Marika Sherwood’s speech was deeply offensive and frighteningly anti-semitic

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As the British Jewish community gathers in Parliament Square to protest against anti-Semitism, Avital Carno responds to Marika Sherwood’s ‘On Israel’s Occupation of Palestine’ speech to Bristol Friends of Palestine, which 'encapsulates the growing anti-Semitism of the Left'.

On Friday the 16th March, the University of Bristol Friends of Palestine Society invited a woman called Marika Sherwood to speak. A quick Google search is enough to prove that Sherwood is, to put it mildly, a controversial figure. In September 2017, Sherwood intended to give a talk at Manchester University entitled ‘You’re doing to Palestinians what the Nazis did to me’ – a title which was censored by the university, after concerns that it breached the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s definition of anti-Semitism. As a proudly Jewish student, Sherwood’s speech at Bristol left me feeling frightened, alienated and deeply offended, and proved exactly why the concern at Manchester was warranted.

The title of Sherman’s talk was ‘Holocaust Survivor Speaks: On Israel’s Occupation of Palestine’. It is difficult to define exactly who can be labelled as a ‘Holocaust Survivor’, and I am fully aware that this is a topic of much debate. However, many students (including my housemates) assumed that Sherwood’s identification as a Holocaust survivor implied that she had survived the Nazi concentration camps, camps which were set up specifically to carry out the mass-murder of Jews and other minorities.

'Marika Sherwood is not a survivor of the concentration camps, nor does she claim to be one'

I think it’s really important to stress that Marika Sherwood is not a survivor of the concentration camps, nor does she claim to be one. While Sherman, born in 1937, survived the Budapest ghetto, she described herself during the talk as ‘very unhappy to leave Hungary’ for Australia. Sherwood also claimed that before getting a job in New Guinea, she ‘knew nothing about racism’. Considering that the Holocaust was a racially motivated genocide, I find it confusing that Sherwood can identify herself as a 'Holocaust survivor' while simultaneously claiming to have known nothing about racism until three years post-Holocaust. Moreover, during a talk marketed as a 'Holocaust Survivor Speaks', Sherwood barely mentioned her experiences in the Budapest ghetto. Instead, she used the label of Holocaust survivor to indulge, with immunity, in over an hour of blatant, outrageously offensive anti-Semitism.

Sherwood’s anti-Semitism was visible before she even began to speak – she delivered her talk wearing a scarf decorated with Yasser Arafat’s face. It would be difficult to describe Arafat as racially or religiously tolerant: in a speech to diplomats at Stockholm, Arafat, as quoted in the Jerusalem Post, announced his intention to ‘make life unbearable for Jews by psychological warfare and population explosion […] I have no use for Jews. They are and remain Jews’. In his speech ‘The Impending Total Collapse of Israel’, Arafat also insisted that ‘we will not bend or fail until the blood of every last Jew from the youngest child to the oldest elder is spilt to redeem our land’.

'As a proudly Jewish student, Sherwood’s speech at Bristol left me feeling frightened, alienated and deeply offended'

In a statement posted to the event and to their society's Facebook page, Friends of Palestine claim that their 'aims are always to create a safe space for all'. However, while listening to Sherwood's speech I felt that I was being racially and religiously attacked. Sherwood played on popular anti-Semitic tropes and conspiracy theories, such as the (false) claim that the Rothschilds, a family of prominent Jewish bankers, bribed the British government. Sherman asks, 'what was going on between the government and Rothschild? And what I found in trying to research the Balfour Declaration is that Balfour was in touch with the Rothschilds. Now what was that about? What was that about?'

In my opinion, the most disturbing part of the event was the questions that followed. A volunteer at the Bristol Palestine Museum stood up and asked 'why aren't more Jewish people in this country now, standing up for Palestinian freedom and rights and liberation, and the United States as well?' I was shocked that this was considered an acceptable question to ask. Not all Jews are Israelis, and not all Israelis are Jews. Zionism is not a synonym for Judaism, and Jews are in no way more responsible than any other foreign racial or religious group for a political situation outside of the country where they live, work, vote and pay taxes.

'Considering that the Holocaust was a racially motivated genocide, I find it confusing that Sherwood can identify herself as a 'Holocaust survivor while simultaneously claiming to have known nothing about racism until three years post-Holocaust'

Many other Bristol students had similar reactions to my own. Jamie Gance, a fourth-year Mechanical Engineering student, found it ‘worrying’ that Sherwood was ‘given the platform to air anti-Semitic tropes, and for there to have been little opposition to what was said’. Gance also told me that several days after the talk, he ‘overheard two men discussing Jewish conspiracy theories in the supermarket’. Gance acknowledged that while there was no definite link between the the two instances, it made him worry ‘whether such anti-Semitic views are slowly creeping back into popular ideology’.

Rob Angel, the current President of Bristol University Israel/ Palestine Discussion group, felt ‘personally disappointed at both the speaker chosen and the manner in which the event was conducted’. Angel, a strong believer in ‘discussion and dialogue’ as ‘the way forward to peace’, was unsure ‘what exactly the aim of the event was when inviting a speaker who openly holds anti-Semitic views’.

I am a passionate Zionist , and I do not believe that being a Zionist and being pro-Palestinian are in any way mutually exclusive. I do, of course, support the Palestinian right to self-determination, and I am willing and open to engage in respectful political discussions. However, Sherwood's talk was not only one-sided, it extended beyond the realm of politics and into prejudice. The talk has greatly discouraged me from attending future Friends of Palestine events, as I am not willingly to endure racial abuse, and I do not believe that I should be. I am disappointed and deeply saddened by this conflation of Zionism and Judaism, and the anti-Semitism which it has both incited and exposed.

(Featured image: Unsplash / Rob Bye)


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