A few days ago, to the detriment of my undergraduate studies, I did something that Cambridge students ought never do — I wrote an article for Varsity, our student newspaper, about Priyamvada Gopal, the University’s Left-wing Professor of Postcolonial Studies.
She had insinuated that the former chair of the Cambridge history faculty, David Abulafia, was displaying bigotry towards the black historian David Olusoga, because he had said that the latter is “eloquent”. This mere compliment is apparently a dismissive sleight-of-hand when it is directed at a non-white person.
It was only the latest incident in the endless psychodrama of Professor Gopal’s Twitter feed, which far too often displays a refusal to engage seriously with ideological opponents and an irrepressible obsession with their ethnic identity. Whatever Prof Gopal’s competency as a literary scholar, Twitter seems to bring out the worst in her. Later she turned her attention to the article I wrote in defence of Prof Abulafia, in which I argued that Prof Gopal has a curious knack for undermining potentially reasonable arguments with spasms of foulness. She brings peoples’ ethnicity into the equation, and – when all else fails – claims a conspiracy is afoot among her opponents.
True to form, and presumably upon seeing my conspicuously Jewish name, she did what many on the Left, especially in academia, are wont to do. She composed a long rant, and peppered it with anti-Semitic tropes. These tropes were so conspicuous that the Justice Minister Lord Wolfson jokingly encouraged readers to play “trope bingo”.
Prof Gopal broadcast to her 80,000 followers that I, and another student with a typically Jewish name, had “hijack[ed]” Varsity to “launch both false stories and personal attacks” on her. But all conspiracies need a clear motivation, and she seemed to struggle to come up with one for ours. So she incongruously hypothesised that we were on the payroll of the billionaire entrepreneur Peter Thiel and suggested we were among his “good little soldiers”.
Then she speculated that we disliked her because she opposes the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism, a controversial topic of debate in Cambridge at present. She charged me and my colleague with having conducted “the perfect murder in some ways – target someone whose views on IHRA you don’t like, get access to ‘editing’ campus news & publishing it, write fake news report, then get another person to write vicious personal attack”.
It may surprise Prof Gopal to learn that, despite being a Jew, and a rather pro-Israel one at that, I am not a “vociferous campaigner” for the IHRA definition. In fact, I have been an outspoken critic of it on free speech grounds. Perhaps, once she is aware of this, she will revise her theory accordingly.
But all that is really beside the point. Even if I did support the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism, it still would not excuse her response to my article. It would still be pathetic for so eminent a scholar to claim that the criticism levelled against her – for her denigrating comments towards ethnic minorities who don’t toe her political line, for calling Hindus “sickos” – is borne of some murky and hidden agenda, rather than a genuine conviction that such comments are wrong.
The whole saga reflected a very troubling problem with some on the Left. Prof Gopal is but the latest self-avowed anti-racist to prove to be more than willing to make judgments about people – especially but by no means limited to Jews – seemingly based on their ethnic identity. It is an appalling double standard, though I despair of Prof Gopal seeing it as such.
Samuel Rubinstein is a columnist at Varsity, an independent newspaper for the University of Cambridge