OULC general meeting debacle, what happened?

A spectre is haunting progressive politics in Oxford: the spectre of apologism. There is a proud and noble Labour tradition which places at its centre a belief in common human dignity and equality of persons. It has been this sincere belief in combatting racism in all of its forms which influenced the thoughts and actions of Labour greats such as Hugh Gaitskell, Harold Wilson and (whether you like it or not) Tony Blair. But it seems that the Labour Club has (to my mind) erred greatly, resulting not least in the resignation of OULC co-chair Alex Chalmers. More importantly, it has strayed from the belief in cooperation which has been a defining feature since the party’s inception in 1900.

I initially attended the meeting so as to ensure that Oxford University Labour Club voted to finance the Oxford Students for Europe campaign, of which I am an active member. However, little did I know that I would be involved in a heated half-hour exchange on the issue of supporting “Israeli Apartheid Week.” This was not, to be clear, a debate on OULC’s stance for the Israel/Palestine conflict. It was not a debate exclusively on standing in solidarity with the plight of the Palestinian people. These discussions and declarations are central to political discourse, and it is important to note that there is nothing wrong with criticising aspects of Israeli domestic policy. What it was a debate on supporting an event which on its website explicitly states how one of its primary aims is to build support for the controversial Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement.

There are plenty of reasons why support of BDS is problematic to say the least. Firstly and foremostly, for OULC to vote in favour of an event sympathetic to BDS is to show ambivalence to the fact that BDS serves the function of putting into doubt the economic security of large number of Palestinians and Israeli Arabs. These are people who are reliant on the performance of the Israeli economy in order to have a wage to take home. On a more abstract level, BDS represents the height of double standards that sections of political activists are willing to apply blindly to the agents of the Middle East. There was a rather conspicuous absence of any mention of the human-shield using Hamas which forms the political elite within Palestine.

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A further complaint made by members of the debate – members who repeatedly expressed criticism of the Israeli state and sympathy for Palestine – was that the term ‘apartheid’ was inappropriate. For a moment consider why this is so. Apartheid is an Afrikaan term using to describe ‘the state of being apart’. It holds a number of very specific connotations which, in my mind, are not transferable to the Arab-Israeli conflict. Firstly, one of the central issues surrounding Apartheid was the lack of suffrage for black South Africans. Contrast this to modern day Israeli democracy, where there is an inclusive electoral system which values the ballots of all citizens are valued. It also provides the kind of undertone which assumes that people who are supportive of the Israeli state are in some way racially prejudiced against the Arab world.

These complaints and reservations were raised in debate by a number of speakers within the debate. A female member raised real concern about the very pertinent risk of demonization often faced by Jewish students today who suffer at the ignorance and misunderstanding of others. It is ironic that for a motion that was meant to be in solidarity with the Palestinian people justified in protecting their civil liberties was to have the potential for an event which in the past has led to anti-Semitic exclusion, abuse and a fear for their own personal safety. She and others raised concerns about the kind of speakers which had been invited to past Israeli Apartheid Week events in Cambridge and in SOAS. The response: it is not appropriate to criticise a movement for the views of some of its constituents. It is when you provided them a platform for their vitriolic views in the first instance.

Nobody really bothered to engage with the concerns that were raised. Indeed, there were whispers of ‘classic’ when she pointed out her Jewish heritage, as if her identity deprived her of any independent intellectual faculty. A former co-chair of the Labour club was accused of ad homenium where none could be found. It was one of the messiest discussions I ever had the displeasure of witnessing. It got so low as to attempt to exclude members of OUCA and OULD from voting. Indeed, one of the greatest laughs of the night came when somebody told me that I was playing a game by being a members of multiple societies. The only thing that I would have to apologise for is my belief in pluralistic and cooperative democracy. These are principles the hard left has forgotten all too often. All they care for is ideological purity.

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This is a saddening turn of events indeed. But let it be clear what this article is meant to represent. It is not meant to be a blanket criticism of OULC, an organisation for which I have huge amounts of respect for (and have a number of friends on the executive). Noni, the remaining co-chair, is hyper competent and attempted to manage the debate as best as she could. There are many within the Labour Club that hold the principles of democratic socialism dearly, and will sacrifice countless hours in order to attain a compassionate society free from poverty, strife, and discrimination of all kinds. But the time is now for the moderates within the party to reclaim the club. It is time for those who truly care for the future of the Labour Party to ‘fight, fight and fight again’. Before it is too late….