On February 24 2020, UCL Friends of Israel welcomed Israeli photojournalist Gil Cohen Magen to speak about his 20-plus years’ experience reporting. The event was part of a speaking tour sponsored by CAMERA on Campus, The Jewish Agency, and StandWithUs. UCL’s tradition of training some of the best and the brightest in journalism meant that the presence of another seasoned reporter on campus proved popular with students, and the event attracted a wide range of attendees keen to see the reality of life “behind the lens” in Israel.
Cohen was born in Jerusalem in 1971 and was the first Israeli photographer hired by Reuters. Cohen’s journey is a unique one. His work has led him up and down his home country, to the borders with Lebanon and Gaza, and deep into the disputed territories of the West Bank, taken by Israel from Jordan in the War of 1967. Speaking of the Palestinian colleagues he works with for Reuters, Cohen said: “We are friends. If anything happens, we check if each of us and our families is OK.” He told the story of one former colleague from Gaza, who, through his connection with Cohen, was able to receive treatment in a Jerusalem hospital.
By chance, he was placed next to the bed of an IDF Soldier, an unthinkable roommate for most lifelong citizens of Gaza, whose elected governing party Hamas’ charter calls for the genocidal elimination of Jewry in Israel and beyond. The initially fearful colleague was eventually humbled by the soldier’s family’s interactions with him once they realised he had no visitors, due to his family being unable to move from Gaza to Israel. They brought him food and made conversation, although, on paper, he ought to be their “enemy,” and them his. Cohen then recounted how, once recovered, his Palestinian colleague decided he could no longer live in the hate-filled environment of Gaza, and emigrated to Dubai.
Cohen also sheds light on the Israeli experience aside from the conflict, in his extensive work in the “Ultra-Orthodox” communities who make up around twelve percent of the population. These groups are characterised by “strict adherence to their interpretation of Jewish law,” and can usually be identified by the traditional dress of their various sects. Cohen himself was obliged to “blend” into the community to authentically report on life inside their insular world, dressing in black and a kippah, and growing out his beard. Although many Ultra-Orthodox indeed work and use technology, their hostility to most modernity was apparent to Cohen, who has often found himself harassed by Haredi, who do not wish to be photographed. Although the majority of Orthodox movements actively support the existence of Israel, some Hasidic perceive Zionism as a dangerous rebellion against the religious idea that Jews should only return to Israel in large numbers once the messiah arrives.
Additionally, along with Arabs, Haredi are not conscripted. These significant divergences with mainstream Israeli society, have made the communities subject to much resentment and perplexment. Yet, their high birth rates and virtual absence of divorce or interfaith relationships, however, means that their population is rapidly increasing, and the importance of their communities to Israel’s future cannot be underestimated. Cohen spoke of how his extensive reporting in these communities has led to an unlikely friendship with several Hasidic families, something still rare in Israel. Cohen’s portfolio is a stellar example of the achievement and learning possible when one is comfortable making contact with what at first appears confusing.
Yet, at Lancaster University, Cohen’s discussion was barred from campus due to concerns over student safety- a disappointing dismissal of an event that was intended to promote dialogue and curiosity in regards to journalism and current affairs. However, such reactions to Israel-related events are a common occurrence on UK campuses. BDS, (the movement in promotion of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanction of Israel) was first backed by London’s SOAS students’ union in 2015. Since then, another 15 UK students’ unions have followed suit. BDS singles out Israel as uniquely evil, and worthy of boycott and makes Jewish and Zionist students pay the price of silence.
Then why is it, for example, that the Lancaster Student Union has shown little concern over its University’s Confucius Institute? These Institutes’ stated aim is to “promote Chinese language and culture…and teaching”. However, they are funded by and are effectively soft power agencies of the Chinese Government- whose record on human rights needs no preface. Meanwhile, the visit of a private Israeli citizen wishing to speak about his experiences as a veteran journalist is hounded from campus. The reason for this double standard is apparent: the “progressive” ideologies holding sway over student and academic decision-making hold a distorted view of Israel. They thus view it as perfectly reasonable to deny its citizens and supporters of its mere existence the right to the freedoms of speech and assembly on campus.
Similarly, shocking events have plagued UCL Campus, such as in 2016, when Israeli writer and LGBTQ activist Hen Mazzig’s talk was forced to end abruptly after disruption from protestors, not to mention UCL’s academic union’s passing of BDS that same year. Although discussion of Israel on campus is often met with hostility, the UCL Israel Society has hosted many peaceful and popular events since. That Cohen’s talk last month was met with inquisitiveness and enjoyment further justifies my hope that the potential for discussion is still very much alive. Similarly, his talk at Manchester, Liverpool, Nottingham, Leeds, and Leicester were well-attended and well-received. However, students at Lancaster and across the world who seek to segregate Israelis and Zionists from campus life must accept the existence of opposing opinion, and -as Cohen’s life’s work exemplifies- remain inquisitive in the face of what they perceive as alien.