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Volume 1, Issue 1 (November2006 / Cheshvan 5767)
Article 7/9
   

Please Mind the Gap:
Israel Experience Meets the British University

By Toby Greene


Israel Experience markets summer tours in Israel for Jewish British 16 year olds as, "the summer trip of a lifetime," and for the hundreds of participants each year, it undoubtedly is. Hiking in the desert, offering prayers at the Kotel and shedding tears at Yad Vashem. Then gasping in awe at Masada, floating on the Dead Sea and partying in Eilat. Not all will become fervent Zionists, only a fraction will consider aliya, but most will have left with a deep sense of connection to the land of Israel. For many, their identification with Jewish heritage, culture and peoplehood will have been greatly enhanced.

Unfortunately, when those same tour participants return to Britain, they will become increasingly aware, especially when they begin university two or three years later, that their positive experience of Israel contrasts starkly with a general public discourse, which holds a high degree of scepticism, even hostility, towards the Jewish state. British Jews have become used not only to seeing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict given an extraordinarily high level of media coverage and public scrutiny, but to seeing Israel as the subject of a sustained campaign of demonisation and delegitimisation.

It is hard to say exactly why such fierce hostility towards Israel exists in British public discourse. It is understandable that people have strong views on Israel's policies in the Occupied Territories and the broader Arab-Israeli conflict. The intensification of that conflict during the second Intifada, and the search for explanations for Islamic hostility towards the West following the attacks of September 11, 2001, help explain the context of the debate. But this does not explain the depth of hostility, and the intensity of hatred, felt towards Israel by those campaigning to undermine its legitimacy in sections of British society.

The problem is not unique to the UK; it is common in countries across Europe. Neither is it new. A vocal hostility towards Israel has long been prevalent on the far left among those who lump Zionism together with imperialism, capitalism, fascism and the United States, a category of things to which they are innately opposed. But what has been of increasing concern in the UK more recently has been the extent to which such views have come to resonate more broadly among British liberal intelligentsia.

A backlash against the war in Iraq provided an opportunity for those campaigning to demonise Israel to associate their cause with the widespread public scepticism towards the war. In addition, the opportunity created by the war in Iraq came in conjunction with the increasing political activism of young Muslims. For some Muslim groups, expressions of sympathy with the plight of the Palestinians are often fiercely anti-Zionist and sometimes antisemitic.

The most startling illustration of the problem came on February 15, 2003, when a rally in London was organised as part of an international day of protest against the war in Iraq. The event was coordinated by the "Stop the War Coalition," a group dominated by the left wing Socialist Workers Party. It was co-sponsored by an Islamic group called the 'Muslim Association of Britain' and went under the banner, "No war on Iraq - Freedom for Palestine." The march attracted an unprecedented one million participants.

A permanent reminder of anti-war movement in Britain and its close association with anti-Israel rhetoric exists to this day in the form of a carefully maintained array of anti-war and anti-imperialist placards in London's Parliament Square. Among the placards calling Blair and Bush liars and murderers is one that demands: "Stop bloody Zionism."

Other examples are equally disturbing. In January 2005, a public debate sponsored by London's main daily newspaper, The Evening Standard, tackled the motion, "Zionism today is the real enemy of the Jews." That the debate was held almost sixty years to the day after the liberation of Auschwitz was an irony lost on most of the audience, who backed the motion with a solid majority. On the BBC's flagship public debate programme, "Question Time," in which politicians and media commentators discuss questions posed by a studio audience, viewers can expect the subject of Israel-Palestine to come up more often than not. Typically a politician or commentator with a "left-leaning" or "liberal" view will castigate Israel for its reprehensible policies of repression and can expect to receive thunderous applause from an appreciative audience. Those who attempt to defend Israel, or at least to point out that there may be blame on both sides, find it much tougher to win the support of the crowd. Some of the critique is based on questions of putative standards of national behaviour, but sometimes the criticism is more basic, the legitimacy of a Jewish state.

Certain prominent public figures make their vociferous criticisms of Israel a badge of pride in their political identity. In March 2005, for example, London Mayor Ken Livingstone published an article in The Guardian newspaper accusing Israel of ethnic cleansing and declaring that, "Ariel Sharon, Israel's prime minister, is a war criminal who should be in prison not in office." Around the same time, Clare Short MP, who was until 2003 was Secretary of State for International Development, declared in an online statement her belief that, "US backing for Israeli policies of expansion of the Israeli state and oppression of the Palestinian people is the major cause of bitter division and violence in the world."

Many academics, even more than politicians, hold these attitudes as badges of political identity and personal morality. Individual academics at a number of institutions have been found to be discriminating against Israelis. Oxford University Professor Andrew Wilkie was suspended after it emerged that he denied an Israeli student a PhD place based on his nationality, and the fact that he had served in the Israeli army. At Manchester University, Mona Baker fired two Israeli academics from her journal because of their nationality. One is left to wonder how many other Israelis have had applications denied or grants not awarded silently because of their nationality, and whether this kind of discrimination could spread to British Jewish students with links to Israel, who may want to research Israel related topics.

Though the British Labour government itself has a far more positive attitude to Israel, it is clear that an extreme hostility towards Israel and Zionism has become an acceptable element of intellectual culture in parts of British society. The prevalence of this, in particular among left-leaning intelligentsia and on university campuses, inevitably creates particular challenges for young Jews, for whom identifying with Israel is an important part of their cultural identity. The confusion is only made greater by the decision, by a small minority of high profile British Jews, to put opposition to Israel at the forefront of their Jewish identity. In July 2006, the campaign group "Jews for Justice for Palestinians," placed a full page advert in The Times newspaper declaring their opposition to Israel's policies under the heading, "A Call by Jews in Britain." This is naturally a source of acute embarrassment to the majority of British Jews who are committed to defending and supporting Israel.

Questions therefore arise about how to go about building a positive Jewish identity in relation to Israel, when the prevailing discourse is often so negative. For many young Jews, relating to Israel in such a climate can easily become a source of tension and confusion, rather that excitement and pride. One important response made by the Jewish community is to focus on teaching young people advocacy skills, so that they can stand up for Israel by responding to accusations made in the media or other public forums. This is clearly an important task, but does this not also carry a risk? Does focusing on the need to defend Israel against the hatred of others detract from a positive appreciation of Israel as part of Jewish heritage? Does it risk fostering a negative and defensive identity, rather than a proud and positive one? Another concern is that the hostile climate pushes Jewish students to emphasise defending Israel from external critics, preventing them from openly recognising both Israel's achievements and its many challenges. When forced into such a defensive posture, Jewish students may feel compelled to whitewash Israel's problems rather than engage with them. Underlying all this remains the question of why to remain Jewish at all in a liberal, secular society.

Dealing head on with all of Israel's problems and complexities is clearly not appropriate for 16 year olds on a four-week summer tour. Summer tours to Israel aim to build the individual participants' connection to the country in the broadest sense. Through this, they aim to develop and cement their identification with the Jewish people, culture and heritage, in the hope that they will make being Jewish a part of their life. The key sites of the Israel tour, such as the Kotel, Masada and Yad Vashem, are instrumentalised to this end with enormous success. In each case, the focus on an informal youth movement tour is experiential, rather than cognitive. At no point will the group sit in a classroom and learn the dates of the destruction of the temple, the finer points of modern European antisemitism, the central tenants of Zionist ideology, or the key battles of the Six-Day-War. Rather, the goal is that through experiencing sites at first hand in a tactile sense, the individual will become emotionally connected with Jewish and Zionist values.

As a result of their informal Jewish education, the average Jewish 16 year old's concept of Israel will, of course, be dramatically different to that of their non-Jewish counterparts. When they go to university, they will find that the exposure of their non-Jewish peers to Israel is likely to be exclusively through the media, with its focus on Israel's political challenges and its controversial policies, principally with regard to the Occupied Territories. They will also discover that the country they have learned to love through their informal educational experience is seen as a byword for oppression and illegitimacy by many politically active young people from other walks of life.

The expressions of hostility towards Israel and Zionism, which are common in general discourse, are all the more frequent on university campuses. Often, far left student groups find common cause with Islamic students in a campaign to delegitimise Israel, frequently marginalising Jewish students in the process. In 2002, Jewish students were forced to rally en masse to prevent the banning of the Jewish society at Manchester University, one of the country's largest, on the basis that it supported Israel. Hundreds of Jewish students took to the streets on the day of the vote with yellow t-shirts proclaiming in bold type that they felt uncomfortable as Jews on campus. Even in a university with a relatively large Jewish student population, the Jewish students only just found sufficient numbers to prevent the motion being passed. Things have been even worse on campuses with small Jewish communities. Until recently, no official Jewish Society could be established and Zionist activity on campus was banned at the London School of Oriental and African Studies on the ground that Zionism is racism.

Addressing a large pro-Israel rally in London a few weeks after the Manchester incident, the late Alan Sennitt, then the Chair of the Union of Jewish Students, said, "Jewish Students on campuses across the country are being subjected to the most virulent and most disgusting anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism that our community has witnessed in over 25 years. But I stand before you today at a time when Jewish Students have openly stated that they will not hide their identity nor be ashamed or apologetic for being Jews or Zionists."

The resolve of Jewish students was further tested in March 2005, when three Jewish officers of the National Union of Students resigned from their positions in protest to the Union's failure to deal seriously with antisemitism. Anti-racism convenor Luciana Berger, and conference steering committee members Jonny Warren and Mitch Simmons, quit their posts claiming that the conference and the union as a whole was "a bystander to Jew Hatred." Whilst a number of incidents created a feeling among Jewish students that antisemitism was not being recognised, the trigger for the resignations came at the Union's annual conference. The three officers asked for an explicitly antisemitic leaflet to be removed from the stand of the General Union of Palestinian Students. The union's National Executive of the union failed to respond.

Then in 2005, the AUT, Britain's second largest university lecturers' union, voted at their annual conference to back a boycott of Israeli academia. The decision was the culmination of a concerted campaign by a small number of determined activists waged over several years. The essence of the boycotters' position was that Israel is an apartheid state, Zionism a racist ideology, and that individual Israelis are personally culpable for their government's actions unless they declare publicly their opposition to their government's policies. The success of the boycotters in passing the motion ultimately backfired. A determined group of union members campaigned to overturn the boycott, which they considered to be antisemitic, and the AUT reversed the decision one month later. But this did not stop Britain's largest academics union, NATFHE passing its own boycott motion the following year.

There is then a tension for young Jews in Britain. On the one hand their informal Jewish education is, with great success, instilling a connection with Israel as a key component of their Jewish identity. On the other hand, a general political discourse in Britain, particularly on the left, makes identifying with Israel highly controversial. In this climate, those who educate young Jews about Israel are faced with difficult questions. How is criticism of Israel and Zionism isolating Jewish young people? How can informal and formal Israel education instill positive values with regard to Israel and Zionism whilst also giving people the in depth knowledge to respond to critics? How can young Jews be empowered and informed to defend Israel without also being blind to Israel's challenges and imperfections? And how can young Jews be educated to defend Israel, without building an identity on defensive or negative foundations? The answers are by no means clear and the challenge remains largely unaddressed.

The flip side of the coin from the Israel Experience summer tour is the JFS Ambassador programme. This year, Britain's largest Jewish secondary school, the Jews Free School (JFS), ran a contest for its oldest year group (17-18 year-olds), entitled "The Ambassador." The aim of the contest, run over several months, with a prize of a week long trip to Israel for the winner, was to find the pupil who was best able to advocate for Israel. The winner was not the pupil with greatest knowledge or understanding, but the one with greatest skills of advocacy.

Whilst this was clearly a valuable educational experience for the participants, the concern is that this teaches young people to relate to Israel, not in terms of what it means to the Jewish people, much less what it means to be Jewish, but in terms of responding to the negative attitudes of non-Jews. This brings to mind an article by Chief Rabbi of Britain, Professor Jonathan Sacks, who wrote in 1997, "Until the beginning of the nineteenth century, Jews defined themselves as the people loved by God. Since then, most Jews, wittingly or unwittingly, have defined themselves as the people hated by Gentiles."

Whilst young Jews must be empowered to stand up for Israel, no one wants young Jews to start defining Israel and Judaism in terms of the hatred of gentiles.

Antisemitism is not a Jewish problem. It is non-Jews who have to question their attitudes and consider why Israel is so viscously and unfairly demonised in so many contexts. But those responsible for bolstering Jewish commitment and identity in young British Jews must consider how to build a connection that will balance accentuating the positive with responding to the negative. When putting resources into Israel education, careful consideration must be made on how to teach young Jews to appreciate Israel as a central arena of Jewish life whilst engaging realistically with its complex history, its challenges and its imperfections.

Whilst facing down slanders and lies with facts and confident assertion remains an imperative, Israel must be understood by young Jews in both its spiritual and political context. In the particularistic context of Jewish life, Israel is not the totality, but the Jewish relationship with Israel is an indispensable and brilliant component of the Jewish religious and national consciousness, which has contributed so much to human history. Awareness of antisemitism is also an inescapable element of the Jewish self-understanding. But antisemitism and the Holocaust, to which Israel is a riposte, can also never be the sole or central basis for Israel or Judaism.

Seen within a universal political context, Israel, as a nation-state that emerged during the period of rapid decolonization, with complex ethnic politics both internally and of course internationally is not unique. Stressing the commonalities of Israeli history with other 20th century nation-states, whilst recognising the obvious differences, may be a means of making Israel less exotic and easily demonized. Doing so, of course, necessarily demands a non-demonic view of the liberal nation-state itself, filled with imperfections and contradictions. Jews should not expect Israel to be judged any less harshly than any other nation state defending its interests. But they should demand that Israel be judged fairly and without prejudice, and with a realistic appreciation of its unique history and challenges.

In short, some sense of balance must be achieved in the teaching of Jewish history, where Israel has the modern pride of place, and where its normal and abnormal features would be honestly presented. At what age, and in what manner to tackle the educational challenges remains an open question, but the scale of the challenge young Jews will face at age 18 should not be underestimated. To create committed Zionists and committed Jews who can deal both robustly and maturely with Israel's detractors will require courage from parents, educators and lastly, students themselves.

This article is dedicated to the memory of Alan Sennit, who led and inspired so many in the struggle against discrimination on campus.

About the Author
Toby Greene is a freelance writer, political researcher and analyst and is currently researching his PhD on UK-Israel relations. He is the former Head of Policy and Research for the Westminster based campaign group, Labour Friends of Israel. He has also worked as a programmes coordinator and informal educator for the UK Jewish youth movement, the Federation of Zionist Youth (http://www.tobygreene.net).

© Covenant - Global Jewish Magazine 2006


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