Israeli, Palestinian, and South African speakers, such as Denis Goldberg, who fought against apartheid in South Africa, and Oxford professors like Avi Shlaim, Karma Nabulsi, Sudhir Hazareesingh, and David Priestland. As the motion notes, OULC and the Labour Party have always been against racism and oppression in all its forms; this must include the policies of the current Israeli government.

“That said, it also includes anti-Semitism. Alex is right to highlight growing anti-Semitic violence in the UK as a major issue; it’s also horrifying that Jewish students feel unsafe on campuses. It’s unsurprising, given incidents like that at KCL Israel Society a few weeks ago, and I’m sure OULC members would join me in condemning the silencing of Jewish students, who often have uniquely nuanced perspectives on the Israeli state. Jewish students spoke on both sides of the debate this evening, but we take allegations of anti-Semitism in the club very seriously and I will be discussing, with my executive committee, how to deal with the kinds of statements Alex mentions, and what concrete steps we can take in future to preserve a club that’s been a safe haven for Jewish students in the past.

“I understand Alex’s position, but am looking forward both to running the events we’ve organised for the rest of the term, and to contributing to an ongoing discussion about the complex intersection of justice for Palestine and the safety of Jewish students.”

Oxford University Jewish Society also issued a statement, saying, “Oxford University Jewish Society is saddened by the anti-semitic reports coming out of Oxford University Labour Club, and stands fully in support of Alex Chalmers’ decision to resign.

“We are, however, unsurprised by this news. It is not the first time that Oxford JSoc has had to deal with anti-semitic incidents within the student left and it will not be the last. It is a significant and worrying issue and one that on many occasions, Jewish students have felt that they are fighting alone. We are grateful that Alex Chalmers has made the statement that he did and has brought the issue of anti-semitism to the fore in a way that Jewish students have so far been denied.

“Oxford JSoc strongly rejects any accusation that Jewish students are inventing claims of anti-semitism to discredit Palestinian solidarity politics. This is a repeated trope that has been used to silence Jewish students and it will carry weight no longer. When anti-semitism intersects with Palestinian solidarity politics, it is not the job of Jewish students to be quiet, but the job of Palestinian solidarity activists to rid their movement of anti-Jewish prejudice.

“Many of Oxford’s Jewish students who hold progressive views have long felt excluded from left-wing political spaces. Jewish students who raised the issue of anti-semitism at the OULC meeting were laughed at and mocked. It is high time that this issue is confronted. We hope Alex’s resignation triggers a broader awakening amongst student political movements, and that anti-semitism, particularly on the student left, is finally taken seriously.

The national group Labour Students said they “were deeply troubled to hear reports of anti-semitism at one of our most prominent Labour Clubs. We unequivocally condemn any form of anti-semitism. We are taking these allegations very seriously and will do whatever is necessary to ensure every Labour Club is a safe space for Jewish Students. We are proud of the long history we have of working with the Union of Jewish Students and the National Union of Students to protect Jewish students on campus and this will always be a top priority for Labour Students.”

Current and past members of OULC have expressed differing opinions.

Former Co-Chair David-Cesar Heymann endorsed Chalmers’ stance, telling Cherwell, “Alex has contributed a great deal to OULC, and recently took a courageous and principled decision. In doing so, he raised pressing concerns about anti-Semitism in the Oxford Hard Left. As his statement explains, anti-Semitism is a common ocurrence among the hard left, with slurs such as ‘Zio’, apologism of Hamas and other terrorist organizations, and casual dismissals of anti-Semitism as ‘crying wolf’ being common. The decision of the hard left within OULC to suport the one sided demonization of Israel that is Israeli Apartheid Week is only the most recent example of a long, troubling pattern; and I can fully understand, and sympathize with Alex not wanting to have anything to do with this disgraceful decision. “

Ella Taylor, Women’s Officer-elect, who is herself Jewish, said “[OULC] is a vibrant, well led, diverse group. At its events I constantly meet interesting and inspiring people with a whole spectrum of views and whose opinions are well informed and interesting. Last night however, I witnessed a side to the club which was thoroughly unpleasant and I am increasingly becoming aware of some of the awful outbursts about Jews which have been made over the past 12 months.

“I am not used to eyes being rolled when I start a sentence with ‘as a Jew’. Not only that, but I was astounded to hear the comparison of Jewish concerns about anti semitism during Israel Apartheid Week with straight people feeling uncomfortable attending LGBTQ+ night clubs. This is a problem that needs to be tackled head on. The club has an overwhelming number of members who are able to tackle the question of Israel Palestine appropriately – Zionist or not Zionist and who don’t use racist slurs and anti-semitism.
“Therefore I think that from both within OULC and in the wider community this issue can be tackled and I hope to be involved in working to remove the racist undertones that have surfaced of late. This isn’t a question of support for Palestine or Israel, but a question of helping fight against a rising tide of anti-semitism and ensuring all students of any religion or race feel safe.”
However former Social Secretary Michael Muir told Cherwell, “We had a heated but not hostile discussion and voted to support a week of action that brings together Israeli, Palestinian and international activists and scholars to draw attention to Palestinian human rights causes. We are sorry that one of our members felt this was a resigning issue; we take the welfare of our members very seriously.”
And Aliya Yule, a member of OULC and organising member of Oxford Jewish Students for Justice in Palestine, said “We are saddened to see the very serious allegation of anti-Semitism being used as an argument against those standing up for Palestinian human rights: it is imperative to reiterate that being critical of Israeli apartheid is not in itself anti-Semitic. Oxford Jewish Students for Justice in Palestine is delighted that OULC voted to endorse Israeli Apartheid Week, and we are proud to be helping organise a week committed to anti-racist, anti-colonial politics.
“As Jewish students, we are committed to the ongoing battle against anti-Semitism, and we don’t tolerate it from any quarter. The OULC meeting saw much healthy debate, and none of it was anti-Semitic. Passionate supporters of Israel like Alex Chalmers are of course entitled to their strongly held views, but so too are those of us profoundly concerned by Israel’s human rights abuses. Anti-Semitism is a poison, and it shouldn’t be cheapened by misleading allegations like this.”
Another former Co-Chair, Charlie Atkins, focused on the greater unity of OULC, saying, “Any situation that leads to a Co-Chair resigning is regrettable. The club should be – and in my experience has always proven itself to be in the past – a welcoming environment for party members with a range of political views. I think it’s vital that all OULC members cooperate and focus on helping the party put forward a positive vision for the country and winning public support. The club has a long and successful past and so I am confident it will be able to once again play its part in returning the Labour party to power.”
One Labour Party MP, John Mann, also commented on Chalmers’ comments, saying “The use of the term Zio as an abuse by some Oxford so-called left-wingers is comparable to the language of Pegida zealots,” in reference to a far-right anti-Muslim group in Germany.
“Overt anti-Semitism rife amongst certain elements at Oxford University. These casual racists need to be directly challenged and more,” Mann said.

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