Magdalen and Somerville vote to defund Oxford Radical Forum

Magdalen and Somerville JCRs voted last night to to rescind their donations to the Oxford Radical Forum (ORF), and to condemn the organisers of ORF for inviting “speakers with a history of anti-Semitic hate speech”, in the words of the Somerville motion.

In Magdalen the motion passed overwhelmingly in a secret ballot, with 43 in support and just 14 against. One ballot was spoiled.

Grace Linden, who argued against the motion, told Cherwell: “It is disappointing that Magdalen JCR has decided to withdraw funding for ORF, on the basis of false allegations of anti-Semitism.

“This sets a dangerous precedent for student organised conferences – we will seek other sources of funding for ORF, and are determined that it should go ahead as an open and honest forum for debate.

“Anyone who wishes to assess the strength of the claims made against the speakers, should research the context of the comments quoted, and also Malia Bouattia’s full apology for her lack of clarity in use of language last year.”

At both colleges debate was heated. Members of Magdalen JCR allegedly defended Hamas as a diverse organisation and argued that Muslims could not be anti-Semitic as they themselves were members of an oppressed group. Members also clashed over definitions of anti-Semitism and racism.

At Somerville a member of the ORF organising committee allegedly argued that the speakers invited were not anti-Semitic, clashing with the predominantly Jewish proposers of the motion. 22 voted in favour, with 6 against, and 6 abstentions.

Somerville JCR President Alex Crichton-Miller, who supported the motion, told Cherwell: “from my discussion with members afterwards it seemed that concern for the welfare of Somerville’s Jewish population was a primary concern.

“Several Jewish students attended the meeting and expressed their support of the motion, and opposition to the speakers, with passion and vehemence. Our JCR stands for the interests of the entire Somerville community, and voting as we did was the best way to ensure the welfare of that community as a whole.”

Both JCRs have already given their donations to the Forum, but Crichton-Miller is “fairly confident” that ORF will return their £150. He said: “we expect the ORF will understand our expressed view and return the money as it was originally a donation”

The votes follow a Cherwell investigation that revealed the Forum to have invited a number of figures with allegedly anti-Semitic ties and other provocative viewpoints to speak. This led to condemnation of the Forum’s organisers by Jsoc and a move to cancel funding of the event by JCRs and OUSU.

Magdalen’s motion declared: “Oxford Radical Forum has invited a number of speakers who have a history of making anti-Semitic comments”.

The motion carried on to name particular speakers: “Miriyam Aouragh, who stated that “Holocaust discourse has become part of a propaganda industry”, and who organised a memorial service in 2004 for the founder of Hamas, a terrorist organisation whose charter (1998) is overtly anti-Semitic, stating the need to kill Jews and referring to The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.”

In a statement made to Cherwell, Aouragh said that the blog post from which the holocaust quote was taken in fact expressed her opposition to holocaust denial. She said of the latter accusation: “Like many I was very angry about Israel’s murderous targeted killings campaign between 2000-2004, which saw hundreds of political activists and leaders assassinated when the popular uprising in 2000 broke out.

“These war crimes were condemned across the political spectrum, especially the ‘collateral damage’ caused by extrajudicial killings using F16s, such as collapsing buildings with families in them and the killing of bystanders when cars were blown up.

“One case was that of Ahmed Yassin of Hamas, an elderly man in a wheelchair living in a refugee camp in Gaza. I was part of a protest against the incredible violence of that period, many were making this argument, including the UN, the EU, as well as a large numbers of MPs in this country.”

However Jewish News—Britain’s largest Jewish newspaper—and JTA—a global Jewish news agency—have claimed that in 2004 Aouragh indeed did organise a memorial service in Amsterdam for Ahmed Yassin, the Hamas founder and ‘spiritual leader’ killed by Israel that year.

Magdalen’s motion further criticised  “Malia Bouattia, whose anti-Semitic comments were condemned as “outright racism” by the Home Affairs Select Committee, and whose NUS presidency 84% of Oxford Jewish Society members felt they were unable to align with their Jewish identity.

“Last year, Malia was called upon by OUSU to issue a full and formal apology, or otherwise to stand down from her NUS presidency. We are still waiting for either.”

An NUS spokesperson released the following statement in relation to allegations made against President Bouattia: “Malia has addressed the accusations of antisemitism numerous times since her election last year, including in the Sunday Times in April, the Huffington Post in October, and in writing to the 560 NUS-affiliated further and higher education students’ unions in December.”

The final speaker mentioned in Magdalen’s motion was George Cicciarello-Maher: “ [He] suggested in a tweet that Israel harvests organs, and explicitly refers to the blood libel trope, the idea that Jews steal the blood and organs of non-Jews for religious rituals. This is both entirely false and grossly offensive.”

Ciccariello-Maher rejected the allegations, telling Cherwell: “The desperation of OUJS’s campaign against the ORF is truly absurd. In particular, I am accused of fostering a ‘blood libel’ narrative, when the totality of my comments on the matter have been limited to: one, defending my courageous colleague Jasbir Puar from a similar smear campaign, two, posting a 2009 article published in The Guardian on the subject, and three, responding to Israeli military comments regarding admitted past practices.

“The ludicrous nature of OSJS’s claims is most apparent when they suggest that I “explicitly refer to the blood libel trope,” without mentioning that I only “refer” to the trope in order to reject its use in smear campaigns like this one.

“The saddest part of such witch hunts is that we live in a moment of resurgent white supremacy – anti-Semitism very much included. We should be spending our energy fighting real racists and anti-Semites, not invented fantasies.”

OUSU is set to debate their funding of ORF at the next OUSU council meeting on the first of March, two days before the Forum is due to start.

In statement released on Friday they said: “The OUSU Executive Committee has considered the matter, and believes that the Cherwell’s [sic] investigation constitutes new information, and which may have affected the outcome of the motion had it come to light in the original discussion.”

They encourage all involved, including the original proposers of the motion and Jsoc, to “attend and debate the issues.”

Oxford Radical Forum have been contacted for comment.