Checkpoint your privilege: The latest Jewish Human Rights Watch battle against reality

The latest episode in the quest by Jewish Human Rights Watch to coerce the British state into banning all forms of expression it dislikes, is threatened legal action against Cambridge University for allowing Israel Apartheid Week campaigners to erect a mock checkpoint outside one of its buildings.

JHRW’s solicitors wrote to Cambridge’s Vice-Chancellor demanding that he name the individual students involved, and vowing to sue the pants off them for their “virulently anti-Semitic” protest. They were particularly critical of how the university had, apparently, not given “any thought to how a Jewish person in the current climate might feel”.

Now, back in the day, I was a student at Sussex University and we had a referendum about whether to boycott Israeli academics. The proposal failed, but the Friends of Palestine Society unsuccessfully appealed the result, claiming breaches of numerous rules and policies.

In particular, their appeal claimed that the students running the anti-BDS campaign had breached the safe space policy by referring to the ‘separation wall’. It was, the appeal said, an apartheid wall, and to call it by any other name was so grievously offensive to Palestinian students that it denied them a safe space and should be banned. (The fact that a mandatory requirement to refer to Israel as an apartheid state might be a teeny-weeny bit offensive to Israeli students apparently never occurred.)

Of course, they may be right that Palestinian students would be offended at hearing anyone argue that they are not victims of apartheid. I’m sure a vast amount of pro-Israel campaigning – from the display of flags to the invitation of speakers from the embassy – are offensive to Palestinian students. Tough luck. Said Palestinian students need to get over it.

Similarly, Syrian nationals offended at the Parliamentary debate on bombing Syria, Bangladeshi nationals offended at the Whitehall protest against sweatshops and Qatari nationals offended at the demonstration by Sussex Friends of Israel outside the Qatari embassy need to get over it.

People don’t have a right not to be offended. If a person chooses to pin their emotions to a sovereign state, they accept the risk that unkind things will be said about that state. Ultimately, the importance in society of people being able to criticise – including in severe terms or by means of obtrusive public protest – foreign governments, is something which cannot safely be limited in a democracy which wishes to retain that title.

And that includes campaigns against Israel. The pro-Israel lobby does very well out of the ‘right to offend’. It has to accept that others are allowed to do so as well. Israel is a sovereign state – indeed one which invests considerable time and energy in securing recognition as such. It has to take criticism on the chin. It is not exempt from protest just because it has a close and inseparable connection with the Jewish people.

In 2010, a number of Scottish anti-Israel activists were prosecuted for inciting racial hatred, after a protest in which they yelled slogans such as, “Genocide in Gaza”, “End the siege of Gaza” and “Ethnic cleansing”. The judge ruled Not Guilty. In the judgment they wrote:

“If persons on a public march designed to protest against and publicise alleged crimes committed by a state and its army are afraid to name that state for fear of being charged with racially aggravated behaviour, it would render worthless their right to freedom of expression. Presumably their placards would have to read, ‘Genocide in an unspecified part of the Middle East’; ‘Boycott an unspecified State in the Middle East’, etc.”

(Zionist groups in this country are certainly not coy about criticising Palestine and its leadership by name, so presumably they would agree with this ruling.)

Similarly, harsh criticism was made of a Jewish academic who went to court in 2013 to prevent his trade union from boycotting Israel: he was, the judge held, engaging in “an impermissible attempt to achieve a political end by litigious means.” They added: “It would be very unfortunate if an exercise of this sort were ever repeated.”

And yet, it is being repeated. In threatening Cambridge University, JHRW is avowedly attempting to achieve a political end – the demise of claims that Israel is an apartheid state – by suing and silencing rather than by engaging and educating.

I have written before about how this tarnishes the reputation of the Jewish people, and subverts our proud tradition of debate into a modern reality of attempted intimidation and control. And no doubt JHRW will provide many more examples yet.

It is also important to remember who the real victims are here. Jewish Human Rights Watch was correct when they said that having to pass through the checkpoint, festooned as it was in barbed wire, would not be a welcome experience for any Cambridge students.

But they could have gone further and remarked how, unlike real checkpoints in the West Bank, the Cambridge mock-up involved fake weapons, did not seriously impede anyone’s daily life and was there for one day only.

For JHRW to play the victim of a piece of “#JEWHATING” street theatre, when countless Palestinians have their lives blighted by genuine, vastly more intimidating checkpoints, day in, day out, is tasteless, insensitive and un-Jewish.

For them to try to tie in the rest of the Jewish people with their sinister agenda is nothing short of outrageous. They have no right to tell a court that the mock checkpoint is unacceptably offensive to me (as one of ‘the Jews’ whose human rights they allegedly seek to protect). I have no investment in Israel’s mistreatment of the Palestinians, quite the reverse. JHRW’s assumption that all Jews buy in to their pro-occupation activities is worryingly close to anti-Semitism.

Nor, I should clarify, do I have any sympathy with those divisive anti-Israel groups who set up the mock checkpoint, or who boycott or demonstrate or engage in Israel Apartheid Week generally. It’s a pathetically ineffective form of activism that only serves to inflame tensions – case in point. The apartheid allegation is a kneejerk slur which fails to address the serious complexities of the situation.

But whether or not I respect someone’s activism should not determine whether they should be allowed to go ahead. I’m sure my campaigning in support of Israel offended some people. I don’t mind those people offending me.

About the Author
Gabriel Webber is a rabbinic student at Leo Baeck College, London
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