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Taking action against antisemitism will ultimately be for the many, not the few

The party's conference showed there's still a long way to go.

Only 15 months after Labour’s Chakrabarti inquiry, a response to accusations of institutional apathy to antisemitism, Labour is once again having to deny that it is now the ‘nasty party’ when it comes to Jews.

So what happened? There were anecdotal incidents aplenty. For example, John Mann MP, chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group Against Antisemitism, was accosted by a party member alleging Mann was an agent of MI5 because he had tried to tackle the “antisemitism nonsense”. There were calls to ban the affiliated Jewish Labour Movement and suggestions its officers colluded with right-wing media. On at least two occasions, it was proposed that debate should occur on whether the Holocaust happened. Meanwhile in the conference surroundings, a Marxist newspaper was handed out which quoted Reinhard Heydrich, using the top Nazi official as a supposedly reliable source of information about the Holocaust. To compound all of this, ex-London Mayor Ken Livingstone and current trade union boss Len McCluskey were amongst those suggesting accusations of antisemitism were overstated or weaponised to attack the party leadership. The list does not end there.

The conference passed a motion to strengthen the party rules and enable more effective action against antisemitism and other forms of prejudice. But, in truth, what started as a sore has become a major infection and without clearer, more direct condemnation of this type of language, there is little chance of proper healing.

Understanding the problem requires some context and analysis. Racism tends to treat its victims as primitive, lowly, inhumane or worthless; however, antisemitism portrays Jews as cunning, manipulative, and all-powerful liars. For some on the left, racism is purely structural, built into society through its systems, be it in housing, education or any other sectors "the system" discriminates. When Jews, a well-integrated community, are stereotyped as wealthy, successful and so on, those that think racism is structural believe Jews are not able to be victims of racism. Worse, the Jews are thought by some of these people to be manipulating the various systems to persecute others. Presumably, those people also think the protocols of the elders of zion, the notorious antisemitic forgery about a Jewish conspiracy controlling banks, media and so on, wasn’t antisemitic.

The conspiracy theory discourse has been cross-pollinated from the far-right to elements of the left. It is not uncommon to see talk of Jewish and right-wing media plotting, and suggestions of Jewish and Nazi collaboration during the second world war. Of course, any discussion of the Holocaust should start and end with the fact that six million Jews and others were murdered by the Nazis. For the record, the one document cited by conspiracists online is universally agreed by history experts to have been a specific tool which aided the Nazis and related to currency export matters – but explaining that isn’t quite as catchy as saying Hitler supported Zionism.

Regrettably, and judging by some of the behaviour at Labour’s annual conference, rather than be concerned about antisemitism, some have embraced the issue as a partisan challenge or some kind of game seen through the prism of the different "sides" of the Israel-Palestine conflict. The aim of the game is to get one over your opponent, to prove that antisemitism doesn’t exist, to show that it’s all really about what Israel is doing, and when you "win" you get a rush: it’s emotionally uplifting. What it results in, however, is what one visibly Jewish man at the conference experienced: walking by some people leafletting against the aforementioned rule change, he found they turned their backs on him as he passed. This is clear racial and religious profiling and discrimination.

In such a polarised, angry environment, allegations of antisemitism aren’t given the serious consideration they deserve. Those that perceive themselves as victims are not offered the sensitivity and respect they should have. That is a failure to abide by the terms of the Chakrabarti report and that is a problem for the party. Put simply, it needs to abide by its own Terms of Service.

So where does Labour go from here? The starting point has to be a change to the norms of the discourse in the party. Suggestions that antisemitism has been weaponised or doesn’t exist should be angrily and vocally protested from all quarters in the party, and specifically by the shadow cabinet. Explanations should be offered to the membership about the dangers of Holocaust revisionism and, as above, debate should begin and end with the indisputable fact that it happened and that 6 million Jews and others were murdered. Finally, the terms of Labour’s own Chakrabarti inquiry should be applied for debate of the Middle East conflict. Civil, rational, calm and informed debate is at risk of being eroded; angry, racist discourse will be all that is left. Antisemitism on the left is having an impact on the Jewish community, but failing to change the discourse surrounding it will have an impact on our whole political debate. Taking action against antisemitism will ultimately be for the many, not the few.

Danny Stone MBE is the director of the Antisemitism Policy Trust.

The University Challenge final. Photo: BBC iPlayer
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Why University Challenge is deliberately asking more questions about women

Question setters and contestants on how the show finally began to gender-balance its questions – and whether it’s now harder as a result.

University Challenge has long had a gender problem. When the show first started airing in 1962, some Oxbridge colleges were still refusing to admit women as undergraduates; in the decades since, women have been consistently outnumbered by men, with all-male teams still a regular occurrence. Those women that did appear were all too regularly criticised and objectified in equal measure by audiences: notable contestants like Hannah Rose Woods, Emma Johnson, Samantha Buzzard and Sophie Rudd have experienced intense media scrutiny and criticised the sexism of the show and audiences. In recent years, sexism rows have dogged the show.

How satisfying, then, to see two women carrying their teams in last night’s final: Rosie McKeown for winners St John’s, Cambridge, and Leonie Woodland for runners-up Merton, Oxford. Both secured the majority of points for their teams – McKeown with visible delight, Woodland looking unsure even as she delivered correct answer after correct answer.

But there is another site of sexism on University Challenge, one that earns less column inches: the questions. Drawing on all areas of history, science, language, economics and culture, the questions often concern notable thinkers, artists, scientists, and sportspeople. Of course, our society’s patriarchal hierarchies of achievement have meant that the subjects of these questions are mostly men. General knowledge is, after all, a boys’ club.

Over the course of this 2017-8 series, though, I noticed a shift. More women than ever seemed to be making their way into the questions, at times with deliberate reference to the inherent sexism of their lack of cultural prominence. On 5 February, there was a picture round devoted to female composers, with contestents asked to identify Clara Schumann, Ethel Smyth, Rachel Portman and Bjork from photographs, who, Paxman explained, are all “women that are now listed in the EdExcel A Level music syllabus after the student Jessy McCabe petitioned the exam board in 2015.” Episodes have included bonus rounds on “prominent women” (the writer Lydia Davis, the pilot Lydia Litvyak, and the golfer Lydia Ko), “women born in the 1870s and 80s” (Rosa Luxemburg, Elizabeth Arden and Vanessa Bell), and the female philosophers Mary Midgely, Philippa Foot and Iris Murdoch.

Elsewhere, questions raise a knowing eyebrow at the patriarchal assumptions behind so much of intellectual endeavour. A music round on famous rock bands quoted the music critic Kelefa Sanneh’s definition “rockism”: “the belief that white macho guitar music is superior to all other forms of popular music”. Another, on opera, quoted Catherine Clement’s Opera, Or The Undoing of Women, which explores how traditional opera plots frequently feature “the infinitely repetitive spectacle of a woman who dies”. “Your music bonuses are three such operas,” Paxman said dryly, to audience laughter.

University Challenge’s questions editor Thomas Benson confirms that there has been a deliberate attempt to redress a gender imbalance in the quiz. “About three years ago, a viewer wrote in to point out that a recent edition of the programme had contained very few questions on women,” he explains. “We agreed and decided to do something about it.”

Last night’s final included a picture round on artists with works concerning motherhood (Mary Casatt, Lousie Bourgeois, Leanora Carrington and Frida Kahlo) and a music round on Marin Alsop, the first woman to ever conduct the Last Night of the Proms, as well as sets of bonuses on the American writer Willa Kather and Byzantine historian and princess Anna Komnene.

Former winner Hannah Rose Woods is delighted by the increase in such questions. “I think it’s fantastic!” she tells me. “These things are really important in changing people’s perceptions about women in the past, and the way women’s contributions to science and the arts have often been written out of history. We need to keep challenging the idea of the White Male Canon.”

Last night’s winner Rosie McKeown says that while she didn’t necessarily notice a deliberate attempt to gender balance the questions, she was “very pleased with the quality of those questions that did come up”.

“Although it wasn’t in one of our matches,” she tells me, “I thought the picture round on female composers was especially good for highlighting women’s achievements.”

For all the enthusiasm for these questions, in the studio they’re often met with blank stares. While University Challenge questions are broad and imaginatively posed, there are some reliable revision topics and techniques: from Nobel laureates and the years of their wins to identifying famous paintings and classical music excerpts. McKeown says she has been a religious viewer of the show since she was 11 years old, and admits to watching reruns of the show to prepare. Shift the kinds of answers you might be looking for, and teams may struggle.

“Do we know any female British composers?” Leonie Woodland said weakly, looking at a picture of Ethel Smyth. Trying to come up with a female Muslim Nobel laureate, one contestant desperately suggested Aung San Suu Kyi. Asked to provide a first name linking an American concert pianist with the sister of Lazarus one male contestant still buzzed in with “Daniel”.

“Even if we didn’t always get them right,” McKeown tells me, citing that round on female philosophers, which saw them pass on every question, as an example, “it was great to see so many important female figures represented.”

“I don't think the questions about women necessarily affected our performance, but it’s certainly a very good thing that they were there and I hope that they’ll arouse people’s interest in the women featured and in their achievements.”

Benson believes that it hasn’t had a significant effect on performance. “The great majority of the questions that feature women are no different to any others, in that they sit firmly within the realm of standard academic general knowledge.”

He notes that they often refer to historical and background details, citing sets of bonuses on Canadian novelist Ruth Ozeki and British physicist Hertha Ayrton, which both teams answered correctly in full. “Though Ozeki and Ayrton may not be household names, the questions are definitely answerable and deal with central themes in their work and achievements.”

It’s easy to brush off the significance of a fairly geeky Monday night BBC quiz show, but University Challenge still regularly pulls in three million viewers. In any case, a show like University Challenge has a cultural significance that outweighs its viewing figures. It helps to shape our understanding of which subjects are intellectual or important, which are history’s most notable achievements, and who is worth learning about. To ignore questions of identity is to risk intellectual laziness, relying on tired ideas of canonical figures – or worse, supremacist propaganda, privileging the achievements of white men over all others.

Quite aside from making for less predictable and more enjoyable television, by including questions on the likes of Stevie Smith, Nella Larsen, Gertrude Stein, Myra Hess, Margaret Mead, and Beryl Bainbridge, University Challenge can diversify the mental encyclopaedias of its viewers, be it a tweed-wearing 60-year-old in Leamington Spa or an 11-year-old like Rosie McKeown with her own dreams of one day competing. It has a responsibility to do so.

Anna Leszkiewicz is the New Statesman's deputy culture editor.