Here and there: Okay to be Jewish – but don’t mention Israel!

Over the years, there is no doubt that Zionism and Israel have become unacceptable words especially on campuses worldwide.

Anti-Israel demonstrators march behind a banner of the BDS organization in Marseille, June 13. (photo credit: GEORGES ROBERT / AFP)
Anti-Israel demonstrators march behind a banner of the BDS organization in Marseille, June 13.
(photo credit: GEORGES ROBERT / AFP)
While fully aware of the many challenges facing Jewish students on campus today, I could not have imagined that we have now reached the stage where a Jewish society (J-socs as they are called in the United Kingdom) believes that mentioning Israel is something simply not to be done within the confines of a Jewish society.
This was the experience of Rabbi Shmuley Boteach – the charismatic rabbi who created the L’Chaim Society at Oxford University and served at its helm from 1988 to 1999. The L’Chaim Society became the second largest society ever to have operated at Oxford University, attracting some 5,000 students, including non- Jews. It was also a period when Jewish students were prepared to stand up and proudly be counted in support of Israel. This is something I was personally aware of as I served, for part of this time, as the chair of the Hillel Foundation working closely with the UK’s Union of Jewish Students. In this capacity I was invited to Oxford to address the L’Chaim Society, where I met the man himself – an individual who thinks out of the box, as was proven by the outstanding success of this society.
How disturbing it was, then, to read of Boteach’s recent visit to the Jewish society at King’s College London. His presentation was interrupted several times, because he spoke about Israel.
Apparently, he was told by the society’s president that the King’s College J-soc is not the place to speak about political matters, of which Israel is considered one. Boteach wrote of this experience in a recent edition of The Jerusalem Post, following which a letter appeared in its columns from a student present on the day Boteach spoke. In attempting to justify why Israel is not a topic for discussion at the Jewish society he wrote: “There is a prevailing consensus among British Jewish students (even Zionist ones) that using J-socs as a platform for Israel advocacy, and especially Israel advocacy of the sort that Boteach performs, is wrong.” The writer, who states he is a proud Zionist and observant Jew, claims that advocating for Israel runs the risk of the J-soc being banned from the campus.
OVER THE years, there is no doubt that Zionism and Israel have become unacceptable terms, especially on campuses worldwide. A climate has developed where the news and social media projection of Israel is distorted at best and contains untruths at worst. In addition, we see how Jewish academics (some Israelis, like Ilan Pappe, who today teaches at the University of Exeter in the UK, originally lectured at Israeli universities) are among others who are in the forefront at the now annual Israel Apartheid Week.
Back in April 2014, the American publication Forward ran an article titled “Does Israel advocacy belong on British campuses?” It spoke of the UJS conference of November 2013, where the stated policy of the union was to defend Israel’s right to exist and fight BDS, regardless of whether individual members do or do not support the Israeli government.
Clearly the topic of Israel was expected to be high on the J-soc agenda.
This article embraced interviews with UJS activists such as Gabriel Webber – a member of Brighton & Sussex J-soc – who had proposed a motion (which failed) at the November UJS conference that called for separation between Israel advocacy and the activities of J-socs. It stated that Jewish students choose to go to a J-soc to meet other Jewish students and eat Jewish food – “They don’t want to wave flags and engage in the fight against BDS.”
Conversely, the then-chairman of the UJS national council, Eyal Asian-Levy, noted that the J-socs are among the few places where it is OK to be a Zionist.
Drawing a line between Israel and Judaism would cement the belief of those who state Israel is taboo and encourage the BDS movement. UJS president Joe Tarsh argued that to remove Israel from the J-soc agenda might attract those who do not support the conventional Israel narrative and, as a result, exclude students whose Zionism is inseparable from their Judaism. In other words, two years ago, the leadership of UJS felt advocacy for Israel was of paramount importance for all J-socs.
Fast forward to December 1, 2015 – the UJS web put out a special bulletin on Boteach’s “talk that wasn’t.” Not mentioning him by name but rather referring to “a recent speaker’s visit to King’s College,” it endeavored to clarify UJS’s policy on advocating for Israel. It stated that while past UJS conferences have come out in favor of supporting Israel – supporting “two states for two peoples,” combating both BDS and attempts to delegitimize Israel – at the same time UJS recognizes that some J-socs will decide to “leave the politics surrounding Israel outside of its remit.” This is dealt with often by having a separate society (an Israel society) as well as a J-soc at some campuses. The statement emphasizes the importance of ensuring that the Jewish student who is not connected to Israel (and the assumption is that he does not wish to be connected) feels comfortable. The conclusion, therefore, is that it is in order for a J-soc to decide that Israel is off the agenda.
WHERE IS the Jewish student who is prepared to stand up and be counted? What has happened that has turned an increasing number of Jewish students away from advocating for Israel? There are many factors. Perhaps the most relevant is that their knowledge of Israel and its history is somewhat lacking.
This, coupled with the enormous investment of Arab countries in campuses worldwide, has created a situation where the Arab student feels at home, while his Jewish counterpart is overwhelmed with the anti-Israel/anti-Zionist/ anti-Semitic bombardment thrown at him. For the vast majority of Jewish students at UK universities today (and this would appear to be the feelings of our own grandchildren in the UK) the priority is to succeed in their studies and have a good time. This definitely does not include advocacy for Israel in the ever-growing, hostile, pro-Palestinian environment to be found on campuses worldwide.
There can be no doubt that there is a serious deficit of Jewish and Israel literacy for the average Jewish student entering university today. To what extent this situation can be rectified remains to be seen. For sure the highly successful Birthright program bringing young people to Israel for a 10-day visit is a start. The Israeli government and Jewish Agency-sponsored Masa gap year program offers an Israel experience that should make a difference. The hope is that, as a result of participation in these schemes, a realization will evolve that there is no separation between Judaism and Israel, but rather they are part of the same historic reality.
There is much that remains to be done.
The focus must be an intensive increase in a meaningful support of our students.
This is about our tomorrow – can there be anything of greater importance?
The writer is co-chairperson of ESRA, which promotes integration into Israeli Society. She is also active in public affairs.