In 2008, I moved from the US to Great Britain to take up a position as president of the Oxford Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies at the University of Oxford. Soon after I arrived, I received an invitation to a private reception with Israel’s President Shimon Peres, co-winner of the Nobel Peace Prize. The reception preceded his public lecture in Oxford’s Sheldonian Theater, Christopher Wren’s first building. I was eager to hear Peres, a statesman and persistent advocate of peace. As we crossed the street from the reception to the theater we could hear students in the courtyard loudly protesting his appearance. Drums and chants were clearly audible as we sat in the theater, waiting for Peres to begin. I was sitting in front, a few feet away from his podium, next to Israel’s Ambassador to the United States. Peres began an impassioned speech about his desire for a peaceful solution to the Israel-Palestinian crisis. He competed to be heard over the drums and chants of the protesters outside. Several minutes into his speech, a student in the audience stood up and shouted that Israel commits genocide against Palestinians. Peres continued his speech. Five minutes later, another student stood up and accused Peres of practicing genocide and apartheid. This time, he responded to the student with a statement of his personal commitment to a peaceful settlement that recognizes the aspirations of both Israelis and Arabs. He continued to speak and, again, on cue, a student stood up and tried to shout him down. But this time the student started moving towards the podium. Immediately, Peres’ security team surrounded him and moved the student towards the exit. But the atmosphere was tense. These interruptions continued throughout his talk. It became clear that this was a well-orchestrated effort by Arab students at Oxford to prevent Peres from speaking.
It was no surprise, therefore, that the day after Peres’ speech, I received a call from Israel’s Ambassador to Great Britain who asked me to come to his office in London as soon as possible. As I sat with the Ambassador the next day, he asked me what I thought could be done to change the Antizionist climate at Oxford. I confessed that I really didn’t know but I said that if private donors could be encouraged to create one or more Israel studies’ professorships at Oxford, that might help balance the scales against the 13 positions at Oxford’s Middle East Centre that focus on the Arab Middle East.
The next year, and completely unrelated to this conversation, the first professorship in Israel studies was created at Oxford and an outstanding scholar was hired. The Centre also raised funds to create a junior-level position in Israel studies. We succeeded in ensuring that one course on Israel be included in the undergraduate degree program in Middle East studies. We arranged for this position to be based in the Middle East Centre at St. Antony’s College at Oxford, a noted center of Arabist sentiment and hostility towards Israel. I said publicly that while our new position was devoted to scholarship, not advocacy, it would help correct misperceptions about Israel that were prevalent at Oxford. When the Middle East Centre heard this, they took it as a direct attack upon them and broke the agreement to house the new position there. The position is now housed within the Faculty of Oriental Studies.
These sometimes chilling expressions of Antizionism are typical at Oxford and other British universities. The BDS (Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions) movement, an organized Palestinian initiative to demonize Israel, has succeeded in creating a climate of Antizionism and intolerance towards everything related to Israel on university campuses in Britain. Throughout Britain, Zionism has become a dirty word and Jewish students have been intimidated into silence, fearful of expressing any public support for Israel. And, by this, I don’t mean support for Israel’s policies; I mean for Israel’s very existence. There are, of course, legitimate debates that must take place- here and in Israel- about the settlements, Palestinian rights, and social inequalities. But that is not what is going on here. The Antizionists make it impossible to have a legitimate discussion about important issues facing Israel and the Palestinians.
Antizionism has been accepted as legitimate and normative at British universities. In 2010, Israel’s deputy ambassador to Britain was forced to flee to a security office following her lecture at Manchester University when demonstrators jumped on the hood of her car and tried to smash her windshield. This followed a previous event at Manchester when 300 protesters from the Action Palestine student society prevented her from speaking after they fought with Jewish students and police.
From Antizionism to Antisemitism
That same year, at Oxford’s famed Student Union, protestors hurled Antisemitic and Antizionist abuse at Israel’s Deputy Foreign Minister. One student interrupted him by shouting in Arabic: “Slaughter the Jews!” Oxford took no disciplinary action against the student. The following year, the national faculty union- the University College Union (UCU)- repudiated the European Monitoring Centre on Racism’s “working definition” of Antisemitism. That definition said that it is antisemitic to say that the very existence of the Jewish state is a racist endeavor. The UCU objected to that definition and proceeded to launch attacks on the right of the Jewish people to self-determination and against anyone who identifies with Israel. Clearly, a line has been crossed.
There are many examples of how Jewish students and faculty have come to fear making any expression of solidarity with Israel on British university campuses. Israel Apartheid Week, which has only recently gained some traction on American campuses, is well-established in Britain. Sponsored by supporters of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, it has created a climate of intimidation that has led to the near-total suppression of any pro-Israel expression on British campuses. And, most regrettably, it has occasionally degenerated into outright Antisemitism. For example, in 2011, St. Andrews (Scotland) University Jewish Society was forced to relocate its annual ball after the St. Andrews Golf Hotel cancelled its booking with only 48 hours’ notice following threats of disruption by anti-Israel groups.
Antizionism occasionally finds more mainstream expressions that reinforce the campus atmosphere of intimidation. On Holocaust Memorial Day 2013, the respected Sunday Times published an editorial cartoon depicting a bloodthirsty Benjamin Netanyahu building the West Bank security wall and using murdered Palestinians for its cement. Whatever one’s views of the wall, it is neither factual nor tolerable to depict Israelis as Nazis on Holocaust Memorial Day.
Another British Invasion
British trends tend to migrate over time to the United States. A large and vociferous Muslim community that makes up 4% of the population helps to fuel this delegitimization. But, even more so, Antizionism on British university campuses has become mainstream and normative because public discourse has permitted distortions to go unchallenged. Efforts to present Israel in a more favorable light are routinely suppressed. Moreover, any expression of identification, sympathy, or admiration for Israel is equated as an expression or support for racism and genocide. This transcends politics and does not distinguish between critics or supporters of Israeli government policies- all Zionists are treated as racists and genocidal murderers. And it is only a matter of time before the delegitimization of Israel crosses the ocean and gains greater traction on American campuses. The facts don’t matter when the prevailing climate is caught up in a new political fashion. And the latest British export is Antizionism. It will soon be coming to a campus near you.
David Ariel is President (on sabbatical) of the Oxford Centre of Hebrew and Jewish Studies, a Recognized Independent Centre of the University of Oxford. He is author of Kabbalah: The Mystic Quest in Judaism and What Do Jews Believe?