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Students, societies and colleges respond to Ken Loach event

CW: antisemitism, racism.

Groups across and beyond Oxford have responded to the decision of St Peter’s College to host Ken Loach after numerous organisations called for the event to be cancelled due to Loach’s record of antisemitic behaviour. The event went ahead as planned; Professor Buchanan did not mention antisemitism in the talk or directly reference any of the allegations of antisemitism levelled against Ken Loach in her short explanation as to why the talk was not cancelled.

Loach, who graduated from St Peter’s in 1957 and then became a filmmaker, has made numerous comments which are antisemitic under the IHRA definition. Loach has claimed that a rise in antisemitism in Europe following Israel’s operation in Gaza was “perfectly understandable because Israel feeds feelings of anti-Semitism“. In response to questions about Holocaust denial, he has previously stated: “History is for all of us to discuss. All history is our common heritage to discuss and analyse. The founding of the State of Israel, for example, based on ethnic cleansing, is there for us to discuss… So don’t try to subvert that by false stories of antisemitism.” Loach has also criticised accusations of antisemitism within the Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, claiming that “their aim is to destabilise Jeremy’s leadership… there is no validity whatsoever.” The October 2020 report by the Equality and Human Rights Commission found that the Labour Party had breached the Equality Act in three systemic instances.

The Oxford University Jewish Society – or JSoc – released a statement before the event, expressing their concerns and disappointment. Their statement in full reads:

“Oxford University Jewish Society is deeply disappointed by the decision of Professor Judith Buchanan, Master of St Peter’s College, to host an event with filmmaker Ken Loach. On numerous occasions, Loach has made remarks that are antisemitic under the IHRA definition, which was recently adopted by the University of Oxford.

Over the weekend, Jewish students at St Peter’s met with Professor Buchanan to express their upset and dismay at the event’s happening. In spite of this, Ken Loach is still due to speak this evening, a decision which we condemn.

The Jewish Society will always do its utmost to protect the welfare of Jewish Students in Oxford. It is concerning that on this occasion, the leadership at St Peter’s College has not shared this sentiment.”

Shortly after the event, ‘Artists for Palestine UK’ released a statement, saying: “We are deeply troubled to learn of a McCarthyite campaign demanding Oxford University cancel a public event with director Ken Loach discussing his distinguished career in film. The campaign to silence a world-renowned artist, which has been active behind the scenes and which became public at the last minute, is using the controversial IHRA definition of antisemitism to try to prevent a cultural event from taking place”. Signatories include Judith Butler, Maxine Peake (who in an interview with the Independent said that Labour supporters who didn’t back Jeremy Corbyn should “hang their heads in shame” and inaccurately claimed that police in America who knelt on George Floyd’s neck had learned the tactic from “seminars with Israeli secret services”), Mark Rylance and Roger Waters (who has endorsed the BDS movement, deemed to be antisemitic by Germany and the US). Roger Waters later shared JSoc’s statement directly on his personal Facebook and Twitter. His caption – which appears to violate the IHRA definition of antisemitism – read: “Don’t let the Israeli Lobby rewrite our dictionaries with this McCarthyite, racist, claptrap… We know what anti-Semitism is, and being anti-Israeli apartheid ain’t any part of it”. Many comments under Waters’ posts were antisemitic in nature and, as a result, JSoc has received numerous instances of antisemitic abuse on their Facebook and Twitter. JSoc’s statement did not reference Loach’s views on Palestine.

The Board of Deputies of British Jews stood with JSoc, condemning the decision that the event should go ahead. The President, Marie van der Zyl, wrote: “That an Oxford college would not conduct its due diligence and allow Ken Loach to address students is entirely unacceptable. Higher education institutions have a duty of care to their students, which must include a zero tolerance policy to antisemitism and those who minimise or deny it. We have been in touch with Jewish students in Oxford and wholeheartedly support their condemnation of the event. This event should not take place.”

The Union of Jewish Students echoed this, arguing that “St Peter’s College, University of Oxford, should not be platforming a person who has repeatedly been accused of and has been an apologist for antisemitism. Just last summer, the University of Oxford stated they were committed to addressing systemic racism wherever it may be found, including within their own community. We do not see how this event can be reconciled with that statement.

It is an outrage that St Peter’s College has ignored the concerns of it’s [sic] Jewish students and we urge Judith Buchanan, Master of St Peter’s College, to remove this speaker from the event. UJS are offering support to the Jewish Society.”

The Oxford Student Union Campaign for Racial Awareness and Equality has also released a statement, condemning the event and highlighting that “the rightful outrage of Jewish students has been dismissed repeatedly, despite the emotional burden that was placed upon them to bring this issue to the college. We are dissatisfied with the thoughtlessness and callousness that went into this decision and we are concerned about the impact that it will have on the college’s Jewish community, especially given that the college did not mark Holocaust Memorial Day”.

Within college communities, St Peter’s JCR has passed a motion which urged all students to boycott the event “as not to lend credence and authority to the views of a noted antisemite, and to prevent their further dissemination”, as well as condemning the College leadership’s decision to go ahead with the event after students expressed their concerns. They described the response of the College and Master as “inconsiderate and insensitive”, citing that the College’s leadership “claimed to be unaware of Loach’s past comments, despite their being widely reported in the media and widely accessible online… sought to downplay the prospect of Loach’s invitation being actively harmful to the college community, suggesting that the event featuring him would ‘set aside’ the controversy… asked Jewish Peterites not to view College as a place hostile to Jewish students since this would result in more discomfort… pushed Jewish Peterites to explain why downplaying the Holocaust is ‘always’ unequivocally antisemitic… put the burden of proving Loach’s antisemitism onto Jewish Peterites when this is a matter of record, not opinion… suggested that St Peter’s did not have a problem with antisemitism on account of the previous Master being Jewish… refused to disinvite Loach lest a PR fallout occur… [and] refused to commit to taking any concrete steps to minimise the hurt that his invitation would inevitably cause”.

They also noted that “St Peter’s College, unlike many other colleges, failed to mark Holocaust Remembrance Day this year”. St Peter’s JCR further offered “its most sincere apologies on behalf of the College to all Jewish students”, called on the College to draw up a “concrete plan on fighting antisemitism”, including a report to investigate how this , and pledged its support and solidarity with Jewish students across the University – as a result of this incident and more broadly.

On 9th February, the Wadham SU will hold an emergency meeting where they will decide whether they wish to “formally condemn the actions of St Peter’s College and Professor Judith Buchanan in this incident”, along with “demand[ing] a full and sincere apology from St Peter’s College” and “stand[ing] in solidarity with Jewish students” as well as committing to uphold both a zero-tolerance policy against antisemitism and to improve understanding of antisemitism and Jewish identity within the College, as well as working to provide welfare resources for students who are impacted.

Image Credit: Steve Daniels. License: CC BY-SA 2.0.

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