No holds barred: British Jewish students rally against silencing Israel

It was gratifying to hear from others who share my astonishment of any talk of Israel being barred from discussion in Jewish societies on British campuses.

Rabbi Shmuley Boteach (photo credit: REUTERS)
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach
(photo credit: REUTERS)
When I recently criticized a British Jewish student group for its failure to speak truth to power and the fear of some students to even speak about Israel, I knew I was kicking a hornet’s nest.
Far from provoking the wrath of my British hosts, however, I was pleasantly surprised to be inundated by emails and Facebook posts that offered examples of British and other students who unashamedly support Israel on their campuses.
I received an email from the co-president of University College London (UCL) JSOC (Jewish Society), the largest in London, who assured me that what happened at Kings would never happen at UCL or indeed at some of the other London JSOCs. He called what happened at Kings “an absolute disgrace.” At UCL, by contrast, he wrote, “the JSOC is actively Zionist, and co-hosts events with the friends of Israel society.” He admitted that students at UCL have sometimes raised objections, but “I told them many times that Israel is a Jewish state, it needs our support, and when they [Israel’s detractors] want BDS [Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions] passed on campus, it’s an attack on all of us.”
Here are more responses: “You’ve hit the nail on the head again, Rabbi. Keep speaking the truth, no matter how uncomfortable it makes people. Your courage is so badly needed in these strange and dangerous times, and I thank you every day for helping me find the words.”
It was also gratifying to hear from others who share my astonishment of any talk of Israel being barred from discussion in Jewish societies on British campuses.
As one person wrote: “It is one thing to keep Israel-specific events for the Israel Society but it is quite another to prevent a rabbi who has come to talk to us from speaking about the subject of his choice because it’s Israel and it’s ‘political.’ Not only that, but the way Rabbi Boteach was interrupted for questions, interrupted again when he mentioned the Iranian regime’s threats of annihilation (because it’s ‘political’), or even insulted by someone who implied to his face that he writes about sex because it sells is rude, disrespectful and an embarrassment to our JSOC. While I understand that generally Israel-related stuff belongs to the Israel Society, the way you guys were willing to make this whole talk awkward and adversarial just because of this rule, as if it was the key principle of the JSOC, is just baffling. I love you guys but I think you really screwed up on this one.”
Another person understood “there’s something intrinsically wrong with separating the Jewish Society from the Israel Society. This is what world community (and the Palestinians) like to do when they say ‘we have no problem with the Jews, it’s just the Zionists....’” One of the students who attended my talk wrote, “I am currently studying for a semester at Kings College in London. I really enjoyed your talk and wanted to thank you again for sharing in the not-so-welcoming environment you were met with. It really meant a lot to hear a voice of clarity and sanity as I have been surrounded by a lot of different opinions that I find myself offended by and threatened by here in London. I am very grateful I got to listen to you the other day, even if bagels and lox seemed to be the only PC topic allowed!” Some commentators were puzzled at how Kings JSOC says there is an Israel Society to discuss the Jewish state and the JSOC therefore need not do so. As one student asked, “Do you have a separate group to discuss each aspect of Jewish life?” Another student found the idea that Israel is not a part of Judaism absurd. “Moreover,” she said, “what kind of courtesy is that to extend to a guest speaker? To shut him up in the middle of his commentary?” She concluded that “your group is too timid, and that hurts all of us.”
Another student referred to the policy of farming out discussion about Israel away from the JSOC to the Israel Society akin to “the diaspora Jew of long ago, Jews of pre-state Israel, who when they had their arse kicked, pretended it was just a playful banter.”
This student was also unsympathetic to the difficulties on campus alleged by the Kings College JSOC president.
“You don’t know what we deal with on campus,” he chided, “Then why hide it? Say it loud and clear to draw attention to the problem.”
I was interested to hear this student wonder why the JSOC at Kings is so fearful.
“You say ‘...people around would happily see JSOC destroyed or severely damaged.’ Really? Who is going to shut you down and on what ground?” Another student was equally direct in declaring that JSOC’s policy “smells of shameful surrender when you live in a free country.”
I hope this is a teachable moment for the student leadership to learn that they should rethink the approach taken by JSOC at Kings College.
But amid all the positive responses I received, I also heard further confirmation of my fears.
“As someone who has been campaigning against antisemitism and BDS at UK universities for over ten years,” Ronnie Fraser told me, “I am not surprised by what happened at Kings. The only surprise for me is that it has taken so long to surface.”
Fraser noted that the national Jewish student organization (the Union of Jewish Students) may be retreating from standing up for Israel. He said that the JSOC at the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies (which has been accused of being anti-Israel) eschewed lobbying against the college wide-academic boycott motion that was adopted. “It was left to individual JSOC members to organize opposition to the motion. Because the JSOC there has been so weak. It would be interesting to hear a response to his allegations from the organization heads.”
One good reason to stand up for Israel despite the opposition on campus is that British institutions are defying the anti-Semitic boycott movement. In fact, cooperation with Israel is expanding. A new scientific agreement signed while I was in England, for example, will facilitate research between hundreds of British and Israeli researchers.
Israel expects the number of scientists working on joint programs sponsored by the Israeli Science, Technology and Space Ministry and the UK’s Science and Innovation Network to double in the next four years.
The responses to my column from students, faculty and individuals have gone a long way toward restoring my faith in their willingness to confront campus bullies and worse who seek to delegitimize Israel.
We live in difficult and dangerous times. Jewish students must rise to the occasion and protect and defend Israel wherever and whenever it comes under attack.
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.