“Courage is to be a Zionist on campus”

When I took on the responsibility of leading Oxford University’s Israel Society, I felt honoured to be serving a cause which has always been close to my heart. A lifelong Zionist, I looked forward to representing the State of Israel on campus. I knew that the Palestine Society and its radical support base were likely to be opposed to our work, no matter what. I thought I had mentally prepared myself for the challenges which lay ahead.

The previous year, Oxford students had effectively mobilised to defeat a motion to mandate the University’s student union to join the BDS movement. It was the efforts of a handful of students – led by the indefatigable Eylon Aslan-Levy – who in a private capacity, spent enormous amounts of time and energy fighting for Israel on campus.

Having recognised that there was no official society uniting pro-Israel students – both Jewish and non-Jewish – we reinvigorated the existing but somewhat dormant, Oxford University Israel Society. Following an excellent start, I decided to build upon our successes with a transparent, democratic and inclusive constitution, reflecting the views of our diverse membership as much as possible.

I did not expect Jews, Israelis even – in the society itself – to exploit longstanding internal political divisions and expose the society and local community to a national and international audience. Both Haaretz and the Jewish Chronicle reported the ‘war of words’ that had broken out in our society. When I took over as President of Israel Society, I did not expect the psychodrama that followed over the next 10 weeks. I have deliberately kept silent about the ordeal – until now.

For some Jewish students, defending Israel is a sin. Last year, one motion at the National Union of Jewish Students’ annual conference even claimed that ‘having J-Socs in charge of Israel campaigns creates anti-Semitism’. This is ridiculous. It harbours the mentality that student activism for Israel is the primary cause of intolerance towards Jews. In effect, it excuses hatred.

For these students, attacking the settlements comes first. Why should they condemn the BDS when it advocates a boycott of settlement produce? To this end, they engage in personal attacks and stoke petty disputes which have even been covered by the national media. In my opinion, they are an embarrassment to the pro-Israel movement – doing no good to the cause of Zionism or Israel. They vilify individuals who do not conform to their agenda, and refuse to engage with those who disagree with them. Such petty infighting makes our cause, and theirs, an absolute joke. While our political opponents have a slick organisational machine, this radical minority divides and weakens our camp.

This first became apparent when we noticed that both the Oxford University and Oxford Brookes Palestine Societies were disseminating extremist material on their online forums. When I tried to join their group, the administrator of the Brookes Society Facebook Group told me online:

‘Maybe if you stop f***ing around in our country and p*ss off to wherever you all came from and stop acting like the victims you’d get some respect.’

In response, I posted a public condemnation, bolstered in the knowledge that a certain member of the Oxford Palestine Society had been posting Holocaust denial material from the neo-Nazi website Jewwatch.com. I also condemned the Oxford Palestine Society for providing an online platform to the known anti-Israel activist Gary Spedding who has been accused of inciting violence against an Israeli legal adviser to the Knesset in 2011.

Many of our society’s members were appalled, demanding that I take further action. However a disturbingly significant minority were far from sympathetic. One member of the society claimed that the Palestine Society seemed perfectly reasonable. Another accused our society of ‘doing a great disservice’ by standing up to hatred and bigotry, and personally insulted several members. As this individual later said in Haaretz, we supposedly had a ‘fetish for anti-Semitism’. The committee asked him to apologise; he refused. We concluded that he had no place in the society since he would not respect our basic rules of conduct and took appropriate action.

This Charming Man!
This Charming Man!

Taking offence, certain members contacted the student press – who proceeded to spin the story out of recognition, accusing us of expelling members for their political beliefs. Nothing could be further from the truth. Non-Zionists and even anti-Zionists were welcome to be members, and our Facebook page had been a forum of free speech for months beforehand.

Two weeks later, twenty one Israelis – none of whom had shown any previous interest in the society – penned an open letter characterising the society as a right wing political advocacy group controlled by the Israeli government. They recommended renaming the society the ‘Netanyahu Support Group’ – as if mainstream Israel advocacy was the equivalent of fringe-Likud politicking. The letter contained a rather unpleasant anti-British tone: how dare I, “who incidentally is British”, abuse the name of their beloved country?

The assault was led by a person who claimed to be a speechwriter for President Shimon Peres. It is ironic that someone who works for Israel’s main advocate on the world stage should criticise student activists willing to promote Israel’s cause abroad, especially at one of the world’s leading institutions of higher education. His personalised attacks on me for supposedly being ‘hardline’ and ‘intolerant’ belied a clear radical agenda, completely detached from reality. For him, it didn’t matter whether my private political beliefs were centrist or even right-wing: in his mind, all efforts at Israel advocacy were automatically hardline.

The idea that only Israelis can be trusted to present Israel’s case is obviously ridiculous; such a public attack was disrespectful, unnecessary and deeply offensive to the many Jews and non-Jews who stand up for Israel around the world. Without evidence, he had the chutzpah to claim that no Israelis were left in the society – another insult to the many Israelis who regularly attended our events and had contributed to our Facebook page.

Regardless of our political differences, our society’s membership surely shared a common aim – a love and respect for the State of Israel, its history, people and culture. Throughout this troubled time, many members offered me personal support and registered their disapproval with the unnecessary and unprovoked action of the letter’s signatories.

Regardless of our political differences, our society’s membership surely shared a common aim – a love and respect for the State of Israel, its history, people and culture. Israel Society at its best - pictured with Rabbi Shmuley Boteach.
Regardless of our political differences, our society’s membership surely shared a common aim – a love and respect for the State of Israel, its history, people and culture. Israel Society at its best – pictured with Rabbi Shmuley Boteach.

What happened in Oxford is a reflection of a far wider problem amongst Jewish students on campus. Regrettably, as far as I am aware, this is the first time that Jewish students have aired their dirty laundry in public. I have sadly discovered that the greatest threat to pro-Israel students in the UK does not come from our obvious opponents – but from those who claim to be pro-Israel, but are anything but.

This is not a case of left wing versus right wing – or at least it should not be. This is a case of right versus wrong. All supporters of Israel must be able to stand up for moral clarity. However, being openly Zionist was enough to provoke some Jewish students to turn on others. They made a mockery of student Zionism, dividing Israel’s supporters while uniting our opponents.

I want to leave you with a simple message. On campuses today, both in America and Europe, pro-Israel students demonstrate true courage in standing up for their beliefs. Not only do they have to face their standard political opponents; whether it be the far-left, the far-right, or Islamic extremists – but they are also wrestling with abuse from a vocal minority of radical minded Jewish students, as the controversy over Open Hillel clearly demonstrates in the US, or ‘Sign on the Green Line’ in the UK.

I can only say, in the words of Alan Dershowitz, ‘bravery is to be a Zionist on college campuses today.’

About the Author
Richard Black is a freelance journalist and a recent graduate of the University of Oxford.