British Jewish students attempt to silence my mention of Israel

This week, for the first time in my life I encountered a form of censorship in the most unlikely of all places: when I spoke to the Jewish Society at King’s College, London.

Tower Bridge and the River Thames, London (photo credit: REUTERS)
Tower Bridge and the River Thames, London
(photo credit: REUTERS)
I lived in the UK as Rabbi to the students of Oxford University for over eleven years. I participated in countless debates on Israel with some of the country’s most rabid opponents. When I was back in England this week for a debate at the Oxford Union, the memory of my previous appearance at the debating chamber was still fresh in my mind – when last year, opponents went as far to accuse Israel of being a Nazi state. This week, I also spent time speaking to British media, defending Israel in anticipation of the publication of my new book, The Israel Warrior’s Handbook.
But for all that, they never, in all these years, censored me or tried to limit my responses to their hostile questioning about the Jewish State. In all my debates on Israel at the Oxford Union spanning 25 years, I have never once been barred from responding to attacks on the Jewish state.
Yet this week, for the first time in my life - having spoken at Universities across the world - I encountered a form of censorship in the most unlikely of all places: when I spoke to the Jewish Society at King’s College, London.
European Jews developed a survival instinct over centuries of persecution. They lie low, avoid public displays and use quiet diplomacy to defend themselves and Israel. British Jews have pursued this approach with a high degree of success in the last half century. However, on my current visit to England I detect a shift away from associating with Israel in the way I was accustomed to as founder and head of the Oxford L’Chaim Society.
What finally shook much of my confidence in British Jewry was my experience where I was invited to address the Jewish Society at Kings. In the course of the discussion, I focused my remarks on Israeli democracy and the blessing it can be to the innocent Arab citizens of Israel’s autocratic Arab neighbors. Israel is the great hope for the spread of human rights throughout the Middle East.
As I spoke, I could see my hosts growing restless and the discomfiture on their faces surprised me. I was in for a bigger shock, however, when my hosts essentially stopped me in the middle of my remarks. I am always happy to respond to questions, friendly or hostile, but I have rarely been interrupted so abruptly by people who invited me to speak.
When I asked for an explanation, I was told by the president of the organization, a young man wearing a yarmulke, that the Jewish Society has a policy against speaking about Israel. The group, he said was non-political and focused on “Jewish subjects.”
I was dumbfounded. Was Israel not a Jewish subject? It was as if Israel had become the Voldemort of nations, the country that dare not be named.
I asked if I should speak about lox and bagels, klezmer music or Manischewitz wine. My sarcasm seemed to go right over my hosts’ heads. For them, Israel and Judaism seemed unrelated. I asked if the murder of Israeli citizens in countless terror attacks over the past month was likewise a “political issue,” or one of human rights. I was told by one of the students that these things needs not be put in boxes. Worse, I sensed that these students, who had enough pride in their heritage, and commitment to their faith, to wear their yarmulkes in public, had become so cowed by the omnipresent hostility and bullying on and off British campuses that they were afraid to engage in a dialogue about Israel.
Other students agreed with my assessment. An American female student studying in Britain and who attended my talk commented on Facebook: ''I was so moved by your words and completely fed up with the British system Kings has.'' She elaborated that Jewish students were ''bullied by a 'non biased student activities board' consisting of ''BDS members.'' Another Kings student commented on my page, expressing his dismay that JSoc ''were willing to make [the] whole talk awkward and adversarial just because of this rule.'' He added that the policy of not being allowed to discuss Israel was '”baffling.” He also noted with embarrassment the way I was treated and repeatedly interrupted - ''even insulted'' as he put it - when I tried to answer questions about Israel.
I was especially shocked given my experience at Oxford where Jewish students encountered no shortage of hostility yet bravely and unashamedly stood up for Israel on a constant basis. Those who served as presidents of the pro-Israel organization I started, including Ron Dermer, Israel’s current ambassador to the United States, and New Jersey Senator Cory Booker, were unafraid to stand up for the sole democracy in the Middle East.
What happened? Like the Dark Lord who dare not be named, the country that cannot be named has become a pariah and symbol of oppression to Europeans who embrace a shallow “underdogma,” determining right and wrong based simply on whoever appears to be the weaker party. London has become a ground zero for the anti-Semitic boycott, divestment and sanctions campaign, which has found especially fertile ground on England’s college campuses.
Instead of being properly educated about the Jewish homeland, and trained to advocate on Israel’s behalf, too many young British Jews have instead assimilated the “Sha-Shtill” approach of prior generations. Don’t rock the boat. Don’t offend people who hate Israel.
This is certainly not true of all British students. A great many, on campuses throughout the UK, are courageous advocates for Israel, like a small group of Jewish students at Oxford who always attend my debates at the Union. But it was confirmed to me, after the shocking attempt to censor any mention of Israel at the Jewish society, that this is a growing trend among Jewish groups on campus throughout the UK.
I understand what British Jews are up against, having run a society of thousands of students at Oxford University, hosted five leaders there who served as Israel’s prime minister, and debated and defended Israel many times since then at the Oxford Union and beyond.
I spent four days last week doing interviews with the British media where I encountered significant hostility. A Russia Today TV host quoted an Israeli politician whom, he said, had made disgusting comments about Arabs that were as bad as anything said about Israel by their neighbors. I condemned the comments and said that Israel is a country of laws, not rhetoric, and freedom of speech gives Israelis the right to say all sorts of things, but the Supreme Court, the Knesset and the free press prevent extreme statements, however unacceptable and objectionable, from ever becoming policy. By contrast, when Hamas threatens Jewish lives they have unfettered power to turn their words into murderous deeds. Their genocidal rhetoric is not just words. It’s their actual charter. When Khameini threatens Israel with a second holocaust, his words are the law. The host then quoted the disgusting charge that Israel is like the Nazis.
And on it goes in Britain these days.
But what made the hostile interviews tolerable was that I was given an opportunity to make my case. This is also the saving grace of the Oxford debates. Propositions regarding Israel, and the audiences, may be hostile, but pro-Israel voices are not silenced. It is even possible to win a debate, as Alan Dershowitz did recently.
But when Jewish students ban discussion of the Jewish state, even if they have the best of intentions in staying quiet, even if they seek not of ‘offend,’ they denigrate the Jewish state and Jewish life.
It’s time to stand up to the bullies.
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, “America’s Rabbi,” is the international best-selling author of 30 books, winner of The London Times Preacher of the Year Competition, and recipient of the American Jewish Press Association’s Highest Award for Excellence in Commentary. He will shortly publish “The Israel Warrior’s Handbook.”