More on the UCU and the EUMC Working Definition of antisemitism 
Sunday, June 26, 2011, 05:54 PM
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Although the UCU repudiation of the EUMC Working Definition on antisemitism is rather old news now, I thought I’d post something I wrote about it at the time, yet in the end condensed to a much shorter letter to send to the THES:

All forms of discrimination are complex, and each has its own special characteristics which may mutate over time. Sometimes it is difficult to be sure whether words or actions are discriminatory or not. A lot depends on the overall context. Certain sorts of compliment might be welcomed in a romantic setting, but would seem decidedly sexist in a professional environment.

In some cases there seem to be tensions between different groups. In trying to prevent discrimination against one community, another may feel intimidated. This can be seen in the recent debates over homophobic posters proclaiming a ‘Gay Free Zone’ in the East End. Gay rights campaigners suspected that their concerns were being brushed aside in order to protect Muslim sensitivities. Muslims, on the other hand, felt that anxieties about the posters were being used to whip up Islamophobia. Both sides could point to evidence to back up their case.

Members of minority groups are generally going to be more sensitive to the forms discrimination against them can take. Recently I read someone point out that a charge of ‘narcissism’ was often levelled against homosexuals. I have since spotted examples of this word being used quite gratuitously in just this context, something I had previously never noticed. It is surely a good thing for us all to become more aware of these more subtle ways in which prejudice manifests itself.

For those wishing to recognize and avoid anti-Semitism, the Working Definition produced by the European Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia (EUMC) is a useful tool. It includes manifestations of anti-Semitism which hardly need to be pointed out, for example ‘calling for, aiding, or justifying the killing or harming of Jews in the name of a radical ideology or an extremist view of religion’. But it also includes more subtle forms of anti-Semitism, many of these linked to anti-zionism, such as ‘drawing comparisons of contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis’. It should surely be possible, for example, to criticise Israel’s policy towards Gaza in the strongest terms without needing to invoke the Warsaw Ghetto.

The working definition notes that, with all these possible diagnostic criteria, the overall context must be taken into account when making a judgement. One probably isn’t going to fret too much about the ‘overall context’ of a call to genocide. But it is true that some of the criteria are calculated to help identify rather less threatening cases, including the accidental use of an antisemitic trope, which – just like a single chance use of the epithet ‘narcissistic’ to describe a homosexual – should probably be overlooked. But where there is a whole cluster of subtle innuendos in a single article the Working Definition can help pinpoint a real problem. For in order to be truly useful any guidelines for helping identify prejudice must go beyond the obvious. For example, burning a mosque is pretty clearly Islamophobic, but what about criticising Halal slaughter? Here, as with antisemitic tropes, there would be a need to look at the overall context. The issue of Halal food is certainly often manipulated by anti-Muslim bigots – but that fact shouldn’t be used to close down debate about animal welfare.

There is a similar tension, potentially, between antisemitic discourse and criticism of Israel. Given the inevitable intersection between hostility towards Israel and antisemitism it is of course going to be hard to police the boundary between fair criticism and racism. These debates notoriously attract those with extreme views – ranging from those who think antisemitism and anti-Israel feeling are pretty much synonymous, to those who believe they don’t overlap at all. The Working Definition may well help resolve such differences, but it isn’t like a piece of litmus paper which will automatically tell you whether a person or a statement is or is not antisemitic. It is hard to think of meaningful guidelines for any ‘ism’ or ‘phobia’ which wouldn’t generate debate about how exactly they should be applied in a given case.

Given its value as a tool for combatting discrimination, it might seem rather odd that the University and College Union should have decided to repudiate the Working Definition, particularly since the union has never acknowledged or adopted it. This motion has been passed by the UCU Congress in Harrogate.

“Congress notes with concern that the so-called ‘EUMC working definition of antisemitism’, while not adopted by the EU or the UK government and having no official status, is being used by bodies such as the NUS and local student unions in relation to activities on campus.
Congress believes that the EUMC definition confuses criticism of Israeli government policy and actions with genuine antisemitism, and is being used to silence debate about Israel and Palestine on campus.
1. that UCU will make no use of the EUMC definition (e.g. in educating members or dealing with internal complaints)
2. that UCU will dissociate itself from the EUMC definition in any public discussion on the matter in which UCU is involved
3. that UCU will campaign for open debate on campus concerning Israel’s past history and current policy, while continuing to combat all forms of racial or religious discrimination.”

It seems quite bizarre for the union to proscribe any consideration of the Working Definition, to dismiss the whole document, and to resolve to disassociate itself from the definition in any relevant public discussion. And is this really a priority for members when Higher and Further Education are being faced with unprecedented cuts and a radical overhaul of fees?

It is interesting to look at, to use the Working Definition’s phrase, the ‘overall context’ of this motion. The UCU has a longstanding preoccupation with the academic boycott of Israel, even though it has received legal advice that such a boycott might well be discriminatory and illegal.

Many members have resigned over this matter, and others have expressed great disquiet. The UCU has refused to deal with members’ concerns, and in 2009 voted down a motion to investigate these resignations. Last year it invited a speaker, Bongani Masuku, to speak at a seminar to discuss a boycott of Israel, even though the South African Human Rights Commission had deemed that his statements amounted to hate speech against South Africa’s Jewish community. Clearly the union has not itself been inhibited to any worrying degree by the Working Definition. Given this overall context, it is not surprising that more members are being driven to resign.

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The Bedouin (Mill Road, Cambridge) 
Saturday, May 28, 2011, 04:44 PM
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It seems several years since the Bedouin restaurant on Mill Road first appeared. Mysteriously, it always seemed to be closed, and there was no menu on display. We peered in from time to time but, like Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory, it seemed that no one ever came in or went out. Now, finally, it’s open for business, and we decided to give it a try.

The atmosphere is cosy and welcoming with rugs on the wall, low tables, Bedouin-theme paintings and Bedouin (I assume) music playing. Service was extremely friendly, though slightly disorganised, and we were immediately made to feel welcome.

The comparatively short seasonal menu contained plenty of tempting choices. For my first course I had the bastilla – pastry parcels stuffed with saffron cooked chicken, pigeon breast, onion and toasted almonds, dusted with icing sugar and cinnamon. These were delicious – though (not that this bothered me) quite oily. Then I chose the Tadjine Zaytoun - slow cooked lamb with onion, ginger, cinnamon, green olives, coriander, preserved lemon, carrots and potatoes.

The food was generally rather sweeter and more aromatic than other Middle Eastern/North African food I’ve tried – and very appetising. Alex recommended the chicken with couscous, and my daughter loved the lamb meatballs in a delicately spiced tomato sauce and (more unusually) finished with a lightly cooked free range egg. Pastries and coffees were very good too, and the whole meal cost £114.00 for four – including wine and soft drinks. Overall a thoroughly enjoyable meal.
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Feminism Explained (via Quiet Riot Girl) 
Saturday, May 21, 2011, 05:36 PM
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I enjoyed watching this video over at Quiet Riot Girl’s slightly edgy blog. Like other such satirical pieces it contained a few sharp points and several unfair ones. It also highlights some continuities in the feminist tradition. The female character’s ironic apparent disdain for women can be traced right back to Mary Wollstonecraft who expressed irritation at her sex’s silliness, which she also ascribes to false consciousness.

“The grand source of female folly and vice has ever appeared to me to arise from narrowness of mind. Pleasure is the business of a woman's life, according to the present modification of society, and while it continues to be so, little can be expected from such weak beings. Exalted by their inferiority (this sounds like a contradiction) they constantly demand homage as women.”

She would have agreed with the cartoon feminist that women ‘need to become less feminine’.

The cartoon stacks the cards against feminism by making the feminist so rigid, insisting that all women should work outside the home, and, most unfairly, so greedy – her real concern is that her big salary as head of a feminist organisation should be protected.

The cartoon feminist is challenged for caring more about the problems of American women than the more serious concerns of women living under oppressive regimes. I was a bit ambivalent about that point – I don’t like that kind of feminist either. However I think their numbers are exaggerated, and more consistent feminists overlooked by people who – just don’t like feminists.

This exchange was my favourite.

Her: We need more women to study science and math.
Him: What did you study?
Her: English.

It’s true that no one seems to fret that most students studying English and Art History are women. If women are being held back from some subjects might the same not be true of men?

I’m never quite sure where to align myself on the feminist spectrum – I was surprised, but not in a bad way, to be listed on the ‘feminist’ category of a colleague’s blogroll. I find Quiet Riot Girl’s take on some aspects of feminism quite funny and persuasive – and she seems to identify as an anti-feminist. On the other hand I loathe people who use the term feminazi – but more often than not I'm not too keen on the woman being criticised either (unless it happens to be me.) Perhaps, to borrow a useful if convoluted formula from another debate, I’m an anti-anti-feminist.

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My last best apocalypse: Earth Abides 
Sunday, April 24, 2011, 08:59 AM
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When I compiled my post-apocalyptic top ten a while back I had not yet read George R. Stewart’s Earth Abides (1949). Yet in some ways it’s the best of them all, influencing (or at least anticipating) almost every other title on my list. The protagonist, Isherwood Williams, is a young academic, a geographer who is camping in the wilderness when disaster strikes – a measles-like illness which kills almost the entire human race. We, like Ish, don’t experience the outbreak at first hand. By the time he returns to what used to be civilisation, it’s essentially all over. This is typical of the novel’s general restraint – Earth Abides is an elegiac and rather cerebral novel, at times very painful, but less horrific than many in the genre.

It takes its tone from the main character. Some readers hate Ish – on this site, for example, he is accused by readers of being boring, elitist, imperialist and over-fixated on the importance of books. Despite, or because of, these perceived flaws, he is a very effective witness to apocalypse - a thoughtful and intellectual young man, self-contained and slightly socially awkward, yet also considerate and humane – in a detached sort of way. The novel is interspersed with passages from his own notes, careful observations about the wider effect of the plague. He calmly documents the rise and fall of various non-human species, the changing appearance of the landscape and, eventually, casts an anthropological eye on the progress of ‘The Tribe’, a small group of survivors and their descendants who look up to Ish as their patriarch. The novel is a wonderful meditation on civilisation, humanity and the meaning of life. Both the achievements and shortcomings of mankind are thrown into relief by the very different world which emerges from the ruins, the return to a more primitive way of life, a changing language and a new mythology.

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Amazon Vine: Veronica Roth's 'Divergent' 
Tuesday, April 5, 2011, 07:09 PM
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I was recently invited to join the 'Amazon Vine' programme, which offers readers the chance to review books for free - but does not seek to influence these reviews. Amazon encourages reviewers to publicise reviews on personal blogs - so here's my first Amazon Vine review:

"I’m a great fan of near future dystopias, and thought ‘Divergent’ was an excellent addition to the genre. ‘Dystopian’ may be too strong a word. Although Roth’s first novel is clearly predicated on some future collapse of society, a crisis focused on dwindling resources, this issue isn’t to the forefront in ‘Divergent’. Instead its focus is on the way society in the US (or in Chicago at least) has split into distinction factions or tribes: Erudite, Amity, Candor, Dauntless and Abnegation. This is an original idea I think – many dystopias are predicated on such splits, but normally they are connected to social class, as is the case with Robert Swindells’ ‘Daz 4 Zoe’, for example.

All young people are offered an assessment, informing them whether they should stay with their parents’ faction or move to a different group, which will almost certainly mean a total break with their family. Most, though not all, opt for the faction with which they show most affinity, although it is possible to go against the grain, and make a choice which doesn’t match their aptitude. But the penalties are harsh – anyone who fails their chosen faction’s initiation test must join the ‘factionless’, a marginal group who get by on support from selfless Abnegation.

What’s so interesting about this book is the way in which it makes readers reflect on their own characters, their own strengths and weaknesses. The heroine is confronted with some genuinely tough choices – sometimes there simply is no right answer. The most obvious question posed by Roth’s ‘thought experiment’ is – what faction would I join? I teach literature at a university, so I was surprised to find myself drawn to Candor rather than Erudite – which I hope will encourage potential readers to take my word and give ‘Divergent’ a go. If you enjoy sf or fantasy I don’t think you’ll be disappointed."

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