Israelis 'Not Zionist Enough' for Oxford Israel Society

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If it was happening at any other student society, then the war of words, the expulsion of a student and the split among the small membership of one of hundreds of societies active at Oxford University would have been of little interest to any but those involved.

But the goings-on at the Oxford Israel Society over the last two months illustrate a much wider and growing divide between Israelis and Diaspora Jews, and between energetic advocates of Israel and Israelis who are believe these foreign friends are actually damaging their country's interests.

The bottom line is that as of last month, the Israeli students in Oxford have left the Israel Society, leaving it to a group of determined British Jews. Jerusalem native Ariel Hoffman, an Israeli MA student in advanced mathematics and son of prominent civil-rights campaigner and Women of the Wall leader Anat Hoffman, was barred from the society's events and its Facebook page after according to him "being too Israeli" and according to the society's leadership "being a troublemaker." Matters got worse when the affair was published in the local Oxford Student newspaper by reporters Ruth Maclean and Ben Goldstein and another Israeli, Yishai Mishor, wrote an open letter on the case in a local students' newspaper, committing the sin of airing an internal Jewish broigez out in the open.

Everyone is aware of the irony of the Israelis not being pro-Israel enough to belong to the Israel Society. "They kicked me out because I was too Israeli," says Hoffman. "I joined in the hope that there would be events connected to Israel, films, culture, food, but nothing with an establishment connection. It was immediately clear to me that they have a very different ideology to mine. They have a fetish for anti-Semitism, every second sentence they say is about it and every criticism of Israel is anti-Semitic. I tried to explain to them that not every Israeli is a Zionist and not everyone agrees with the government. They found it hard to digest that Israelis have different views."

"They want the society to be focused on pro-Israel advocacy," says Yishai Mishor, a lecturer at the Tel-Aviv University law school who is doing his PhD at Oxford and was the one to write the letter in The Oxford Student newspaper in which he suggested the Israel Society "change their name to the 'Netanyahu Support Society' and stop abusing the name of my country." "They spend their time looking for fights," says Mishor. "It harms the Israelis here and damages Israel's image when all they do is row with the Palestinians."

The consolation of those remaining in the society is that not all Israelis are like the small bunch of 40 Israeli students at Oxford. "The type of Israelis who study at Oxford come from an elite Ashkenazi, high-income background. Maybe they don’t feel they have to defend Israel," says Jonathan Hunter, one of the leading members of the Israel Society. "They can say we don't know enough about Israel but these guys don't know what it is to live in the UK and hear all the time lies about Israel. They really shouldn't have gone behind our backs to a student newspaper.  It just proves how everyone is eager to publish nasty things about Jews and Israel."

Hunter does have a point when he says that at least some Israelis, certainly those representing the government, support what he and his friends are trying to do. Over the last couple of years, the Israeli Embassy has intensified its efforts to engage with students groups and increase pro-Israel advocacy on campus. One of the ways of doing this has been to bring high-profile Israeli lecturers to the universities. Last month, the Israel Society hosted Science Minister Jacob Perry in Oxford. This proved another of the flashpoints. "Hoffman said he will bring a Palestinian friend of his to listen to Perry," recalls Hunter. "It was clear he was just being a troublemaker. I can understand that he and other Israelis have concerns about the political nature of what we do, but we engage in pro-Israel advocacy and that's very important in Britain. We didn't expel him because he's anti-Zionist, but because he was rude and says inflammatory things."

Along with his activity in the Israel Society, Hunter is also the Campus Director of Stand With Us U.K., an advocacy group with headquarters in Los Angeles and Jerusalem. Last month the Israel Society at Oxford voted on a new constitution which affiliated the society with Stand With Us and the British Zionist Federation. "Stand With Us is a hardline right-wing group," charges Mishor. "Since they arrived on the scene, the Israel Society has become very secretive and political. They have campaigned against groups such as (left-wing Zionist) J-Street in the U.S. and Yachad in Britain, so how can they call themselves pluralistic? As an Israeli who served my country for four years as an IDF officer, I don't need them to tell me how to support Israel." Mishor who in the past was president of the Jewish Society (Jsoc) of Oxford says that since his open letter was published "I have received numerous emails from Jewish students here telling me they also disagree with the group running the Israel Society."

Stand With Us which describes itself as "a nonprofit organization supporting Israel around the world" denies that it is right-wing or has any political affiliation and maintains that it has never received funding from the government, though it does coordinate a lot of its activities with government ministries. "We don't run the Israel Society in Oxford," says Stand With Us Israel Director, Michael Dickson. "Our job is to educate people about Israel and the students in Oxford asked for our help and to be affiliated with us. It's not political." He believes that the split between the Israelis and the Israel Society is "a little broigez" but has some words of admonishment for the Israelis there. "They should be involved in supporting Israel and educating people" he says. "When so many are acting against Israel, we can't stand aside."

The Israeli Embassy said in a statement that "as part of its activity on campuses the embassy supports cultural events Israel Societies on campuses throughout Britain. The societies are autonomous and their policy is decided in accordance with internal votes they take periodically and the embassy has no involvement in that."

Richard Black, the Israel Society president who argued with Adam Hoffman over Facebook and expelled him from the society was not willing to comment. A statement put out by the society emphasized that it "is a pluralistic body welcoming a range of opinions from its members" but did not refer to the expulsion of the decision of other Israeli members to leave.

Anat Hoffman, who was in Oxford this week visiting her son and his new-born daughter, said that "I am very proud of Ariel and the stand he made. The problem is that some people have a very narrow definition of patriotism and it only causes harm to Israel."

Oxford University. Credit: Wikicommons

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