On UK campuses, battling pro-Palestine and pro-Israel student groups are engaged in a zero-sum feud for the sympathies of the wider student body. The "debate" is noisy, intimidating and often intellectually crude. But it doesn’t have to be like this.
Within the UK Jewish community, London universities have developed a reputation for being hotbeds of anti-Israel hostility. This reputation has intensified following the disruption of high-profile Israeli speakers at King’s College London and University College London in recent years.
The London School of Economics, where I’ve just finished studying, has also received negative Jewish community press after events involving mock checkpoints and a photo exhibition commemorating Palestinians killed after carrying out knife attacks. Meanwhile, the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) long ago earned the nickname "School Of Anti-Semitism" within Jewish circles for its share of anti-Israel events.
Of course, how you interpret these activities is affected by where you set the boundary (or lack thereof) between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism.
But it is also the case that, despite the generally positive experiences of London’s Jewish students, fears have been stoked by imprudent comments from community leaders – such as a 2017 tweet by the president of the Board of Deputies calling on Jewish students to avoid studying at LSE after one particularly problematic event at my university.
The Israel/Palestine conversation on UK campuses has traditionally been shaped by the conflicting narratives promoted and sanctified by both Palestine societies and Israel societies.
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Absent the wider choice of national organizational frameworks found on U.S. campuses (from J Street U to Jewish Voice for Peace, OneVoice on Campus to Students for Justice for Palestine) students arriving at UK universities invariably find their options for engaging with the issue limited to simply joining the Israel society or Palestine society on that campus.
The absurdity of this binary is brought home when both Palestine societies and Israel societies devote so much of their energies to delegitimizing each other’s positions. That reflects the zero-sum thinking that characterizes advocates of Israel and Palestine around the world - and indeed large parts of both nations’ leaderships. Generally displaying an impermeable defensiveness and a total inability for self-criticism, these societies import the conflict on to campuses across the country.
I’m not opposed to the existence of Israel societies and Palestine societies; I believe there should be a place on campus for the celebration of, and engagement with, diverse ethnic and national cultures and histories, especially on campuses as multicultural as London’s.
But given how prominently the Palestine/Israel question now features in UK politics, the lack of an alternative framework that is less kneejerk partisan for engaging with the topic is a serious problem – both on campus and beyond.
I’m not suggesting that every campus in the country needs a separate society to promote neutrality or the "middle ground."
Initiatives calling for more nuance (of which there have been sporadic, short-lived examples on UK campuses) can themselves risk lapsing into the same dogmatism as the groups they are critiquing, and a passive middle-ground approach is prone to depoliticizing the core issues of the conflict; sometimes, sides need to be taken.
What’s more, anyone familiar with the grievances of pro-Israel and pro-Palestine advocates will know that the notion of "dialogue" does not tend to appeal - particularly in the current climate. Indeed, such initiatives probably have a greater chance of success among Palestinians and Israelis within the region itself or even outside it than among their enthusiastic supporters abroad.
The situation as it currently stands allows the Israel/Palestine conversation to be monopolized by the loudest "pro" and "anti" voices. This creates several problems, not least the knock-on impairment of relations between Jewish and Muslim students that tends to result from such polarization.
That polarization also shuts out certain important perspectives that could even reshape the paralysis on the zero-sum narrative. These include Israelis opposed to their government’s policies, or Palestinians who are willing to work with Israelis towards peace and an end to the occupation.
Again, these voices don’t need to replace the perspectives already offered by Israel societies and Palestine societies. But they do need to be included in the conversation. Too often that hasn’t happened - until now.
For the past two years, I’ve been involved in an initiative that seeks to advance the Palestine/Israel conversation at LSE by challenging the dangerous "either-or" paradigm that plagues UK campus engagement on Israel-Palestine.
Voices of Israel-Palestine has hosted a wide range of Palestinian and Israeli speakers: NGO activists (from organizations like Standing Together, Adalah, Activestills and the Bereaved Families Forum), journalists from various publications (Haaretz, the Palestine Chronicle and +972Mag), diplomats from the Palestinian and Israeli missions to the UK, and academics and intellectuals associated with several Israeli and Palestinian institutions and think tanks.
We discussed familiar issues such as politics, terrorism and the occupation, but widened the scope to include key issues that don’t usually receive the attention they deserve over the noise of the traditional Israel/Palestine debate on campus: Mizrahim in Israel, the status and role of Israel’s Palestinian citizens, and LGBTQ+ issues in Palestinian society, among others.
The society has been led by a committee of individuals from diverse backgrounds and with divergent views on central issues such as one/two state solutions, BDS and Zionism, but takes no formal stances on any of these in order to minimize the ideological gate-keeping facing potential participants.
In turn, the society has become a home for members who affiliate more either with Israel or with Palestine or who are simply interested in learning more.
A number of crucial factors were already in place to benefit our work: the presence of supportive academic experts, alumni deeply engaged in these issues and a Faith Center committed to enhancing students’ understanding and empathy regarding Palestine/Israel.
But we also encountered no shortage of obstacles. The ongoing tension around anything Israel or Palestine-related on campus meant the university authorities immediately escalated all of our event proposals to the highest levels of security discussion, which created difficulties in terms of venues and security fees.
And with our biggest event - "Towards a New Generation in Palestine & Israel," a full-day conference in March - came our biggest challenge: anti-normalization.
From the very beginning we were well aware that this resistance from part of Palestinian society and political life (most often associated with the BDS movement) to participating in events with Israelis could critically imperil our efforts. We therefore took pains to frame the initiative and its events in a way, using our own logo and carefully-chosen language, that would allow us to dodge the "normalization" critique and satisfy its proponents.
Perhaps lulled into a false sense of security by gathering momentum at our events, we were not prepared for the deluge of rejections and drop-outs that followed from so many of the Palestinians we invited to participate.
It soon transpired that PACBI, the BDS arm responsible for promoting the academic and cultural boycott internationally, had issued a specific public statement opposing Palestinian participation in our conference. The responses of many of the Palestinians were thus preordained due to this pressure, even from those who had privately praised our event and its values and disagreed that participation constituted normalization.
Ironically, the reaction of PACBI paralleled the response of some pro-Israel activists to a previous event we’d organized with the Palestinian ambassador to the UK. We received a tip-off that activists planned to download all the free tickets under fake names to create a "sell-out" that would end up with the ambassador addressing an empty hall.
The tactics were different, but the goal was similar: to suppress voices that challenge their own perspective, and to reject the idea of expanding the conversation on the conflict.
Despite all of these challenges, individuals looking to reproduce this kind of initiative on other UK campuses have already reached out to us for advice. Perhaps within a few years’ time this framework will serve as a norm that can outweigh the pressures confronting Israelis and Palestinians who are willing to engage.
Alternative ways of engaging with Israel/Palestine on campus are possible - even in the UK’s highly-charged political atmosphere, and despite the defensiveness and fear among both pro-Palestine and pro-Israel activists.
But resistance to initiatives that challenge the sloganizing and winner-takes-all mentality of many partisan groups remains strong. We must redouble our efforts to ensure that the voices that desperately need to be part of this conversation can be heard.
Ben Reiff is a graduate of the London School of Economics & Political Science (LSE), where he was the founder and president of Voices of Israel-Palestine. He also campaigns with Yachad Youth and is involved with the NIF UK New Gen community