Why Are Jewish Groups in Britain Censoring Discussions About Israel?
I lived in the UK as a rabbi to the students of Oxford University for more than 11 years. I participated in countless debates on Israel with some of the country’s most rabid opponents. When I was back in England last week for a debate at the Oxford Union, the memory of my previous appearance at the debating chamber was still fresh in my mind (my opponents called Israel a Nazi state). This week, I also spent time speaking to British media, defending Israel in anticipation of the publication of my new book, The Israel Warrior’s Handbook.
But in all these years, the people I debated never censored me or tried to limit my responses to their hostile questioning about the Jewish state.
Yet this week, for the first time in my life. I encountered a form of censorship in the most unlikely of all places — at the Jewish Society at King’s College, London.
European Jews have developed a survival instinct over centuries of persecution. They lie low, avoid public displays and use quiet diplomacy to defend themselves and Israel. British Jews have pursued this approach with a high degree of success in the last half century. However, on my current visit to England, I detected a shift away from associating with Israel.
In my address to the Jewish Society at Kings, I focused my remarks on Israeli democracy and the blessing it can be to the innocent Arab citizens of Israel’s autocratic Arab neighbors. Israel is the great hope for the spread of human rights throughout the Middle East.
As I spoke, I could see my hosts growing restless, and the discomfort on their faces surprised me. I was in for a bigger shock, however, when my hosts essentially stopped me in the middle of my remarks. I am always happy to respond to questions, friendly or hostile, but I have rarely been interrupted so abruptly by people who invited me to speak.
When I asked for an explanation, I was told by the president of the organization, a young man wearing a yarmulke, that the Jewish Society has a policy against speaking about Israel. The group, he said, was non-political and focused on “Jewish subjects.”
I was dumbfounded. Was Israel not a Jewish subject? It was as if Israel had become the Voldemort of nations, the country that dare not be named.
I asked if I should speak about lox and bagels, klezmer music or Manischewitz wine. My sarcasm seemed to go right over my hosts’ heads. For them, Israel and Judaism seemed unrelated. I asked if the murder of Israeli citizens in countless terror attacks over the past month was likewise a “political issue,” or one of human rights. I was told by one of the students that these things needs not be put in boxes. Worse, I sensed that these students, who had enough pride in their heritage, and commitment to their faith, to wear their yarmulkes in public, had become so cowed by the omnipresent hostility and bullying on and off British campuses, that they were afraid to engage in a dialogue about Israel.
Other students agreed with my assessment. An American female student studying in Britain who attended my talk commented on Facebook: ”I was so moved by your words and completely fed up with the British system Kings has.” She elaborated that Jewish students were ”bullied by a ‘non biased student activities board’ consisting of BDS members.”
Another Kings student commented on my page, expressing his dismay that the Jewish Society’s leaders ”were willing to make [the] whole talk awkward and adversarial just because of this rule.” He added that the policy of not being allowed to discuss Israel was “baffling.”
I was especially shocked given my experience at Oxford, where Jewish students encountered no shortage of hostility, yet bravely and unashamedly stood up for Israel on a constant basis. Those who served as presidents of the pro-Israel organization I started, including Ron Dermer, Israel’s current ambassador to the United States, and New Jersey Senator Cory Booker, were unafraid to stand up for the sole democracy in the Middle East.
Like the Dark Lord who dare not be named, the country that cannot be named has become a pariah and symbol of oppression to Europeans who embrace a shallow “underdogma,” determining right and wrong based simply on whoever appears to be the weaker party. London has become a ground zero for the antisemitic BDS campaign, which has found especially fertile ground on England’s college campuses.
Instead of being properly educated about the Jewish homeland, and trained to advocate on Israel’s behalf, too many young British Jews have instead adopted the “Sha-Shtill” approach of prior generations. Don’t rock the boat. Don’t offend people who hate Israel.
This is certainly not true of all British students. A great many on campuses throughout the UK are courageous advocates for Israel. But it was confirmed to me, after the shocking attempt to censor any mention of Israel at the Jewish Society, that this is a growing trend among Jewish groups on campus throughout the UK.
I spent four days last week doing interviews with the British media, and I encountered significant hostility. A “Russia Today” TV host quoted an Israeli politician whom, he said, had made disgusting comments about Arabs that were as bad as anything said about Israel by its neighbors. I condemned the comments and said that Israel is a country of laws, not rhetoric, and freedom of speech gives Israelis the right to say all sorts of things. But these statements are not official policy. By contrast, when Hamas threatens Jewish lives they have unfettered power to turn their words into murderous deeds. Their genocidal rhetoric is not just words. It’s in their actual charter. When Khameini threatens Israel with a second Holocaust, his words are the law. The host then quoted the disgusting charge that Israel is like the Nazis.
And on it goes in Britain these days.
But what made the hostile interviews tolerable was that I was given an opportunity to make my case. This is also the saving grace of the Oxford debates. It is even possible to win a debate, as Alan Dershowitz did recently.
But when Jewish students ban discussion of Israel, even if they have the best of intentions in staying quiet, they denigrate the Jewish state and Jewish life.
It’s time to stand up to the bullies.
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, “America’s Rabbi,” is the international best-selling author of 30 books, winner of The London Times Preacher of the Year Competition, and recipient of the American Jewish Press Association’s Highest Award for Excellence in Commentary. He will shortly publish “The Israel Warrior’s Handbook.”