How to most effectively advocate for Israel on campus

This is a guest post by Jonathan Hoffman.

On 31 October – over three weeks ago – I was invited to debate  the topic of “What is the best way to advocate for Israel on campus?” with Dan Sheldon, the Campaigns Director of the UK’s Union of Jewish Students.

I won the toss and spoke first. I sat down to listed to Dan Sheldon’s speech. I was expecting a reasoned response. What I was not expecting was what happened. I counted twelve falsehoods and/or defamations about me.

Eventually an apology was forthcoming, after the JC published an editorial calling for one and some 140 people signed a petition calling for the same thing.

The JC on Friday (p5) had an article by Jessica Elgot headed “Hoffman Gets UJS Apology”. It included the text of the apology which is on the UJS website under the somewhat odd heading “Dan Sheldon’s reflections on this week’s events”.

The text of the JC article follows. (It was not published online so cannot be linked to or seen by those who do not or cannot buy the paper copy of the JC).

UJS Campaigns Director Dan Sheldon has apologised for linking Zionist Federation co-vice-chair Jonathan Hoffman with the English Defence League. Mr Sheldon clashed with Mr Hoffman during a heated debate hosted by Leeds JSoc two weeks ago, over UJS’s “Liberation” campaign. Mr Sheldon claimed that Mr Hoffman was “happy to demonstrate side-by-side with members of the EDL Jewish Division” during counter-protests at the Ahava store in Covent Garden.

In emails seen by the JC, Mr Hoffman contacted the police in August 2010, stating he “did not welcome the EDL” who had been at the past two demonstrations outside Ahava. He requested a separate “third pen” for EDL supporters, but the police refused to provide this. On a JC blog Mr Hoffman said: “My record of fighting the far right is impeccable: witness my activism against Irving and Griffin when they were invited to the Oxford Union Society in 2007. Mostly the smears are from enemies of Israel and so they are in some sense a badge of honour … but for them to be repeated by those in positions of responsibility in the Jewish community is completely beyond the pale.” The full text of Mr Sheldon’s speech has been removed from the UJS website and Mr Sheldon has posted an apology which says: “I stated that Jonathan Hoffman was ‘happy to demonstrate, side by side, with members of the EDL’s Jewish Division’.

Jonathan has since voiced his clear opposition to the EDL. Therefore, I would like to offer a full apology to Jonathan for any hurt caused by my remarks.”

The wording of this apology was not agreed to by me. I had sent a draft of an apology to UJS but it was ignored.

The apology (“…. since voiced…”) makes it sound like I only voiced my opposition to the EDL after the debate on 31 October. That is demonstrably false and Dan Sheldon could have found that out if only he had done a modicum of research and not swallowed uncritically such defamations by the enemies of Israel.

For example I put out a clear statement in August 2010:

…..there was some crossover between the BNP and the EDL and that the EDL sometimes intimidated Muslims and that both these are reprehensible.

And there was not just one instance of defamation in Sheldon’s speech. There were twelve. Just one of them was that I “wear crash helmets to peaceful pro-Israel demonstrations”.  I racked my brain about that one, since I do not even own a crash helmet. Then I remembered. During Gilad Shalit’s captivity the ZF used to organise vigils at the Red Cross office in London. I remembered that I had cycled to the last one, on a Barclays Cycle Hire bicycle. And guess what …. I wore a cycle helmet and since there was nowhere to leave it safely at the vigil, I wore it.

That inadequate apology for such a smear sums up the standard of research on me carried for this speech. The “research” consisted of trawling the rankest depths of the internet and recycling age-old smears. And Dan Sheldon even had the chutzpah to preface this sordid attack by stressing how important it is “that we treat each other fairly, with the courtesy we’d extend to friends or family.” 

And the salvo of defamations was followed by a plea that:

“We must then aspire to the highest standards ourselves: honesty, politeness and willingness to listen as well as talk. The Chief Rabbi has called this the lost ‘culture of civility’, and I believe we need to get it back.”

Aside: Mr Sheldon told the audience, “This is a man who has called for a boycott of the Guardian”, as if such a proposal was a source of shame!

Well, I am happy to acknowledge that one as being true – and to say that the idea that this detracts from my credentials as an Israel Advocate is ludicrous.

Although the video and transcript of Dan Sheldon’s speech have now been removed from the UJS website they are still available elsewhere so, in the interest of balance, I post my speech below:

What is the best way to advocate for Israel on campus?

In asking this question we are in the realm of the social sciences.

In the physical sciences we can conduct experiments. Finding the best breaking system for an express train, or finding the best treatment for tetanus, are both possible through experiments. In the social sciences the nearest we can get to experimentation is to set up a focus group. To the best of my knowledge there has never been a focus group on Israel advocacy on campus. So one has to look at the evidence.

What I will argue is that the evidence suggests that campuses are a centre – if not the centre –  of the monstrous and remarkable inversion of reality whereby Israel has become a pariah state because of its determination to defend itself. (Of course they are ably assisted by some parts of the Press in particular The Guardian, Channel 4 and the BBC). I argue that by its failure to take on the delegitimisers on campus full-square, UJS has allowed them to gain much more traction.

The Reut Institute is a national security think-tank in Israel. In a report published last year it said that London was the ‘hub-of-hubs’ of the delegitimisation network. Much of the delegitimisation activity takes place on university premises. I know because a small group of us go to hostile meetings and we have been to many on London campuses. We hand out leaflets, make a fuss and then blog what happens at the meetings, on the basis that “sunlight is the best disinfectant”. (Some community leaders say “don’t give it the oxygen of publicity” but in my view that is a totally misguided line to take).

We have been to Israel-bashing meetings at Goldsmiths, LSE, UCL, Imperial College and SOAS. Only a week ago tonight we were at a meeting at SOAS to discuss boycotting Israel. Steve Hedley – Bob Crow’s right-hand man at the RMT trade union – told me at that meeting that I was one of the ‘Chosen People” (this phrase used in an abusive manner is a favourite of antisemites: of course the phrase “Chosen People” in the Bible clearly means chosen for responsibilities and not chosen for privilege). Then he referred to “your friends in the media” (the trope that Jews “control the media” is beloved of antisemites – it appears of course in that well-known antisemitic forgery “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion”).

But it’s not just London campuses where delegitimisation meetings under the auspices of Palestine Societies are taking place. It’s happening at most British Universities. I can give you plenty of examples.

Here’s one that’s coming up. This time next week Norman Finkelstein will be speaking on this campus in Leeds. The following day he moves to Manchester, on Wednesday to Nottingham, on Thursday to Birmingham and on Friday to Logan Hall, London. Norman Finkelstein is what I call a ‘renegade Jew’ –the phrase ‘self-hater’ – while probably true – is not one I use. Norman Finkelstein supports Iranian and Hizbolla terrorists and thinks that Jews exploit the Holocaust for financial gain and for propaganda reasons. He even exploits the Holocaust suffering of his parents to delegitimise Israel. He is invited here by one of the pro-Palestinian organisations.

Why do the PSC, the Islamists and the Left organise so many anti-Israel events on campuses? Simple. Because they want to recruit students. It’s not for nothing that Israel has been called “the recruiting sergeant of the Left” (by Robin Shepherd in his great book “A State Beyond the Pale”). The Palestinians have long been seen by the Left as an instrument of revolution in the Middle East.  Since the collapse of Communism, Israel as a whipping-boy has become even more important to the cause of the Left.

Demonisation of Israel is now the glue that holds the Left together. To persuade students of their cause, they lie through their teeth. They make false ‘apartheid’ analogies about Israel. They lie that those who defend Israel from their calumnies do it by accusing Israel’s detractors of antisemitism.

We could argue about the best way to advocate for Israel at these meetings. Should you stay silent and hope to be called on in the Q+A, or should you heckle and interrupt, in the knowledge that only people hostile to Israel will be called upon to ask a question? (My strong preference is to heckle and interrupt, because the chance of being called is very low).

One thing I hope we can agree on is that defenders of Israel should be outside the meetings before the start and after the end, handing out fliers which tell the truth. And that they should make themselves available when the meetings are over, to talk: sometimes there is just one person who mistrusts the certainty of what he has heard in the meeting and wants to know more. Some of my biggest successes have been in such 1-on-1 discussions after meetings.

Yes we could argue about the best way to advocate for Israel at these meetings. But we surely all agree that it is folly for Israel advocates to stay away from these meetings completely. Because that leaves the door wide open for a new generation to be indoctrinated by the delegitimisers.

But in many cases that is what UJS is doing – staying away and standing aloof. Not all cases. There have been some great victories and I have been the first to acknowledge them. Getting Birmingham students to vote to accept the EUMC Definition of Antisemitism in May 2010 was a great victory. So was the defeat in January 2008 of a motion at LSE calling for a boycott of Israel and calling Israel an apartheid state, raised at the student union general meeting.

But against this have been some horror stories. When Danny Ayalon spoke at the LSE in October 2009, we knew there would be a hostile demonstration so we organised a counter-demo, to support Ayalon. It was in Lincolns Inn Fields which is a public street. We asked Ben Grabiner – who was at that time head of the LSE I-Soc – if he would put the word round his members to join the counter-demo. We were horrified by the response.

He did not get back to us but the then UJS Campaigns Officer did. She was furious that we had dared organise a demo to support an Israeli Minister. She felt it would just be provocative! She tried to tell us it was an internal LSE matter and that UJS should handle it. It was not ‘internal’, Ayalon happened to be speaking at LSE but that was it. And our proposed demo was in the public street. So we held the line. She then called the Chairman of the ZF to try to get him to put pressure on me. Ben Grabiner sent a text to his members warning them not to join our counter-demo. He said – absurdly and slanderously – that it was being organised by a ‘right wing organisation’. I know because one of the LSE students joined our demo despite being warned off by Ben Grabiner, and showed me the text.

More horror stories. In February 2010 Cambridge Israel Society capitulated to pressure and cancelled a meeting with Benny Morris on the grounds that he is a racist. Benny Morris is no racist. In April 2010 under pressure from the Federation of Student Islamic Societies, UJS cancelled Douglas Murray at short notice, having invited him to speak in Gateshead. Douglas subsequently wrote a blog entitled “How to lose friends and alienate people. A lesson from Islamist-cowed Jewish students”.

Douglas wrote:

“But what of the UJS? If the Union of Jewish students wants to take dictation for their events from the Federation of Student Islamic Societies, one wonders what they think FOSIS will ever do in return. Does the favour get reciprocated do we think? Are they going to vet any speaker that Jewish students don’t like? Or are these students just going to have to learn the hard way that in this matter, as in so many others, “tolerance”, “openness” and a respect for free speech are currently very much a one-way street.”

And most recently there was UJS’s proposal to give out Palestinian flags.

No, no, no. The Hamas Charter urges the genocide of Jews, the Palestinian Authority does not recognise Israel’s right to exist as a state grounded in Judaism. Mahmoud Abbas, the President of the Palestinian Authority, wrote a doctoral thesis in which he described the Holocaust as “the Zionist fantasy, the fantastic lie that six million Jews were killed.” To have the Union of Jewish Students giving out the Palestinian flag is something that most Jews would regard as obscene.

And I have been to many hostile meetings on campus where there is no sign of Jewish students whatsoever.

The reticence to engage with the Israel-bashers is, I believe, a contributory factor to the rise in antisemitism on campus. Antisemitism includes the vilification of Israel – see the EUMC Definition – if it is expressed in certain ways. To say that Israel is a racist state is antisemitic. So is holding Israel to higher standards than other nations. So is making Nazi comparisons when speaking about Israel. So is holding Jews collectively responsible for Israel’s actions.

The recent JPR Report said that just over two out of five (42%) respondents had experienced an antisemitic incident since the beginning of the academic year (7 months at that time). Confining the sample to respondents who were ‘very positive’ about Israel takes the figure up to 48%.

Almost one in two?  – That is simply not acceptable.

And as an aside, the Report’s attempt to downplay the figure is a disgrace. We are told that students are half as likely to express any concern about

‘Anti-Israel sentiment at university’ (38%) as they are about ‘Passing exams’ (76%) – the obvious implication being that worries about antisemitism are minor.

Worrying about exams is natural. Worrying about antisemitism is not and must never become so.

So what kind of UJS do I want? I want a UJS that is proud, not cowed. I want to see Jewish students going in to hostile meetings and making their presence felt, heckling if necessary. I want to see them handing out fliers before and after a hostile meeting so that students who are new to the subject can get the truth – to offset the lies they are fed at the delegitimisation meetings.

Of course I want to see proactive events as well as reactive activities. Proactive events celebrating all aspects of Israel, from science through culture through food through openness and tolerance. The ZF can – and does – help, providing speakers like Khaled Abu Toameh – an Israeli Arab journalist – for campus meetings. And proactive events putting Israel’s case: explaining why the security fence is necessary and why Israel had to do ‘Operation Cast Lead’ in Gaza three years ago.

StandWithUs and Britain Israel Coalition are also great pro-Israel organizations that are active on campus. If any of you can get to London on Sunday 6th November, please go to the StandWithUs Conference with the Ambassador and Louise Mensch MP. Then on December 11th it’s the ZF Advocacy Day.

Every lie about Israel has a killer response founded in truth. If you want me to give examples, ask me in the Q+A. (I hope to soon publish a pamphlet of lies and how to respond to them).

Jewish students are intellectually inquisitive and seek the truth. Yet when it comes to rebutting lies about Israel they are strangely reticent. I don’t understand why.

Advocating for Israel is cool, very stimulating intellectually and can be incredibly rewarding personally. It has made me some great friends.

I think it’s the duty of Jewish students to be ambassadors for Israel on campus and to rebut the lies, but it’s a very pleasant duty – it’s fun, too.

I really don’t see why a Jewish student should not want to be an advocate for Israel.

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