Tel Aviv University campus.
(photo credit: PR)
To describe the battle for Israel on campus as an increasingly difficult task would be an understatement. We spent nearly three years advocating for Israel on campuses across the UK – and we understand how difficult it can be for an undergraduate student to freely profess pro-Israel views. We were personally subjected to lengthy abuse over the years – we withstood the threatening spectacles and the annual hysteria of Israel Apartheid Week. We had our talks shut down by skeptical union authorities – or if we managed to host them, they were disrupted by those who seemingly dedicate their professional lives to pro-Palestinian activism.
Yet in spite of all our experiences, we were astounded by the news in January that a talk delivered by Ami Ayalon – the former head of the Shin Bet (Israeli Security Agency) – was physically attacked by a mob of violent extremists pounding the windows of a lecture hall at King’s College London. The scenes have been described plenty of times across the national media – but what struck us was the libelous allegations which fueled such physical violence. Ayalon was allegedly a “war criminal” – and war criminals were understandably not welcome at King’s College London (a declaration which, incidentally, has been made plenty of times before regarding visiting Israelis).
It is of course important to protect the freedom of speech of any individual, no matter how repugnant or vile their views may be – yet naturally, it is incredibly difficult to defend the speech of a man whom so many would slanderously compare to a Milosevic or an Assad. We reckoned that taking the higher ground in student discourse would not merely entail a defense of the liberal values which form the heart of a university – after all, it is doubtful that any college would approve of an actual war criminal speaking on campus.
Instead, we were reminded of the principle which is too often ignored by those who lead the charge in presenting Israel’s case: the idea that it is supremely important to directly challenge the slanders and libels which nearly dominate the perception of Israel held by so many students.
We decided to act, and we created the Pinsker Centre for Zionist Education – a coalition of young people and students who seek to organize events on campus which will emphatically address the most sensitive topics of discussion surrounding the Arab-Israeli conflict.
Predictably, we launched with an event featuring the famed Colonel Richard Kemp, addressing what he termed “the libelous myths of Israeli war crimes.” The former commander of British forces in Afghanistan astonished an audience of over 180 people at University College London – who rewarded him with a standing ovation for demolishing the “body count morality” which determines Israeli “disproportionality” in military conflict.
By bringing in one of Britain’s leading experts to speak on this topic, during Israeli Apartheid Week, we arguably made an important statement.
Even for those who left Col.
Kemp’s talk in disagreement, there was an appreciation of the rare space for open discussion we had provided.
Handing out falafel balls and dancing to Mizrahi music in a baroque quadrangle is great fun – and it arguably shows a bright side to the modern culture of the Israeli state. But one has to recognize that such a method of campaigning in no way directly addresses the dangerous misperceptions which so many students hold. If someone believes Israel is a settler-colonial state which committed a bevy of serious war crimes in 2014, a glossy leaflet waxing lyrical on the miracles of Israeli technology is not going to be of much use. On the other side of the coin, handing out leaflets in support of the “two states for two peoples” paradigm is admirable – but how do these leaflets actually promote any concrete steps to materialize such a solution? On that note, it’s about time young people begin to act in an area where they can actually make a difference: the tone and character of academic discourse in Western universities.
Instead of shying away from the issues which might irreparably damage the case for Israel in the near future, we need to tackle them headon.
Students shouldn’t be shy of debating whether Zionism is racism or whether Israeli state structures resemble apartheid.
The only way to successfully present the case for Israel on campus is to replicate this recent success. In an increasingly censorious student culture, we need to create an open space for lively discussions with no holds barred. We need to invite Britain’s most eloquent defenders of the Israeli state to face any point of discussion – however critical or inaccurate – and open our minds to all sorts of arguments.
Instead of self-censorship or bowing to intimidation, we need to work with university authorities to demolish the censorious silliness of intellectual “safe spaces” while providing a genuine safe space – one free from physical violence. But most importantly, we need to end the simplistic presentation of a paradisaical Israel which avoids most discussion with the country’s detractors.
It’s not all doom and gloom for pro-Israel activism. We have immense resources and human capital at our disposal – and in time, we can surely shape the intellectual character of the discourse surrounding our cause.
Jonathan Hunter, Dan Gross and Elliot Miller are founders of the Pinsker Centre for Zionist Education.