Three Cambridge undergraduates at work on the University's newspaper, "Varsity Weekly", 23rd January 1933. Photo Credit: Fox Photos/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Professor Gopal has the Varsity blues

Fighting antisemitism is not a “conflict of interest”

Artillery Row

The irascible don first came to widespread attention in the heady days of summer 2020, after attracting a flurry of criticisms for tweeting “Abolish whiteness” and “White lives don’t matter… As white lives” following the much-debated display of a “White lives matter Burnley” banner during a Premier League football match.

Gopal’s latest spat followed an article published by the Cambridge student newspaper Varsity this Wednesday, in which student Samuel Rubinstein agreed with the University’s retired Chair of History David Abulafia that Gopal’s tweets were “a disgrace”. Rubinstein cited the infamous “white lives” remarks, along with her suggestion that western countries “block naturalisation for Hindus” who she branded “sickos”, and her comparison of Tony Sewell, the chair of the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities, to Joseph Goebbels.

While it is understandable that facing criticism from students can be mightily uncomfortable for a teacher, students are just as entitled to express their feelings as Gopal is entitled to rant on Twitter, especially regarding academics who seem all too eager to inhabit the public sphere.

Antisemitic incidents escalated worldwide in frequency and intensity

In reaction to Mr Rubinstein’s remarkably tame article, naturally branded a “hatchet job” employong ”beloved white supremacist tropes” by Gopal, the 54-year old professor decided to once again air a reaction in which she perpetuated several bizarre and unfair ideas.

Firstly, Gopal implied that student journalists at Varsity had “vociferously lobbied for” introducing the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition of antisemitism (IHRA) on campus and that this was hypocritical as the campaign supported defending free speech while its proponents were happy for her freedom of speech to be compromised.

Gopal then implied that the campaign supported restricting free speech that criticises “forms of militarised ethnonationalism” branding Rubinstein’s alleged support for IHRA as a “conflict of interest”. It is immediately concerning that one of Gopal’s go-to critiques was to link this student with some kind of anti-free speech conspiracy due to their apparent support for IHRA, when it is not clear whatsoever from their article that Rubinstein’s dislike of her Twitter posts is a call for censorship.

Moreover, Gopal’s characterisation of the IHRA definition is dangerously flawed. The definition is not some right-wing conspiracy to silence political opponents, but a non-partisan attempt to outline and explain the multi-headed Hydra of anti-Jewish hatred as it continues to manifest itself. The definition outlines things such as holding Israel to unfair double standards or using antisemitic tropes to characterise Zionism as antisemitic. IHRA does not call for silencing criticism of the Israeli state, as Gopal and many other critics routinely argue. 

Even the staunchly anti-Zionist Palestine Solidarity Campaign activist group has admitted that the IHRA definition is not legally binding, and that “there is no known case of any university directly citing the IHRA definition to close down an event that is legitimately critical of Israel” in their “Legal Guide” for Student Activists. 

During Israel’s war with Gaza last year antisemitic incidents escalated worldwide in frequency and intensity and were not limited to attacks on Jewish buildings, attacks on Jewish individuals, defacement of synagogues and vandalism. Many attackers made it clear that they were motivated by the belief that Jews were responsible for the conflict, as they did once again during last year’s Israel-Gaza war and it is for this reason among others that the IHRA definition is needed more than ever.

If Gopal seriously believes that simply agreeing with the IHRA definition (a view taken by which describes thousands of British Jewish students of all political stripes) represents a “conflict of interest” then she is teetering into mightily insensitive territory, especially for someone whose entire Twitter persona revolves around a holier-than-thou approach to the welfare of ethnic minorities. 

Professor Gopal is just one example of a wider problem

If anything, Gopal would benefit from a robust reading of the definition, given that her implication that Jewish journalists (who she seems to lump in with “elite rightwing kids”) criticising her actions are simply stooges pushing the IHRA definition, she is employing the same lazy double-loyalty tropes aimed at Jewish populations for the purpose of hatred.  

It is doubly depressing that Gopal’s misplaced outrage accompanied this week’s revelation by the Jewish Chronicle that a senior education lecturer at Glasgow University Dr Muir Houston referred to a Jewish student as “the Lobby”. His remarks came after the student requested a comment from Dr Muir on the case of David Miller, a sociology professor who had been suspended by the University of Bristol for calling the Jewish society “pawns” of a “foreign regime”, and whom Dr Muir had signed a petition in support of. It is clear that many swathes of British academia are blinkered when it comes to acknowledging antisemitism, and Professor Gopal is just one example of a wider problem.

As Harvard literature professor Ruth Wisse highlighted in a 2014 discussion following that summer’s eruption of conflict in Israel that spilled over into frequent attacks on disapora Jews, “Antisemitism has nothing to do with Jews. It misdirects attention to the Jews…The carriers of antisemitism are antisemites. They are the problem. It is problematic for them because they really are infected by this disease but they don’t think they’re its casualties so they’re in no hurry to seek help.”

While Dr Gopal is more than entitled to her own opinions, if a senior academic, with a Twitter following of nearly 80,000 people – larger than the population of plenty of British towns – is happy to use her platform to make several baseless and damaging accusations against two Jewish student journalists, she must be mature enough to understand that she will face criticism in return.

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