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”.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QoHKOZUEJcE

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.

Follow Gary Spedding on Twitter

Like this article? Sign up to Left Foot Forward's weekday email for the latest progressive news and comment - and support campaigning journalism by making a donation today.