As Israel Apartheid Week approaches, as Jewish students around the country, we have to consider the role that we play in promoting the Jewish state. It is clear, through Israel Apartheid Weeks gone by, that we have seen hostility on campus, with some students calling for a hard-line policy of Boycotts, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) against the State of Israel. One thing is evident though – rather than polarising the debate so that both sides feel as though they must get one up on the other, we should instead be creating an environment that fosters good relations and respect – an environment that would in the future be conducive to peace.
An unashamed Zionist, I have fought on my own campus for the right of Jewish and non-Jewish students alike to have the freedom to express their views on Israel without fear of harassment or intimidation. As the President of Birmingham Jewish Society, I was privileged to host the Israeli Ambassador to the United Kingdom, Mark Regev, for a conversation with one of the Pro-Vice Chancellors of the University of Birmingham, Professor Robin Mason. Whilst of course, anyone should be welcome to criticise the policies of the government that Ambassador Regev represents, it is important for people to come to these events, to question him, and to hold the Israeli government and its representatives to account in the same way that society should of any nation state, rather than shutting the event down in its entirety. I am lucky enough that my Students’ Union, the University of Birmingham Guild of Students, has been accommodating and helpful in facilitating this dialogue and protecting Jewish students when it comes to making sure they feel safe and able to express their opinions freely on campus.
University is the time when people should most be able to express their opinions. Promoting freedom of speech and a diverse range of thoughts should be the essence of student life; but expressing these ideas should be done in a cordial and respectful manner. It should not be done in the way which a small minority have resorted to – intimidation tactics, harassment and attempting to shouting down the other side of the debate that are far from conducive to meaningful, educational dialogue. For too long, we have seen a notable increase in hostility between students with differing views on Israel-Palestine, which has often led to Jewish students feeling uncomfortable during Israel Apartheid Week on their respective campuses.
Instead, all students with opposing views on the conflict should be reaching out to one another to attempt to create meaningful dialogue and a constructive debate, since worsening relations between supporters of the two sides will certainly take a toll on how possible it will be to see peace in our lifetimes.
The Union of Jewish Students has worked hard to encourage an environment on university campuses in the UK that fosters constructive dialogue on Israel-Palestine, rather than accepting the annual shouting match which often occurs between supporters of Israel and supporters of the Palestinians.The only way to ensure positive dialogue and to take meaningful steps towards peace is to understand where the other side is coming from and to acknowledge the validity of arguments that might not be your own, however profusely we disagree. We on our campuses should be expanding our discourse outside of our own echo chambers and should be educating the wider student population on the merits of Israeli culture, technology and the young state’s legitimacy, whilst also focusing on the political aspects of the Jewish state by holding joint events with relevant student groups to enhance debate and discussion around the Arab-Israeli conflict.
It is therefore even more important now, in a world of increasing political hostility and division than ever, to respect and to be tolerant of one another’s opinions; we as students in the United Kingdom should not be trying to shut down debate or boycott certain issues, but rather, create the opportunities to have a meaningful discussion where everyone feels comfortable to express their views. No matter how profoundly we disagree with them, we must learn to respect them, and them, us.
I would therefore encourage all Jewish students in the UK and Ireland, as well as the entire British Jewish community to get on board with UJS’s campaign to create a civilised environment in which to discuss the Arab-Israeli conflict and share a message of #DialogueNotDivision around their campuses and in wider society.
James Harris, Birmingham J-Soc