In a recent polemic, fellow Board of Deputies representative Gabriel Webber railed against the “tragedy and travesty” that the minority of Jews who believe that the State of Israel should not exist feel “uncomfortable” participating in university Jewish societies. JSocs, Webber insists, exist to serve up “foul-tasting kiddush wine” and Yiddish jokes. For them to do anything remotely Israel-related, such as inviting an El Al crew for Shabbat dinner, just ain’t kosher: it could leave certain students feeling “marginalised”.
This is a folly, and it is imperative that Jewish students not be cowed into bending over backwards to placate a radical minority who are so allergic to Israel, according to Webber, that even lectures from visiting Hebrew University academics should be excised from JSoc termcards so that they may be left to drink their (non-Israeli) chicken soup in peace.
Webber expresses anxiety that JSocs have historically been “inhospitable” to various minority groups, and extends his concern to the minority-within-a-minority of anti-Zionist Jews. What he seems to ignore without irony, however, is that in many campuses, Zionist Jews are a marginalised minority in themselves: at Sheffield, student Miriam Schechter has complained that boycott-fever has left her feeling uncomfortable in even mentioning that she has family in Israel. At King’s College London, whose student union voted this week to endorse the BDS, Jewish students have reported no longer feeling welcome on campus, because standing up for the right of Israel not to be extinguished makes them “apologists for apartheid”.
JSocs are among the last places on campus where Jewish students feel comfortable being Zionist and need not fear that their ties to Israel are a cause for social embarrassment. The demand to whitewash Israel from JSocs amounts to insisting that they accommodate anti-Zionists by converting themselves into yet another space where explicit attachment to Israel is faux pas.
To demand that Jewish societies be added to the list of associations where Jewish students must consciously downplay their connections to the Jewish state is absurd and dangerous, and will only bolster the boycotters’ conviction that Israel is taboo: perhaps this radical minority wants this eventuality to transpire, but they have no right to make us willing participants in their destructive vision.
JSocs must, of course, be made as inclusive as possible: but women, LGBT students, ethnic minorities, the disabled and Progressive Jews do not threaten the life and liberty of our grandparents — Jews who want them to live under Palestinian rule do. It is a momentous irony that Jews who are happy for Israeli Jews to be marginalised when their statehood is extinguished complain about feeling marginalised by those who rebuff this nihilistic vision. At least complaining is part of the Jewish condition: I’ll grant them that.
For the vast majority of Jewish students in the UK, support for Israel is not merely one of sundry political causes: it is the sine qua non of keeping their extended families safe and secure from those who believe that the state in which they live should be driven into the sea. If a radical minority of Jewish students share this desire for Israel to slide off the continental shelf as Palestine is ‘liberated’ from the river to the sea, I am not surprised they do not feel comfortable in most JSocs: their dogma endangers the lives and wellbeing of our families.
Rubbing salt into the wound, Webber insists that JSocs whitewash Israel because refusal to dissociate from it might give BDS campaigners the “misinformed” impression that “‘the Jews’ are collectively their enemy and should be collectively targeted”. This is victim-blaming of the worst sort, insisting that a minority change its behaviour lest it be complicit in perpetuating the ignorance of bigots. When a Toronto policeman told women to avoid dressing “like sluts” in order to avoid rape, this set off worldwide SlutWalk protests: to insist that Jews should avoid acting “like Zionists” because this could provoke anti-Semitism is completely in the same vein.
This is why Webber expresses disappointment that the last UJS Conference threw out a motion that would have imposed a ‘two-Soc solution’, forcing (yes, forcing) JSocs to divest themselves of all Israel-related activity and delegate this to constitutionally separate Israel Societies. UJS does not even have the power to do impose “one stance on all J-Socs”. The irony and chutzpah that this motion attempted, by diktat, to restrict diversity and freedom of choice does not escape me.
As chairman of the UJS National Council, I am proud that we stood up for the right of individual JSocs to define themselves as they wish, rather than be subjected to a patronising, illiberal, top-down directives that cynically purport to defend their interests by denying them the freedom to act in their own interests as they see fit.
If Webber wants to expunge Israel from his JSoc at Brighton and Sussex, to pander to an implacable minority that wishes to see Israel scratched from the map, then that is his society’s democratic prerogative. Nobody will coerce him otherwise. Not on my watch.
One often hears the refrain that ‘not all Jews are Zionists, and not all Zionists are Jews’: to go out of our way to dissociate Zionism from Judaism is to hand a victory to those who went to divide us into ‘good Jews’ and ‘bad Jews’, suggesting that the basic conviction in the right of the Jewish state to live in peace and security is somehow an unnatural outgrowth of real, pure, unadulterated Judaism, which is limited to Woody Allen films and smoked salmon but deliberately dissociates itself from the greatest centre of Jewish culture and learning in modern history. If you want to turn your back on Israel, be my guest: just don’t try to drag the rest of us down with you.
For more on this broiges, see the excellent analysis by UJS President Joe Tarsh: “By suggesting that removing Israel from J-Socs enables them to become purely ‘religious and cultural’ suggests that Israel is not central to traditional Jewish religion and culture. That is simply not true.”