How NOT to combat anti-Israel incitement on UK campuses.

SOAS: International Jewish Anti-Zionist Network event in 2010

Almost a decade ago, on April 6th 2002 – a mere ten days after the Park Hotel terror attack which killed 30 Israelis and injured 140 others, prompting Operation Defensive Shield – a group of 125 British academics had a letter published in the Guardian calling publicly, for the first time, for an academic boycott of Israel.

Throughout the subsequent ten years – and in particular since Operation Cast Lead – the growth of anti-Israel incitement and antisemitism at British universities has become a serious cause of concern for anti-racist organisations, politicians and prominent figureswithin British society, as well as some academics.

The news, therefore, that the Israel Society at London’s School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) has been recently revived at the initiative of two Israeli students might seem like a glimmer of hope in the dark world of anti-Israeli activism in British academic institutions, especially as SOAS has been particularly egregious on these counts.

 In 2009 SOAS invited the prominent Muslim Brotherhood representative in the UK Kamal Helbawy and Ibrahim el Moussaoui – the former head of the foreign department of Hizballah’s ‘Al Manar’ TV – to teach a course on political Islam. In 2010, Hamas activist Azzam Tamimi was invited to speak to students at SOAS alongside his fellow Guardian contributor Ben White. Tamimi told students:  

“Today Hamas is considered a terrorist organisation because that’s what the Americans and Israelis and cowardly politicians of Europe want, but what is so terrorist about it?

“You shouldn’t be afraid of being labelled extreme, radical or terrorist. If fighting for your home land is terrorism, I take pride in being a terrorist. The Koran tells me if I die for my homeland, I’m a martyr and I long to be a martyr.”

 “Why are the Jews superhuman and better than anyone else that God would give them a homeland? Is God a racist? A god who would prefer people because of their race is not a god I want to associate with. Claiming they are being given the land of God is a racist idea.

“If the world felt so guilty about the Holocaust, the Jews should have been compensated, not brought to my country at the expense of my people.

“Israel does not belong to my homeland and must come to an end. This can happen peacefully if they acknowledge what they did — or we will continue to struggle until Israel is no more.”

 “I want to encourage you not to be intimidated by the pro-Israel lobby. The Zionists tell a pack of lies.”

(Tamimi, as is well known, was born in 1955 and his family moved from Hebron to Kuwait when he was 7 years old – a full 5 years before Jordan lost the Six Day War.)

Unfortunately, any hopes of the rejuvenated SOAS Israel Society swimming against the tide of anti-Israel hatred and propaganda already appear to be overly-optimistic. The society’s opening event on January 30th is to be a panel discussion purporting to “re-examine BDS through a more nuanced lens”.

Nuance, however, is hardly the territory inhabited by anti-Zionist panel member Ilan Pappe; controversial for his jaundiced use of history to advance a political agenda, his blithe dismissals of anti-Semitism and his recent spirited defence of Raed Salah. Neither are we to expect much in the way of nuance from Dr John Chalcraft – an old hand in the business of promoting an academic boycott against Israel.  

Further along the spectrum, we find Dr Lee Jones – an expert on Southeast Asia (where Israel obviously is not) and Hannah Weisfeld of the debatably ‘pro-Israel, pro-peace’ British J-Street look-alike, Yachad. Also taking part as a discussant will be SOAS Doctoral candidate Sharri Plonsky (Plonski) whose brief experience of Israel must be seen in light of her three year role as Development Coordinator for HaMoked‘: an organization of which the Israeli State Prosecutor said “the organization’s self-presentation as ‘a human rights organization’ has no basis in reality and is designed to mislead.”

Panel member and co-chair of the SOAS Israel Society is occasional Guardian writer and  +972 magazine co-founder and editor Dimi (Dmitry) Reider who is currently working on a Master’s degree at SOAS and who was perhaps (we are not told) one of the ‘two Israeli students’ instrumental in the society’s rebirth. Reider is known for his support of the so-called ‘one-state solution’ under which Israel as a Jewish and democratic state would cease to exist and his opinions on BDS appear here.

Interestingly, in a recent article in the Tablet, +972 magazine’s editor in chief Noam Sheizaf admitted that only 20% of its readership is Israeli, indicating “the growing unpopularity of its progressive politics” although that fact does not appear to perturb him as he believes “[i]t’s good to internationalize the conversation”.

“Rejected by the Arabs, ignored by the Jews: This is the reality with which the magazine’s 15 or so writers have to contend, writing, as they do, in English for a largely American audience. The magazine’s name is no coincidence: It is a tribute to Israel’s international calling code and an acknowledgement that, increasingly, any serious conversation about Israel’s policies is to be had outside of Israel’s borders.”

It therefore does not seem unreasonable to ponder the possibility that the SOAS Israel Society has in fact been rejuvenated as a British front for the +972 magazine agenda to which Reider subscribes: an agenda which has so little respect for Israeli democracy that it promotes the use of “dramatic pressure from abroad”, of which – of course – BDS is an integral arm.

Certainly no ‘Israel Society’ which invites Ilan Pappe to spread his anti-Zionist views or has an advocate of the dissolution of the Jewish state such as Dimi Reider as its chair is going to help stem the rising tide of anti-Israel incitement and anti-Semitism on UK campuses. But there is an additional irony to this story.

It turns out that Dimi Reider’s studies at SOAS are supported by a Chevening Scholarship donated by the British Embassy in Tel Aviv and the British Council. So whilst some British MPs and academics work tirelessly to combat anti-Israel incitement on campus, their own Foreign and Commonwealth Office has in this case – be it by accident, design or neglect – made their job somewhat harder. 

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