Oxford University Labour Club (OULC) have stood by their decision to invite a controversial speaker alleged to have made “anti-semitic” comments.
Richard Seymour has previously expressed support for the proscribed terrorist group Hezbollah, while also claiming that the anti-semitism problem within the Labour party was a “witch-hunt”.
Last week, the OULC co-chairs contacted Seymour to clarify his views on Israel, Hezbollah, and anti-semitism within the Labour party. His response was deemed satisfactory for the invitation not to be rescinded.
However, concerns are still being raised by both members of OULC and the national party, with a spokesperson for Labour Against Antisemitism describing the decision to invite Seymour as “alarming”, and OULC members telling Cherwell they felt “scared to speak out” about their concerns.
Last week, after Cherwell revealed some of Richard Seymour’s past comments, OULC resolved to contact Seymour to clarify his views.
In his response, seen by Cherwell, Seymour expresses his regret for several of his comments regarding the nature of anti-semitism; qualifies his “unconditional, but not uncritical” support for Hezbollah as being in the context of the Lebanon War; and says that he has changed his mind since he wrote that “Labour doesn’t have an ‘anti-semitism problem’” and that the allegations form a “witch-hunt”.
Seymour said: “It would be wrong to infer that these [blog] posts attested to broader support for Hezbollah’s overall ideology or its wider regional role. Certainly, at no point did this ‘support’ extend to any antisemitic affiliations or statements on the part of Hezbollah or any of its leaders or members.”
Regarding his claims about a “witch-hunt”, he said: “my first reaction, which was to think of [the allegations of anti-semitism within the party] mainly as just another way to attack the leadership, is one I can no longer cleave to.”
Co-chairs of OULC, Anisha Faruk and Ray Williams, told Cherwell: “In light of Richard Seymour’s positive clarifications, which we have passed onto Cherwell in full, and having met with Oxford JSoc, we believe that Seymour’s address can go ahead without infringing on our absolute commitment to making our members feel safe and opposing anti-semitism.”
President of Oxford University Jewish Society (JSoc), Jacob Greenhouse, told Cherwell: “I am happy with the response, I do not know what he will say on the day but from the email it is clear that he is rather sorry about the anti-semitic comments we believe him to have raised and does not believe those views anymore.”
However, he stressed that he has asked OULC to ensure that Seymour is challenged on his views at the event itself.
A spokesperson for Labour Against Antisemitism, Euan Philipps, told Cherwell: “It is alarming that, given the current anti-semitism crisis in the Labour Party and the OULC’s own problematic recent history, that they did not carry out appropriate background checks before booking this speaker.
“Richard Seymour has a track record of making controversial – and occasionally offensive – comments that tread a fine line between sensationalism and antisemitism. His recent attempts to minimise the issue of anti-Jewish discrimination in the Labour Party are a case in point.
“We hope that every effort will be made to provide a counter-argument to Mr Seymour’s position and that more care will be taken by the OULC in future.”
An OULC member told Cherwell: “OULC’s approach to anti-Semitism and its Jewish members is essentially the same as its party overlords. Antisemitism: not an issue worth elevating to the same level as other forms of discrimination, followed by intense suspicion of anyone who raises issues.
“How high is the arrogance of these people, who think they can dismiss accusations of antisemitism as essentially insignificant? Who are these people who think they don’t need to take extra care to ensure their speakers don’t purport the same prejudice as the leadership of their party?
“Jewish students feel uncomfortable being themselves and expressing their views… I’m an OULC member, and I feel scared to speak out against this.
“I absolutely condemn the invitation to this speaker: what were they thinking? But it is, of course, part of a deep problem, which no statement in the quiet days of the vac can properly address.”
In March, OULC released a statement slamming the Labour Party’s “consistently inadequate” responses to anti-semitism.
It went on to say: “Our club has tried to learn from its mistakes and so must our party. We will continue to do all that we can to make sure that the Club remains a friendly and safe environment.”
In response to the OULC member’s statement, Faruk and Williams told Cherwell: “We are saddened that an OULC member feels that they cannot openly bring up concerns they have within the club. Having learnt this, we will set up an anonymous complaints procedure so that future concerns can be voiced and will publicise our current disciplinary procedure much more extensively.”
They added that they did not take the decision over whether to rescind Seymour’s invitation “lightly”, and it came only “after proper consultation with Oxford JSoc who support our desire to scrutinise unacceptable comments made by Seymour when he comes to speak.”
OULC has faced scrutiny for their internal problems with anti-semitism in the past. In 2016, co-chair Alex Chalmers resigned in protest of what he perceived to be a large portion of club members having “some kind of problem with Jews”.
After a year-long investigation, the National Executive Committee (NEC) of the party voted to clear the two student members under investigation for alleged anti-semitic behaviour – a decision Oxford JSoc labelled “utterly shameful”.
Seymour will speak at the launch of Look Left, the Labour Club’s termly magazine, on Tuesday evening.