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Tuesday, June 28, 2022

As a non-Zionist Jewish student, David Miller’s rhetoric harms me too

Naomi Reiter responds to the claims of David Miller, highlighting the need for young Jewish students to have a sense of community and space for discussion.

CW: antisemitism.

If you asked me to sum up what I think of when considering my own Jewish identity, the images that would come to mind are of my mum making latkes, dressing up for Purim as a child, visiting my grandma in America annually to celebrate Passover, and the dramatic search for the afikoman (a broken piece of matzah (think enormous cream cracker) hidden somewhere around the Passover seder venue that children compete to find) which would always occur. I would picture people gathering at my house for Hanukkah, preparing for my Bat Mitzvah, watching Fiddler On the Roof so many times the DVD cracked, saying a short version of the Shabbat blessings every Friday night, having a mock-Hannukah celebration with my uni housemates and introducing them to the joys of playing dreidel, trekking around Oxford with a Catholic friend of mine in a long search for the free challah available on Shabbat, and baking hamantaschen for the first time. You will notice that I mention Israel, Palestine, or Zionism nowhere.

For the purposes of understanding this article, it is important to provide a basic definition of Zionism. However, it is crucial to note that it is impossible to comprehensively define Zionism in one short paragraph and no one definition will ever be completely perfect. For a fuller understanding, I recommend engaging with a range of wider reading, starting with varied sources which will be listed at the end of the article. Zionism can be defined (not exhaustively) as a national movement for Jewish self-determination aimed originally at re-establishing and currently at preserving a state for Jews, also described as a ‘Jewish homeland’, in the region of Israel-Palestine to which Jews have an indigenous link. There are many forms of Zionism including religious Zionism, liberal Zionism, and green Zionism. An example of a Zionist stance is the belief that a) a state of Israel should exist and b) that it should be a Jewish state. Zionism is, however, highly complex, exists in many forms, and means completely different things to different individuals – the only way to truly know what an individual thinks is to ask them. Furthermore, being a Zionist does not equate to being a supporter of the current Israeli government or its actions.

For me, like many other British Jews, the issues of Israel, Palestine, and Zionism do not play a great part in my life; they are not the cornerstones of my identity. And yet, despite having never publicly expressed a view on Zionism until this article, I have been personally blamed for the suffering of Palestinian people from the age of 6. From my own experience, I know how easy it is for people to see any random Jewish person as a personification of the state of Israel; if people could do it to me as a Jewish child who did not even know what Israel or Palestine were, I know they can do it to any of us.

This is precisely why I do not accept the arguments of David Miller. He is a professor at the University of Bristol currently facing enormous backlash via open letters and petitions from students, MPs, and other academics regarding what an open letter from the University of Cambridge describes as “the latest manifestation of a long and ignoble tradition of conspiracy theories concerning Jewish individuals and institutions which he teaches to his students. He argues that these statements and theories are not antisemitic but just anti-Zionist, and furthermore that the campaign by Bristol University students for him to face disciplinary action is in fact a secret sinister campaign by “pawns” of Israel to silence him rather than students acting of their own accord.

Another crux of his argument is that his antisemitic statements only impact Zionists and that his crusade is an effort to protect anti-Zionist and non-Zionist Jews such as myself, amongst other groups, from the tyranny of the Union of Jewish Students (UJS) and Jewish societies (JSocs).  This characterisation of the apparently nefarious secret motives of the UJS and JSocs is also an overt example of the centuries-old ‘dual loyalty’ antisemitic trope, which claims that all Jews are primarily loyal to Israel (or a similar Jewish collective) before their own countries and thus use their influence to advance that of the Jewish collective to the detriment of their own countries. This trope has been employed as far back as in the first century CE by the Romans and has constantly been used as an excuse to mistrust, mistreat and enact injustice against Jews. Let me be absolutely clear here: I would obviously, given my stated stance, have no problem if Miller’s words were only academic opposition to Zionism, but his statements go beyond that and into the territory of undeniable antisemitism.

The people whom Miller riles up via his legitimisation of antisemitism are not going to stop and ask me what my precise views on Zionism are before seeing me, a Jew, and attacking me in some way. If I go to a supermarket and take with me the first random tote bag I grab, as so many of us do, and that bag happens to be the UJS tote bag I got in freshers week, is someone who believes that the UJS is a scheming and malicious secret agent of Israel hell-bent on promoting its agenda through every constituent JSoc going to stop and ask what I personally think before making their move? Of course not. If someone launches an attack on an in-person Jewish group event (when these are allowed), will non-Zionist students magically not be harmed? That notion is laughable. Even taking Miller’s arguments at face value, it should also go without saying that someone being a Zionist is never a justification for carrying out an attack against them.

When I speculate regarding physical attacks, I am not pulling wild scenarios out of thin air. Miller’s statements such as calling UJS and all its constituent JSocs the “Israel lobby”  and “formally members of the Zionist movement” which “campaigns to silence critics of Zionism”, taken together with his view that “the Zionist movement…are the enemy of the Left [and] world peace…and they must be directly targeted” clearly amount to a call to arms which encourages people who view themselves as leftist and against oppression to “directly target” all JSocs, including my own in Oxford, as a means of defeating this “enemy” ideology.

As a non-Zionist student who is involved in Oxford JSoc and goes to our community centre for events, this instils fear in me and most certainly does not ‘protect’ me. This rhetoric reminds me of why it is necessary for every Jewish space in Oxford to be protected by tight security both online and in person – something Miller also denounces as Israeli interference. It is a matter of routine that our community centre does not publicise its address on its events. When I arrive, I have to give my name to a security guard before being allowed to enter. There is a reason why we have to go through security guards to enter our place of worship. In spite of Covid-19 restrictions, the UK total of 1,668 recorded antisemitic incidents in 2020 alone is the third-highest ever recorded by the CST (a charity which provides security for British Jewish spaces and acts as a place for Jews to report instances of antisemitism and receive support – Miller says this organisation “exists to run point for a hostile foreign government in the UK”).

This is why it was so hard for me and my Catholic friend to find the free challah we knew was available in Oxford – we had not given our information to the right people beforehand and so had to be treated as a potential threat. Miller’s rhetoric forces me to hide my Jewishness from view and be constantly on alert. If I do accidentally grab that UJS tote bag, I consciously carry it so that only the plain back of the bag is visible. I do not wear a Magen David necklace, despite this being a staple symbol of Judaism and Jewish identity. I ought to be as comfortable wearing this as a Christian student is wearing a crucifix necklace.

The truth is, all David Miller’s polemical rhetoric does for me is attempt to remove the few safe Jewish spaces I have found at university and, on a more personal level as someone who grew up always being the only Jew in my year at school, remove the sense of community I have found within them. Contrary to what David Miller and people like him would lead you to believe, you do not have to swear an oath of loyalty to Israel or to Zionism before being welcomed into a JSoc, nor do you have to pledge to spread the agenda of Israel to everyone you know before being given your free Shabbat meal. Shocking as this may be, there aren’t even special JSoc trips to Palestine where we hunt children and revel in their blood (another example of an antisemitic trope from the Middle Ages that should not have made it to the modern world) – a revelation, I know. Yes, this is a real accusation that has been levelled against Oxford JSoc and an example of the blood libel myth. This myth was started by the Catholic Church in the 12th century and stipulated that Jews regularly kidnapped Christian children to drink their blood. This accusation directly led to violence against individual Jews, the shunning of Jews in wider society, and in extreme cases the forced removal of Jews from entire geographic regions through pogroms. Rather, JSoc was the first organisation that ever made me feel comfortable being Jewish and not a Zionist. Every JSoc member I have encountered has always assured me that not being a Zionist does not make me a bad Jew or a less valid member of JSoc. The Oxford JSoc, just like the broader UJS, is welcome to Zionist, anti-Zionist, and non-Zionist Jews alike.

The Oxford JSoc is explicitly apolitical; it has members with a wide range of views on Zionism and each of these members is equally welcomed and accepted. JSoc has not given me an influx of malicious propaganda, but instead provided my first safe space to have open and honest debates about Zionism and Israel with people who I know are engaging in good faith with the goal of having constructive discussion. As a result of this community, I have been able to have productive conversations with Zionists and anti-Zionists about the most contested elements of the topic. JSocs give Jewish students a safe place to question Zionism and discuss it constructively without being accused of treachery or having to carefully monitor every word said to avoid being wielded as a token ‘Good Jew’ – a Jewish person who says things that, coming from a non-Jewish person, would be entirely questionable, and so is tokenised opportunistically by antisemites to legitimise antisemitism when it is expressed by non-Jews – by antisemites.

However, the most important point to be made about JSoc is that it is not what people like Miller would have you believe. It bears a far closer resemblance to the Jewish experience I detailed in the opening of this article than to some antisemite’s horrifying vision of a bunch of young hook-nosed Israeli lobbyists constantly congratulating ourselves on propagating an Israeli Zionist agenda. The events run by JSoc are apolitical, and the vast majority of them have nothing to do with Israel at all. JSoc is, fundamentally, a Jewish society. As it is false and antisemitic to automatically equate all Jews with Israel (the ‘dual loyalty’ trope), the same logic applies to JSoc.

It may be convenient to forget that the cornerstone of the Jewish community is our shared link to the religion of Judaism and/or Jewish history and culture – but this is the case. JSocs hold events ranging from discussions of controversial elements of Jewish theology, examination of particular parts of scripture and how much influence the Torah should have over intellectual life, discussions on how to eat healthily and ethically while staying kosher, and the hosting of Jewish academics to speak on various aspects of Jewish history and other areas, to Hanukkah card-making events, group baking events for challah and hamantaschen (especially chaotic over Zoom), and celebrations of important festivals in the Jewish calendar. These events are about celebrating and engaging with our shared Jewish culture. While JSoc does very occasionally promote events on Zionism and Israel, these are not done to convince members of a certain ‘correct’ view as Miller would have you believe. They instead are open to all political views and act as a way to start constructive dialogue around the issue. It is incredibly rare any such events would be promoted anyway due to Oxford JSoc’s entirely apolitical stance on Zionism and Israel more generally.

Fundamentally, it was through getting more involved with JSoc and making more Jewish friends (with whom I could have constructive and insightful discussions about Zionism) that I came to define myself as non-Zionist. Therefore, if we accept Miller’s tangled web of Israeli interference the Oxford JSoc ought to be fired from the Israeli secret agent network for its disastrous failure. Sarcasm aside, the labelling of our JSocs as malicious agents of a foreign government intent on proliferating a certain ideology which should be “directly targeted” not only puts Jewish students at a very real risk, it also threatens one of the few organisations that allows young Jews to build a sense of community – often for the first time in our lives – and safely and constructively question our own relationship to Zionism.

For wider reading about Zionism, I would recommend this introductory article from the Anti-Defamation League, alongside this piece from Vox which attempts to define Zionism within the context of the conflict between Israel and Palestine. This piece links to a larger group of articles around the topic which I recommend also reading. The Anne Frank House’s discussion of why ‘Jew’, ‘Israeli’, and ‘Zionist’ should not be mixed up or used without context is also helpful. This piece also explores some of the potential differences between anti-Zionism and antisemitism. Furthermore, I do not endorse all content within each of these articles – they are useful starting points for beginning to think about Zionism.

Image Credit: screenshotted from YouTube. Miller has previously claimed that an interfaith venture where Jews and Muslims made chicken soup together in a London mosque was “an Israeli-backed project to normalise Zionism within the Muslim community”.

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