Several young activists have pioneered a new way of discussing Israel in some of the most hostile places in the world
We 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, former 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 70-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.
This article was originally published in The Jerusalem Post Magazine, here.