Blurry Lines: Anti-Zionism and antisemitism on UK campuses

Free speech and open disagreement is something quintessentially British. It is sad to see these concepts eroding in the very institutions that have always proudly claimed to uphold them.

January 15, 2017 21:45
4 minute read.
AN ISRAELI FLAG stained with fake blood at a pro-Palestinian rally in London.

AN ISRAELI FLAG stained with fake blood at a pro-Palestinian rally in London.. (photo credit: REUTERS)


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As an Austrian who has worked in Israel, as well as for the UN on Palestinian rights, I always thought I was aware of the full spectrum of emotion, double-standards and the fine line between the criticism of Israel and antisemitism that usually accompany the debate on the Israel- Palestinian conflict. Yet it seems that I was wrong.

I recently moved to London to pursue postgraduate studies at University College London (UCL). Pro-Palestinian protests and demonstrations are certainly not unique to the UK and I can sympathize with them to the extent that they are conducted peacefully and call for the upholding of human rights, a stop to settlement construction or even a withdrawal from occupied territory. But these, some might say reasonable, demands, seem to be far outside the scope of campus protests.

When I wanted to attend a presentation by Hen Mazzig, a former IDF soldier who during his service had been responsible for humanitarian affairs in the West Bank, I didn’t see banners calling for the end of occupation or the construction of settlements, nor did I hear calls for the end of human rights violations. The protesters demanded a Palestine “from the river to the sea,” implicitly denying any right of existence of the Jewish state. Later, a young woman proudly faced a camera demanding that Israel cannot be allowed to exist in the 21st century.

Protesters broke into the lecture room through the windows and two Jewish students were reportedly assaulted. 30 policemen were needed to restore order. A few weeks earlier, the same society organized a discussion with Israel’s ambassador who praised Israel for its high-tech innovation and LGBT community. A Jewish student sighed and asked: “This is all wonderful, but how does that help us not being harassed [on] campus?”

These are not isolated events. Earlier last year an anti-Israel mob smashed windows at King’s College London and assaulted the organizer of an event, as well as an Israeli peace activist and leftwing politician.

Campuses seem to no longer be safe spaces for Jewish students and even less so for Israeli citizens. While I can agree that former officials such as Hen Mazzig might constitute a legitimate target for a protest against IDF action or Israeli government policy, others seem to have become the subject of boycott simply because of their Israeli citizenship.

In the forum of a pro-Palestinian campus group people recently called for the boycott of a lecturer from Jerusalem’s Hebrew University for the sole reason of her nationality. The academic in question had never expressed any political statement and her research focuses on mental illness and intellectual disabilities.

Boycott calls like these blur the line between Israel criticism and outright antisemitism. What hurts most is that such actions constitute friendly fire: they hurt Israel’s liberal and critical academic voices, enhance siege mentality and drive voters into the arms of demagogues. British academics, on the other hand, try to avoid being in any way affiliated with Israel. One of my professors told me that she participated in a prestigious academic exchange program to Israel a few years ago, which included visits from left-wing think tanks to right-wing settler groups. She told me she rejects boycott calls and values her Israeli colleagues but spent a long time pondering whether to accept the invitation, fearing that the word “Israel” might taint her CV forever.

Unfortunately, this phenomenon is far from being limited to the capital. Only few months ago, Baroness Janet Royall, a Labor politician, published a report on antisemitic incidents Oxford University’s Labor Club. It is shocking that such antisemitic tendencies seem to have become acceptable at the country’s finest educational institutions.

These developments are deeply worrying. Not every criticism of Israel is antisemitism, nor is every accusation of antisemitism a “Zionist ploy.” But allegations have to be taken seriously and when Jewish students feel physically threatened, a red line has been crossed. Freedom of speech must allow for pro-Palestinian and pro-Israeli events on campus. The best-case scenario would be to combine them. How can progress ever be achieved if even the intellectual elite is not able to engage in dialogue? Boycott should never be a substitute for debate, especially since a foreign campus provides a neutral ground to engage with each other on a level playing field.

Several years ago, as a first-year student, I attended a guest lecture by the Israeli ambassador, this time in my hometown of Graz. In the very last row sat two young Muslim women of Palestinian descent. Before quietly leaving at the end of the talk one of them proudly stated: “I disagree with everything you just said.” Free speech and open disagreement is something quintessentially British. It is sad to see these concepts eroding in the very institutions that have always proudly claimed to uphold them.

The author studied international law in Graz and London. He clerked at the Israeli Supreme Court as a David Herzog scholar and worked as a trainee in the Austrian Trade Mission in Tel Aviv.

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