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Does Israel Advocacy Belong on British Campuses?

Young British Jews stake out a liberal stance on Israel. / YouTube

American and British Jewish communal institutions alike are presently grappling with the question of what to do with the “evil son” — he who, in the words of the Passover Haggadah, “by divorcing himself from the community…denies our very essence.”

In the United Kingdom, students are debating the place of Israel in Jewish life on campus, where political, cultural, and religious activities center around a confederation of Jewish societies (J-Socs) under the umbrella of the Union of Jewish Students (UJS).

Since the last UJS conference in November, it is the clear policy of the UJS that the Union should defend Israel’s right to exist regardless of whether individual members support the Israeli government. Individual J-Socs are expected to have a conversation about Israel — not only the modern state, but Israel over 3000 years of Jewish history — and J-Socs are encouraged and advised to effectively counter the BDS movement on campus where necessary.

But Gabriel Webber — a member of Brighton & Sussex J-Soc — recently wrote in defense of a motion that failed at that conference, one that called for a wall of separation between Israel advocacy and the activities of J-Socs. While “all Jewish students want to go to a J-Soc where they can hang out with fellow Jewish students, to eat Jewish food and to be an active member of their religion or culture,” there remains a minority that don’t “want to wave flags and engage in an active campus-based fight against BDS.”

“J-Socs are there to provide a fulfilling Jewish life for Jewish students who are away from home, often for the first time, and it is a tragedy and a travesty if Jewish students are made to feel so uncomfortable there that they cannot participate,” Webber added.

In response, Eylon Aslan-Levy, Chairman of the UJS National Council, noted that “JSocs are among the last places on campus where Jewish students feel comfortable being Zionist and need not fear that their ties to Israel are a cause for social embarrassment. The demand to whitewash Israel from JSocs amounts to insisting that they accommodate anti-Zionists by converting themselves into yet another space where explicit attachment to Israel is faux pas.”

Delineating between Israel and Judaism in the name of inclusion would have unfortunate if unintended consequences. For one, Aslan-Levy argues, it would perpetuate a narrative that “the right of the Jewish state to live in peace and security is somehow an unnatural outgrowth of real, pure, unadulterated Judaism.” Downplaying the association between Zionism and Judaism would “bolster the conviction” of those who believe that “Israel is taboo,” including the BDS movement.

Moreover, as UJS President Joe Tarsh subsequently argued, “by removing Israel from J-Soc programming, we might make J-Soc more inclusive to those who do not support the conventional Israel narrative but in doing so we would exclude students” to whom Zionism is dear, whose Zionism is inseparable from their Judaism.

The notion that “I would be able to get my ‘fix’ of Israel through an Israel society, because I do not want to have to frame my Zionism as separate from my Judaism, and forcing me to do so, says quite clearly that my Jewish identity is not catered for by my J-Soc,” Tarsh said.

In a statement to The Forward, a spokesperson for the UJS said, “UJS recognizes that Zionism and Israel are core aspects of many Jewish students’ identities. Simultaneously, UJS and J-Socs seek to ensure that no Jewish students feel alienated or excluded based on their political views, and hopes that all students are able to take up the opportunities offered to engage with Israel beyond politics, and develop a personal and sophisticated relationship with Israel.”

Anti-Zionist Jews are, Yossi Klein Halevi recently argued, “the contemporary equivalent of the evil son” who in the Haggadah “repudiates the story — but from within the family… Once a year, during the seder, everyone is at the table, including the evil son” — but what of the rest of the year? Whither the evil son?

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