Rein­vent­ing the Is­raeli dis­cus­sion on cam­pus

Sev­eral young ac­tivists have pi­o­neered a new way of dis­cussing Israel in some of the most hos­tile places in the world

The Jerusalem Post - The Jerusalem Post Magazine - - CONTENTS - • By SETH J. FRANTZMAN

e aren’t there to change their minds, they need to change their minds them­selves – we want to nor­mal­ize the dis­cus­sion,” says Jonathan Hunter. Sit­ting in Jerusalem, Hunter had come to dis­cuss The Pinsker Cen­tre and its ef­forts to bring speak­ers and host pro­grams on British Univer­sity cam­puses. “The ide­o­log­i­cal anti-Israel po­si­tion is ex­treme and not grounded in crit­i­cal think­ing,” he said.

Talk­ing points about Israel in de­bates on cam­pus haven’t changed greatly over the years, but the way peo­ple talk about Israel has. In 1961 Arnold Toyn­bee, a pro­fes­sor at the Lon­don School of Eco­nomics, at­tacked Israel while speak­ing at McGill Univer­sity. He chal­lenged its right to ex­ist and com­pared Israel to Nazi Ger­many. Israel’s am­bas­sador to Canada, Yaa­cov Her­zog, chal­lenged the pro­fes­sor to a de­bate and sev­eral days later they de­bated Israel at the same univer­sity. They weren’t shouted down or at­tacked.

To­day things are dif­fer­ent. The dis­cus­sion about Israel has turned toxic and Is­raeli speak­ers are of­ten con­fronted with heated protests that some­times turn vi­o­lent. In 2016 demon­stra­tors rioted at King’s Col­lege Lon­don when for­mer Shin Bet chief Ami Ayalon came to speak.

Hunter, who pre­vi­ously worked as a cam­pus di­rec­tor for StandWithU­s and is a grad­u­ate of the Univer­sity of Ox­ford (Brasenose Col­lege), was deeply af­fected by what hap­pened to Ayalon. “It was a dif­fi­cult time” he says of Jan­uary 2016 when the riot hap­pened. An­tisemitism ac­cu­sa­tions were also roil­ing lo­cal La­bor Party stu­dent mem­bers. “We saw anti-Israel ac­tivism and a mis­guided anti-Zion­ist nar­ra­tive – and not much re­sources to counter it and a very flawed idea of what the prob­lem was pred­i­cated on.”

Hunter part­nered with sev­eral other young ac­tivists, such as Naomie Bouaziz, a grad­u­ate of Univer­sity Col­lege Lon­don, and Yos­eff Sha­chor, who has a BA from Bar Ilan Univer­sity. The team is young and they say that this makes them more aware of the is­sues the cur­rent gen­er­a­tion is fac­ing on cam­pus. “We cre­ated this to counter the con­ven­tional or­tho­dox­ies of pro-Israel ac­tivism and ad­vanc­ing var­i­ous nar­ra­tives,” says Hunter.

What are these con­ven­tional has­bara (pub­lic diplo­macy) meth­ods? Of­ten they end up be­ing sim­ple talk­ing points about Is­raeli in­no­va­tion, talk about some new wa­ter tech­nol­ogy or some­thing pos­i­tive about Israel. This skirts the anti-Israel nar­ra­tive which of­ten por­trays Israel in harsh terms with la­bels like “fas­cist,” “colo­nial” or “apartheid” state.

THE PRO- and anti-Israel dis­cus­sion has thus be­come com­pa­ra­ble to ships pass­ing in a storm. One says Israel is an apartheid state and the other holds up a cherry tomato. One says “yeah, but that tomato is a prod­uct of set­tler colo­nial­ism,” and the other says “but there is a gay pride pa­rade.” It doesn’t con­vince any­one but the al­ready con­verted.

It’s coun­ter­pro­duc­tive, say Hunter and Sha­chor. It avoids dif­fi­cult ques­tions about the con­flict’s his­tory and the rel­e­vance of this con­flict to­day. They say that too of­ten peo­ple from Israel who do speak abroad dance around sub­jects or open their talk with apolo­gies, such as “Israel isn’t per­fect.” So what? No coun­try is per­fect, say the young ac­tivists.

The Pinsker Cen­tre is an ef­fort to fill the gap and give stu­dents ac­cess to voices from across the spec­trum that might be crit­i­cal of Is­raeli pol­icy as well, but will en­cour­age crit­i­cal think­ing.

They face an up­hill bat­tle be­cause the field has been dom­i­nated by a plethora of ex­treme anti-Israel groups and hard­ened anti-Israel ac­tivists in the UK. “There were very few events show­ing a dif­fer­ent per­spec­tive,” says Hunter. “And we take rec­og­nized ex­perts such as think tankers, mil­i­tary and so forth, and we get them to dis­cuss cur­rent is­sues in the news, such as should the US Em­bassy be moved, etc. Re­cent speak­ers have in­cluded MKs Elazar Stern and Amir Ohana, Nir Boms, re­search fel­low at the Moshe Dayan Cen­ter of Tel Aviv Univer­sity, Col. Richard Kemp and, most re­cently, for-

mer prime min­is­ter Ehud Olmert.

“When it comes down to it, there are stu­dents who don’t iden­tify as right or left,” says Sha­chor. Many of these stu­dents are cau­tious about po­lit­i­cal in­volve­ment, not want­ing to alien­ate their peers. They may be con­cerned about at­tend­ing openly pro-Israel or anti-Israel events, but they are open to at­tend­ing ed­u­ca­tional dis­cus­sions about Israel. “So that’s where we come in, we are com­pletely non-par­ti­san.” What they tend to mean is that they are non-par­ti­san in terms of Is­raeli pol­i­tics, seek­ing to in­vite cen­trists and those from across the spec­trum, es­chew­ing ex­trem­ists. “We pro­vide a fo­rum and let the au­di­ence draw their own con­clu­sions,” says Hunter.

One of the is­sues fac­ing dis­cus­sions about Israel on cam­pus is not just hos­til­ity by the chang­ing de­mo­graph­ics of the stu­dent body. There are more in­ter­na­tional stu­dents than in decades past. That in­cludes stu­dents from the US, China and through­out the Mid­dle East. Even though sta­tis­tics show univer­si­ties in the UK are still over­whelm­ingly white – 80% ac­cord­ing to a 2014 study – they are more di­verse than be­fore. That means that when there are dis­cus­sions about Israel, the fo­rum will im­pact not only the UK but also the world.

Hunter and Sha­chor say that one of the im­por­tant things for them is reach­ing out to those who might be the lead­ers of to­mor­row by tar­get­ing top-tier in­sti­tu­tions. But the main thing is to “nor­mal­ize” the dis­cus­sion of Israel on cam­pus. “THE IM­POR­TANT part is that by host­ing these events... you nor­mal­ize them. The rea­son Ayalon was protested was that it wasn’t a fre­quent event [where] an Is­raeli comes, and they [anti-Israel ac­tivists] tried to cre­ate a de­ter­rent,” says Hunter. The more Is­raeli faces who come and speak, the more it be­comes a nor­mal event. “Let’s look at the In­dia-Pak­istan con­flict: It was the 100-year an­niver­sary of the Par­ti­tion re­cently, but no one says In­dia or Pak­istan shouldn’t ex­ist and no one ar­gues that a Pak­istani speaker should be no-plat­formed. So there you have a sim­i­lar con­flict with sen­si­tiv­i­ties, so how come we can dis­cuss that nor­mally but not Israel-Pales­tine?” asks Hunter.

In­deed, re­sponds Sha­chor, there is a kind of blanker ban on Is­raelis in some places. Even crit­ics of Israel are at­tacked. With 50 talks hosted, the ac­tivists think they are on the right track.

They also see signs of suc­cess. When Olmert came there were stu­dents from Bahrain, Syria, the UAE and Turkey. “For peo­ple who come from coun­tries that don’t have free­dom of ex­pres­sion and can sud­denly hear some­one first­hand who has fea­tured heav­ily in their me­dia,” it can change them, says Hunter. “We aren’t try­ing to con­vert cam­puses to be­ing pro-Israel; we try to sus­tain an im­age of be­ing non-par­ti­san. But bring­ing in peo­ple who are not knowl­edge­able of Left or Right and not as fa­mil­iar with the con­flict, they want to be in the mid­dle and learn some­thing,” says Sha­chor.

But there is an up­hill strug­gle. Some other pro-Israel groups are set in their ways and are sus­pi­cious of a new or­ga­ni­za­tion, es­pe­cially one run by younger peo­ple. Hunter and Sha­chor and their team see be­ing young as an as­set. “We know how young peo­ple think. One thing we are do­ing now is we cre­ate these short mono­logues on Face­book, talk­ing about free­dom of ex­pres­sion,” Sha­chor points out. The real test will come in the next few years, as more Is­raelis seek to speak on UK cam­puses. If the vi­o­lence of the past is re­duced, then the Pinsker Cen­tre’s work can be seen as a suc­cess.

(Photos: Pinsker Cen­tre)

THE PINSKER team (in­clud­ing, from left, Jonathan Hunter and Yos­eff Sha­chor) flanks for­mer UK for­eign sec­re­tary Sir Mal­colm Rifkind.

SPEAK­ERS AT the cen­tre have in­cluded (clock­wise): Col. Richard Kemp, com­man­der of the UK’s Op­er­a­tion Fin­gal in Afghanista­n in 2003; for­mer prime min­is­ter Ehud Olmert; and for­mer UK sec­re­tary of state for com­mu­ni­ties and lo­cal govern­ment Lord Eric Pick­les.

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