It’s time to end this fictional separation between ‘Jewishness’ and Israel

Brothers and sisters, Jews don’t create anti-Semitism – hate creates anti-Semitism.

Des militants du BDS en action (photo credit: REUTERS)
Des militants du BDS en action
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The ongoing debate regarding Britain’s Jewish student politics re-emerged on Thursday with a rather controversial episode at King’s College London’s Jewish society. After hosting Rabbi Shmuley Boteach at their campus, the society allegedly vetoed certain questions on the basis that they were “too political” for a religious student group.
University Jewish Societies (JSocs) have long catered to the cultural and religious needs of Jewish students from across the UK with social events and group discussions – but all too often they adhere to whimsical constitutions which purposefully restrict aspects of any conversation relating to Israel. Indeed, according to several witnesses – as well as Rabbi Boteach himself– it has long been KCL JSoc’s policy to prevent overtly “political” discussion of Israel at its events.
At a time when viciously authoritarian student unions try to clamp down on all open discussion of Israel, it is somewhat ironic that a Jewish Society would unwittingly assist in the efforts that make Jewish political life nearly impossible on many British campuses. The society has the best of intentions – we know that its leadership and membership, who we admire, genuinely care for the welfare of the State of Israel. Yet when the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement seeks to deny complete freedom of expression, we worry that anti-Zionists can seemingly count on this outdated policy in order to entrench their false narrative.
Time and again, attempts are made to separate “Israel” from what is considered “Jewishness.”
Supposedly, any mildly controversial discussion of the history or political culture of the “Jewish state” is not sufficiently relevant to the experience of Judaism. In this context, it is unfortunate that so many JSocs officially shy away from standing up for the country where half the world’s Jews live.
Perversely, a minority have even argued that standing up for Israel emboldens the sort of anti-Semitism which continues to afflict British campuses. Two years ago, one student coalition even attempted to pass a motion at the Union of Jewish Students which sought to ban all discussion of Israel across all the UK’s Jewish Societies. The motion proposed went as far to declare that “having JSocs in charge of Israel campaigns creates antisemitism.”
Brothers and sisters, Jews don’t create anti-Semitism – hate creates anti-Semitism.
To imply that the specific behavior of Jewish students provokes anti-Semitism is to blame the victim. If anti-Semites have a problem with a rabbi speaking about the Jewish state on campus, then let them sulk.
But the more reasonable argument innocently accepted by so many supposes that any discussion of Israel isolates (and even intimidates) Jewish students who don’t subscribe to the so-called Zionist narrative. This overly protective logic, grounded in the “safe space” culture, would not hold in any other student society. Surely there are people who might have their sensibilities offended by all manner of subjects? Should a Christian Society refuse to discuss “the Trinity” on the basis that it might isolate its Unitarian members? Of course not. So why can’t a Jewish Society discuss the politics of Israel? The Jewish state – whether one believes in it or not – is an integral part of modern Jewish consciousness and the telos of Jewish history.
It is fallacious to deny that the State of Israel or Zionism is not a sufficiently relevant “Jewish subject” for a Jewish Society. Even Jewish anti-Zionists argue that the debate surrounding Zionism is for them at least, part and parcel of modern Jewish existence. But that aside, there has never been a unified model of Judaism. Jewishness, Jewish culture – the elusive concept of “Jewish identity” – has for centuries provoked unending debate. It is entirely fictional to declare that there has always been an uncontroversial idea of Judaism which all Jews have agreed with.
The only way to strip Judaism of all controversy is to reduce centuries of Jewish heritage to “Ed Miliband Judaism”: that is, chicken soup and Woody Allen, as Eylon Aslan-Levy previously argued – to reduce Jewishness to meaningless cultural references.
It is regrettable that the discussion surrounding JSoc policy often delves into personal attacks. We strictly oppose this policy on principled grounds – and stress that many of its proponents are upstanding Jewish students from across the country. They are our brothers and sisters – and we respect them.
But we not only implore that Jewish students treat each other with respect – we appeal that JSocs also respect the right of half the world’s Jewish population, our brothers and sisters in Israel, to have a voice in our political discourse. When Jews are being murdered in Israel, the least of our worries should be whether a topic of discussion might not be amenable to certain people.
It would be unfair to state that the leadership and membership of King’s JSoc do not care about their Judaism – and nobody has alleged this. Indeed, Jewish students at KCL are among the most passionate we have met – and they have achieved and fought against so many things ranging from BDS to racist attempts to censor their voices.
It is because Jewish students have faced so much censorship that Jewish Societies should never seek to restrict the list of topics its members can discuss. We should follow the model of UCL JSoc who have hosted both pro-Israel speakers such as the Israeli ambassador and even severe critics of Israel such as NGO Breaking the Silence. Jewish Societies should never be Orwellian “safe spaces” where only a list of approved subjects can be discussed for fear of offense – rather, they should be spaces where every conceivable idea relating to Jewish existence can be debated from every angle.
It’s time that Jewish students at King’s – and from across the UK – start to actively challenge the idea that Israel is somehow not a fitting topic of discussion in a Jewish environment.
Even if there is a separate Israel Society at KCL, we implore our friends to recognize that Rabbi Boteach should never have had his remarks restricted – to the contrary, open discussion on all things Jewish is the lifeblood of our continued cultural and intellectual vivacity.
The Jewish state is the greatest collective endeavor of the Jewish people since the compilation of the Talmud – and we should all wholeheartedly engage ourselves with this great project of our cultural being.
We should finally transform Jewish Societies into houses of heated discussion, open to all, in the fine tradition of the ancient academies of Babylon.
Let’s slowly return to one thing which is indisputably Jewish: debate.
Daniel Gross and Elliot Miller are former presidents of University College London Jewish Society.
Jonathan Hunter is a former vice president of the Oxford University Jewish Society. Both these splendid societies ultimately seek to host discussion and fulfil the cultural and religious needs of Jewish students at these respective universities.