If imitation is the best form of flattery, then the activists behind Israeli Apartheid Week have been paid an immense tribute. As students belonging to Palestine support groups across Britain held events to mark the annual March event, they learned of a rival initiative. A network of on-campus Zionist societies have declared their own Israel Awareness Week over the same period.
The “awareness week” has relied heavily on gimmicks to try and counter impressions that Israel has a war addiction. Stalls staffed by visiting Israeli students have offered sugary delights labelled “Peace of Cake”; signatures have been collected for a “we support a two-state solution” petition.
When I spoke in Birmingham University a few days ago, the competition between the two “weeks” appeared relaxed. Yet there is a more sinister side to how on-campus Zionists are behaving. In Birmingham, the students’ Jewish Society has enjoyed considerable success in convincing university authorities to conflate criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism. When Gaza was described as a “concentration camp” by Mike Prysner (a US army veteran) at a February debate organised by pro-Palestine students, an official investigation was triggered. Earlier this month, the Birmingham Guild of Students (the equivalent of the students’ unions in other universities) approved a resolution saying that visiting speakers must not say anything that would fall foul of a European Union definition of anti-Semitism.
That definition was drawn up by an official EU body known as the European Union Monitoring Centre for Racism and Xenophobia in 2005. It was not the result of a serious scientific exercise but of a few consultations with representatives of the Israel lobby on both sides of the Atlantic, including the American Jewish Committee.
The definition was an extremely broad one. It cited comparisons between the state of Israel and the Nazis and any attempts to label the establishment of Israel as a racist endeavour as examples of anti-Semitism.
Although the Monitoring Centre’s director at the time Beate Winkler described the definition as a work in progress, it has subsequently become the EU’s de facto definition of anti-Semitism. As a result, it is routinely invoked whenever Zionist zealots wish to give a veneer of respectability to their efforts to make Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians a taboo.
The intimidation of Palestine-supporting students is happening across the English Channel, too. Earlier this month, I shared a platform with the Palestinian writer Azzam Tamimi in the Free University of Brussels (known by its Dutch-language acronym VUB). The event was denounced by the website Joods Actueel (Jewish News), which published allegations that Tamimi glorified “terrorism”. (Tamimi is a self-declared supporter of Hamas but has stated his opposition to the killing of civilians. He has also advised the party to drop references to The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a fraudulent 1903 text purporting to be a plan for Jews to take over the world, from its founding charter).
The complaint against Palestinian students in the VUB went as high as the university’s rector, who told them they could only go ahead with the event if they had a third speaker making a case against the boycott of Israeli goods and institutions. Pascal Smet, the Flemish minister for education, has now been asked parliamentary questions about whether the event Tamimi and I addressed should have been banned.
I’d be interested in learning if students involved in other forms of political activities come under this kind of pressure. Do environmental campaign groups have to invite BP or other big polluters to their meetings about climate change? Do gay rights activists have to ensure that on-campus homophobes don’t feel uneasy with their work? I’d doubt it. Yet when it comes to Israel and Palestine, universities expect the views of the oppressor to be treated with deference and respect. Please explain.
·First published by Mondoweiss (www.mondoweiss.net), 25 March 2011