Commentary Magazine


Zionism, Racism, and Free Speech

Amid cheering and clenched fists from its far Left members and strong objections from others, the British National Union of Students (NUS) voted on April 6 to reinstate its “no-platform-toracists” rule. This was the latest move in a four-year-old controversy over the union’s adoption of the rule as a tactic in its fight against racism. Originally directed against extreme right-wing groups, the policy was applied last year to some Jewish student societies identified as Zionist and therefore racist. This intensified an already heated debate, both inside and outside the academic community, over such fundamental issues as freedom of speech and racial tolerance. As the latest meeting proved, the NUS still remains sharply divided.

There is no American counterpart to the NUS, which represents all British university and polytechnic students on both specifically academic and broader political issues. At a spring conference in April 1974, an outspokenly leftist NUS executive body called for “an extension and intensification of the fight against racism,” and proposed a motion intended to do just that. The motion to amend the union’s constitution stated:

The conference recognizes the need to refuse any assistance (financial or otherwise) to openly racist or fascist organizations or societies (e.g. Monday Club, National Front, Action Party/Union Movement, National Democratic Party) and to deny them a platform. However, the conference believes that in order to counter these groups, it is also necessary to prevent any member of these organizations, or individuals known to espouse similar views, from speaking in colleges by whatever means are necessary (including disruption of the meeting).

The motion was passed by a vote of 204,619 to 182,760, and the so-called “no-platform” debate began.

The ban immediately encountered opposition in the press and the general public as well as in the academic community. NUS president, John Randall, in a widely read article in the (London) Times Higher Education Supplement, defended the union’s position. He maintained that by imposing the ban the union was neither undermining fundamental principles of the academic community nor overstepping reasonable bounds of political action. On the contrary, the aim of the ban, he claimed, was to resurrect “the ideal of the academic institution as an international community.” This ideal, he said, “has become sadly tarnished of late” by college administrations’ discriminatory attitudes and actions toward Third World students. Moreover, “this official attitude of intolerance . . . fosters the more blatant persecution practiced and advocated by the National Front and its obnoxious allies.”

But this defense did not silence those opposed to the ban. A Times Higher Education Supplement editorial denounced in uncompromising terms the contempt the ban showed for the “articles of faith . . . that uphold both the university and the conduct of British political life: the supremacy of reason and disciplined imagination for solving intellectual problems and the moral code of liberalism.”

College officials deplored the upholding of the ban. At the same time, individual student unions spoke out against the “paternalism” of the NUS executive and expressed their opposition to the ban. Students formed various explicitly nonpartisan groups as part of a “Free Speech in NUS” campaign against the “no-platform” policy.

Under this pressure, the NUS executive modified its stand at a meeting in May 1974, but did not reverse it as many had expected. It proposed amendments to the “no-platform” motion, forbidding the use of violence in suppressing speakers and stating that the NUS could only urge, not force, member student unions to adopt the policy. These steps were welcomed by those who, in the words of a student opposition group, wished “to move the NUS away from the authoritarian approach of the broad Left,” yet they also felt the NUS still had a long way to go in becoming a truly democratic organization.

Over the next few years, however, the course of the English student campaign against racism and the application of the “no-platform” took an ironic turn. In the aftermath of the 1975 United Nations resolution declaring Zionism a form of racism, various student unions made efforts, beginning in the spring of 1977, to apply the “no-platform” policy against Zionists and against Jewish student societies that supported Israel. The scene of the battle against racism seemed to have changed considerably since 1974. Now Zionists, not the National Front and right-wing racist organizations, figured as the main opponents. In addition, positions within student ranks shifted. The efforts to apply the “no-platform” policy now were initiated by local member student unions—mostly by Arab, other Third World, and extreme leftist student organizations within those unions—not by the NUS executive on the national level as in 1974.

During the spring terms of 1977, amid general confusion on the local level, anti-Zionist motions proliferated and efforts to apply the “no-platform” policy to Jewish student societies increased. Resolutions on the Middle East question were debated in twenty-one student unions; eleven of those passed anti-Zionist motions which, among other things, equated Zionism with racism. Where such motions were passed, the application of the “no-platform” policy then became the issue—an issue which was far from clear-cut, as events on two campuses, Salford and York, attest.

In mid-April of last year, the thirty-five members of the Salford Jewish society applied to the student union for permission to hold an Israel week and sponsor various speakers and activities. Salford student-union officials specified that activities should be cultural, not political, and then refused to insure that such activities would not be disrupted. Asked whether a rabbi would be permitted to speak on the relationship between Zionism and Judaism, the student-union president, John Owen, was quoted as saying: “It would be all right to speak about the differences between the two but not about the links.” Finally, the Salford student-union executive decided that the union facilities could not be made available to the rabbi. In response to these controversial actions, Salford university officials issued strong condemnations of the student union’s position, while a small meeting of students reaffirmed their anti-Zionist stand with another vote.

At York, the confrontation was somewhat different, although not any more straightforward. There, the Jewish society declared itself a Zionist body and the student union passed a motion equating Zionism with racism. Yet the union did not want to take the next step and invoke the “no-platform” policy against the Jewish society, and so it simply voted to declare the society non-Zionist. When the Jewish society changed its constitution to become an “explicitly Zionist body,” however, the union decided to apply the ban and eliminate the society from its register. At this point, university officials intervened to demand a reversal of the ban. In mid-June, the union did reverse it and passed a resolution which denied the equation of Zionism and racism.

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As positions on the “no-platform” issue shifted on the local level during the spring, the NUS executive took a different stand from that of 1974 and began to voice concern over the policy and its new application. In April, outgoing NUS president, Charles Clarke, argued that the union’s democratic principles were undermined by the restrictions placed on members considered racist or Zionist. He emphasized that “the first responsibility of the NUS is to defend the rights of all its members to participate fully in all the activities of their students’ union” and “to argue for the policy decisions in which they believe.” He expressed confidence that the situation could be kept under control, citing general support from many student unions for NUS statements against the restrictions on Jewish societies.

The fall term opened with the announcement of a definitive position by students at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London University (SOAS). They passed a motion asserting that “racism is not peripheral to Zionism but central and fundamental to it.” On that basis they voted to “refuse money and facilities to societies whose aim it is to propagate Zionism and organize support for the state of Israel.”

Elsewhere positions were as varied as they had been in the spring. At some institutions no bill was passed; at others the Jewish societies were deprived of funds and/or facilities; at still others a pro-Palestinian stand was endorsed without any sanctions against Jewish or Zionist groups.

Where stands had been taken in the spring, shifts now began to occur as anti-Zionist motions were repealed on some campuses. At Sal-ford, the ban on pro-Zionist speakers was lifted while a general resolution was passed supporting the Palestinian cause and maintaining the equation of Zionism and racism. By the end of November, only a few institutions maintained their restrictions on Jewish student societies.

The NUS leadership by this time had become determined to reverse the “no-platform” policy. In response to the SOAS motion, the NUS executive objected strongly to individual bannings. Sue Slipman, president of the NUS, stated: “I want to make it absolutely clear that what happened at Salford and York was corrupt and undemocratic and we will fight it all down the line.” In preparation for national NUS meeting at Blackpool, scheduled for December 1977, the NUS executive discussed the possibility of presenting a motion to suspend any member unions which “in the view of the executive committee or of the conference discriminate against any of their members on grounds of race, color, or creed.” In addition, they hoped to strike out the “no-platform” clause altogether. A pre-conference amendment which they prepared claimed that the “no-platform” bill had hurt the union and been destructive of its campaign against racism.

As the Blackpool meeting drew near, the debate on the “no-platform” policy and its application to Jewish societies became more and more heated. At one extreme, some people compared the bannings with Nazism. For instance, Eric Moonman, Labor MP for Basildon, said in relation to events at Salford, York, and SOAS: “Part of the racial campaign in Nazi Germany against the Jews in the early 1930′s took place at a source of learning—the colleges and universities. It seems odd that we have so easily forgotten that.” At the other extreme, defenders of the “no-platform” policy asserted that it was necessary to reaffirm the policy to avoid racial attacks. “Not to do so implies they [the racists] have a legitimate point of view and racialist speakers invariably encourage racial violence.”

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At the Blackpool meeting, Conservative, Labor, Liberal, and Communist students allied against the ultra-Left to attack the “no-platform” bill. They succeeded in defeating the old policy by a vote of 273,087 to 246,510. A last-ditch attempt by the ultra-leftists to revive the “no-platform” clause was defeated by an even larger margin. A vote on sanctions against institutions that restricted the activities of member groups (like the Jewish societies) was deferred until April.

In place of the “no-platform-toracists” rule, the NUS now argued:

That the major battle is to win people away from racialist ideas and activities. That the “no-platform” position was never a strategy for defeating racialism. That NUS should encourage student unions not to invite speakers propagating racialist views but that it must be up to each new generation of students to take these decisions at a local level. Conference, therefore, rejects the “no-platform” slogan because we believe this is an obstruction at the national level, and ineffective in fighting the spread of racial prejudice.

At this point a constructive resolution to the debate seemed to have been reached.

The debate, however, was not to end here. Instead it took an unexpected turn at the NUS April 6 conference where the union voted by a small majority to reinstate the “no-platform” policy. Since the December meeting, a bitter controversy over immigration policies had intensified in Britain. This departure from the union’s earlier, more moderate stand can be seen as one more instance of a general trend toward increasing polarization on racial issues in the country as a whole.

In this atmosphere, it was no surprise that the discussion of the “no-platform” policy at the April conference became particularly charged. The NUS executive, along with Conservative, Communist, and Liberal students, was determined to keep the “no-platform” rule off the books, and the ultra-leftists just as determined to see it reinstated. Trevor Phillips, the first black president of the NUS, argued vehemently against such tactics as the “no-platform” policy.

When the vote was finally called, the “no-platform” policy was reimposed. In a surprise move, the Labor students abandoned the Conservative-Liberal-Communist-NUS executive alliance and joined the Trotskyist extremists to defeat their opponents by a vote of 272,450 to 233,790. Phillips, angered by Labor’s move, said: “If anyone offered me a Labor party card after this, I’d tear it up.”

While those Labor defectors and ultra-leftists exulted in their triumph, the defeated opposition voiced apprehension. The president of the Federation of Conservative Students said: “This policy will enable a general meeting of students to deny a platform to anyone they consider to be a racist”—and expressed the fear that Conservative leaders, including opposition leader Margaret Thatcher, would be banned on that ground. Trevor Phillips expressed the more general and by now familiar objection that the policy was an intolerant, undemocratic tactic, an obstructive one in the student campaign against racism. Nonetheless, he said, the NUS executive would enact the conference’s decisions, but emphasized that the “no-platform” policy was only one tactic in the NUS struggle against racism.

The executive was, however, able to ratify the constitutional amendment proposed in December authorizing the conference to impose sanctions on any constituent union that discriminated against any of its members. This would clearly prevent such flagrant abuses as severe restrictions on student groups like the Jewish societies. But the amendment still leaves room for other questionable uses of the “no-platform” policy. The invocation of the ban by the London School of Economics student union against Sir Keith Joseph, the Conservative spokesman on industry, when he refused to sign a statement opposing all forms of immigration control—a refusal deemed racist by the union—seemed just such a misuse. The LSE move provoked widespread protest, and led to further attempts to reverse or modify the “no-platform” policy, but to no avail.

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At this point, then, the full implications of the “no-platform” policy remain unclear. The attempt to apply the ban in 1977 to Jewish student societies seemed in December to have convinced the NUS as a body of the policy’s dangerous potential for promoting an unacceptable degree of intolerance. Yet apparently that lesson was not a long-lived or complete one; the “no-platform” policy has been reinstated, and only a limited amendment has been adopted. With attention once again directed primarily at Tory and ultra-right-wing groups this year, the NUS seems to feel, as it did in 1974, that the dangers do not outweigh the efficacy of the “no-platform” tactic in the fight against racism. Yet the NUS is clearly far from unified on its latest stance, and the only thing that is certain is that there will be further controversy.

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