An interview with pro-Palestinian activist Gary Spedding about anti-semitism in Galway

Left Foot Forward editor James Bloodworth caught up with Gary Spedding to ask him about his concerns over anti-semitism in some sections of the pro-Palestinian movement.

The National University of Ireland, Galway Palestine Solidarity Society (NUIG) made the news last week after a video emerged showing one of its activists demanding that pro-Israel speaker Alan Johnson “get the f**k off campus”.

Those involved in the incident were condemned by Galway University, which issued a statement saying the behaviour was “unacceptable and has no place at any forum of discussion or debate”.

Since the incident, Northern Ireland-based pro-Palestinian activist Gary Spedding has been outspoken in his condemnation of what took place. He has also raised concerns about anti-semitism in the NUI Galway Palestine Solidarity Society Facebook Group more generally.

Left Foot Forward editor James Bloodworth caught up with Gary to get his side of the story, and to ask him about his concerns over anti-semitism in some sections of the pro-Palestinian movement.

1. You’ve recently spoken out about anti-semitism in the NUI Galway Palestine Solidarity Society Facebook group. What specifically bothered you?

I spoke out about anti-semitism in a general way on the NUI Galway Facebook group. My main concern was that if things became more polarised the debate would descend into a crystallisation of extremes where the focus would shift, and instead of being about Palestinian human rights it would go down the slippery slope of singling out Jewish people. It worried me hugely that Israel advocates had misused the image of Mark Zuckerberg on campus with the words “I am a Jew. Don’t boycott my people”; and the typical uninformed response from radical Palestine campaigners is to find a Jewish individual who happens to support Palestine, using them as a token figure. This makes it about Jews and Jewish people which isn’t appropriate and frankly anti-Semitic. It reduces the debate to buzzwords and insults.

2. There is a video of an incident from last week at Galway of a student telling a pro-Israel speaker to “get off the f**king campus*”. What were your feelings on seeing the video?

As a pro-Palestinian activist and human rights advocate I was appalled by the behaviour of this student and I condemn it. Such behaviour is not acceptable, it is in fact counterproductive on many levels. I’d refer anyone who thinks what that student did is a good thing to review Dahlia Scheindlin, who wrote about the heckling of the Israeli Orchestra in London back in 2011.

I should briefly mention, however, that it was rather strange to me that someone from a British Israel advocacy organisation was flown out to Ireland to directly interfere with a referendum at an Irish academic institution.

3. Your own position is to support boycotts, divestment and sanctions (BDS) against Israel, am I correct? How in your opinion will BDS help to end the Israeli occupation?

My own position on BDS is complex. I like to assess individual cases based on the BDS guidelines rather than applying them as a blanket solution. International activists need to remember that BDS is and should remain an organic, grassroots Palestinian-led initiative. In my opinion BDS is a wholly legitimate and, perhaps most importantly, non-violent way of airing grievances and holding Israel accountable. With this in mind I advocate a targeted boycott of any company, institute or body that is proven to be complicit in the occupation of Palestinian Territories, the illegal settlements, systematic and structural oppression of Palestinian people and so on.

It’s about being strategic and tactical – I also boycott unethical coffee companies, Chinese products and companies profiteering from the occupation of Tibet, as well as goods from occupied Western Sahara and much more. I don’t advocate or endorse blanket boycotts; I firmly believe that engaging with Israeli civil society, human rights NGOs, critical academics in a meaningful way is absolutely essential for peace-building.

However a line must be drawn – I would boycott the university of Ariel because it’s in an illegal settlement, I boycott SodaStream because it’s exploiting the oppression of a captive workforce (Palestinians) and benefiting from cheap land rental with tax breaks – if SodaStream CEO was really interested in supporting Palestinians with sustainable employment opportunities, why didn’t he build his factory in Palestinian area? The answer is obvious to those who bother to be informed.

On the opposite side of the coin, I would not boycott academics at Ben Gurion’s politics department because they are not complicit in occupation and are in fact critical of the government to such an extent that the Israeli elite tried to pressure them and shut them down.

I believe BDS will help end the occupation – it’s receiving major attention in Israel and is considered a real threat. Of course Israeli officials and advocates abroad misrepresent this as a threat to Israel’s existence when really the type of BDS I endorse and advocate is only a threat to Israel’s violations of human rights, Israel’s occupation of Palestinian Territories, the illegal settlements and the ethnocratic system in place that discriminates against minorities.

4. Do you think there is a problem with anti-semitism among some in the BDS movement?

I believe that some who claim to represent the BDS movement have fallen foul of conspiracy theories and anti-semitism, yes. For example there is a far-left group in Newcastle which targets Marks and Spencers because they say it’s run or owned by Jews and thus supports the occupation of Palestine – this is obviously anti-Semitic. If someone is joining BDS because they are obsessive about Jews, demonise all Zionists, and generally believe in strange conspiracy theories then I reject them and say that they are motivated by hatred and are grossly misinformed about the complex reality of Israel-Palestine situation as it exists on the ground.

5. What can the left do to ensure that people in its midst are not using opposition to the Israeli occupation as a cover for anti-semitism?

Become more informed. Dialogue with the British and Irish Jewish communities, the Israeli left and Israeli peace movement. Build ties with Israeli civil society – right-wing Israel advocates would really hate that because it empowers anti-occupation movements on the ground in Israel; the type of movements pro-Israel advocates like to pretend do not exist.

Also, read about Zionism from scholars such as Arthur Hertzberg – know what it is you are and are not opposing in Zionism so as to become a better critic of more extreme right-wing and racist manifestations.

I’d also like to highlight the tactics of Irish4Israel, who like to label anyone remotely critical of Israel as anti-Israeli and anti-Semitic. Such assertions diminish genuine anti-semitism, which is obviously a serious issue. They try to manipulate discourse and obscure the abuse of Palestinian rights, as well as cynically misuse issues such as women’s rights and LGBT rights to demonise Arabs. They idolise Israel, making the country exempt from criticism and beyond reproach as if it should be held to a different standard to the rest of the world and by international law.

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5 Responses to “An interview with pro-Palestinian activist Gary Spedding about anti-semitism in Galway”

  1. SarahAB

    I think it’s very welcome that Gary Spedding is taking antisemitism amongst (some) pro-Palestinian activists seriously.

  2. DrBrianRobinson

    A most thoughtful contribution to the debate, thank you.
    When I read reports of recent developments in Ireland, the country where I was born and grew up, they stirred up — not for the first time — a complex of old memories and feelings. That sent me looking at the online version of some of the Dublin newspapers. And some news items and articles on current events in Ireland reminded me again that there’s a context and background against which some present-day Irish enthusiasm for selective Israel-bashing must be measured.

    Before I go any further, I want to be clear: I condemn the settlement-building, the Occupation, the discriminatory road-systems, the house demolitions and the humiliation of Palestinians at checkpoints, and a great deal else besides. I believe also there is a good case for the kind of selective BDS as outlined by Gary Spedding above.

    But look at this item from the Irish Independent, 26 November 2012, by Alison O’Riordan:
    “It was part of life then to be called a dirty Jew”

    I was called it myself, often, back in the mid-late 4os/early 50s just for
    walking in the street in Dublin, and I have a vivid memory of being spat at in
    the face for being a “dirty Jew who nailed up Christ” (I could see the bastard
    collecting the spittle, a very copious amount, in his mouth for several
    seconds but was too paralysed with fear before him and his three thuggish
    mates to duck – I think I was somewhere between 8 and 10 at the time). At
    secondary school a bully twice my size regularly taunted me, “The grease is
    dripping off you, Jewboy”, as he would jeer at me calling me by a name that
    wasn’t actually ever mine (Rubenstein) and once pushed my textbooks out of my
    arms and down a flight of stairs; another delightful fellow once bashed me
    across the ear (for which he was himself roundly beaten up later by a black
    boy, senior to me, a pupil who couldn’t let the racism pass and did what we
    Jewish boys had not to that point learned to do for ourselves. I found out
    later that some friends of my parents rewarded him for his action).

    And this kind of thing was done with implicit, and sometimes explicit,
    encouragement from the highest levels of Irish society. So I’m simply unable to
    view all this Irish BDS activity in quite the same way that a lot of people
    not brought up as Jews in Ireland may see it. As I said, there’s a context,
    a background (and it wasn’t only Devalera, the prime minister, whom we knew at
    the time went to sign the book of condolence at the German Embassy on Hitler’s
    death – but as I think most of us didn’t know at the time, it was also Douglas
    Hyde, the first president of the Irish Republic). By the way, see also
    Ulysses – the antisemitism of the Ireland of Joyce’s youth is a major theme of
    the novel (as by implication is Joyce’s opposition to it in his powerful

    A quote from the Irish Independent article, link above, November 2012:

    “[J]ust a few months ago, anti-Semitic slogans were daubed on the home of a
    couple in Tuam, Co Meath. The entrance to Herb Meyer’s home was vandalised
    with the words “Go Home Jew”, with a swastika also spray-painted on his
    driveway wall.

    “The culprits also sprayed swastika symbols and graffiti on the windows of
    the house in the attack. This vandalism is the third attack on Mr Meyer’s
    property in recent months, with his car being targeted in two separate arson

    “But this is not something which has emerged in recent years. The curator of
    the Irish Jewish Museum is Raphael Siev, who was born in Leinster Road,
    Rathmines. Unfortunately for him, anti-Semitism was pretty strong in the

    ‘It was part of life to be called ‘a dirty Jew’,’ he said. ‘Another phrase
    often used to me was, ‘Go back to where you came from.'” End quote

    And where would that — “where you came from” — be, precisely? South of the LIffey? North? Ah, oh, you mean Jerusalem? I was often told that too: “Get back to Jerusalem”. Well, some Jews tried that too, and um, there was a bit of a problem about that as well.

    So it’s little wonder that, as the JCPA says here

    “[B]efore 1948 the Irish Jewish community, which had come overwhelmingly from
    Lithuania in the period from 1880 to 1914, was one of the most pro-Zionist
    in Western Europe and a major per capita supporter of the Jewish National
    Fund (JNF), as well as other Zionist organizations and institutions …

    “[I]rish Jews’ profound attachment to Zionism in the period before Israel’s
    establishment can be traced back to the 1890s, when Irish Zionist
    Associations and branches of Chovevei Zion (Lovers of Zion) were among the
    most active in Europe. In 1900, the Dublin Daughters of Zion (DDZ) was
    founded. This was the first women’s Zionist society in Western Europe. To
    put this in context, it was not until February 1912 that Henrietta Szold
    convened the first meeting of the American Daughters of Zion, the first
    women’s Zionist group in the United States.

    “The Jewish National Fund (JNF), Dublin Commission, developed into a not
    insignificant branch of the worldwide JNF and, from the late 1930s, its per
    capita contributions were higher than those made by communities in Leeds,
    Glasgow, and London. In his autobiography, Chaim Herzog, the Irish-born
    two-term president of Israel, recalled how during his childhood in Dublin
    and Belfast “the concept of a Jewish state emerged in our collective
    consciousness [and] added considerably to our sense of pride. As that
    consciousness expanded, it strengthened our entire community.” End quote

    There was a reason the Dublin Jewish community was so ardently Zionist (back
    then, at least) – it wasn’t for them (including for my family) some abstract
    political notion, nor would they have even dreamt of framing it in
    neo-colonialist terms (however much it may be so viewed by others from a
    different perspective): no, it was something you felt, because you were made to feel it, in your guts and bones, always there, born out of daily lived experience in the streets, and from hearing reports from Sunday Mass pulpits, indeed also from seeing, now and then, Roman Catholics on buses crossing themselves at the sight of a person they took to
    be Jewish.

    And so I can’t witness the current Irish enthusiasm for BDS without seeing the
    ghosts of the past, and without recalling as so often before, that phrase from
    my late countryman, the distinguished statesman and scholar, Conor Cruise
    O’Brien: Antisemitism is a very light sleeper.

    The past may be a different country, and modern Ireland isn’t, by a long shot,
    the country it was 60 and 70 years ago, but the past makes echoes in the
    present, unmistakable for any who heard the original din.

    — Dr Brian Robinson, Milton Keynes, UK:

  3. Unrepentant Jacobin

    “I boycott SodaStream because it’s exploiting the oppression of a captive workforce (Palestinians) and benefiting from cheap land rental with tax breaks – if SodaStream CEO was really interested in supporting Palestinians with sustainable employment opportunities, why didn’t he build his factory in Palestinian area? The answer is obvious to those who bother to be informed.”

    Indeed. And the answer is that Daniel Birnbaum, the Soda Stream CEO to whom you refer, inherited the factory, he did not build it. It was established by the company’s founder Peter Wiseburgh back in the 1990s. As Birnbaum has pointed out, had the factory been built outside of Area C, it would be paying Palestinian wages, which are up to 4x lower. Birnbaum maintains the facility, even though he concedes it can cause him headaches, in part out of loyalty to the Palestinian employees who work there:

    Incidentally, the chances that the Ma’aleh Adumim settlement will end up as part of Palestine once land swaps have been agreed is virtually nil. Those (like Mr Spedding) who “bother to be informed” must be aware of this. In the unlikely event the factory does end up outside of Israel’s final borders, Birnbaum has pledged to leave the factory open and to pay taxes to the Palestinian government.

    But none of this seems to trouble the BDS campaign or its supporters like Spedding who seek to drive a factory out of business which employs 500 Palestinians (and 900+ Arabs overall) at $1200 a month + medical insurance + pension; which allows Muslim employees time for prayer (not deductible from breaks) and has an on-site mosque; and which provides an opportunity for Palestinians and Israelis to co-operate and work side-by-side as equals, surely the best possible grassroots road to peace and mutual recognition/acceptance.

    While it is, of course, nice that My Spedding allows that the disgraceful treatment of Alan Johnson at Galway University was “not acceptable”, he has also provided a handy reminder that BDS is a morally bankrupt movement which does not, in fact, have the interests of Palestinians at heart.

    With friends like Gary Spedding and Mustafa Barghouthi, the Palestinians don’t need enemies.

  4. Lamia

    I should briefly mention, however, that it was rather strange to me that someone from a British Israel advocacy organisation was flown out to Ireland to directly interfere with a referendum at an Irish academic institution.

    But nothing strange, apparently about said academic institution, in a country with an embarrassing record of intolerance for the small number of Jews who have ever lived there, holding forth on whether Israel should be allowed to exist or not.

    Perhaps some country a few thousand miles away should hold public discussions and a ‘referendum’ on whether or not the Republic of Ireland should exist.

    Would Gary and co like that? Self-righteous bigots.

  5. Harvela

    I guess you support a two state solution broadly based on 67 cease fire lines . Do you also advocate full and unrestricted ROR for Palestinian refugees to Israel ?

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