At the University of East Anglia in Norwich, England, Jewish students have faced substantial discrimination. In May 2021 alone, Norwich was marred by anti-Semitic graffiti and slurs during anti-Zionist demonstrations. Jewish students were targeted as somehow responsible for the actions of the Israeli government.
Moreover, the UEA Student’s Union (SU) proposed revising their previously established definition of anti-Semitism due to pressure from non-Jewish students. Societies such as the Pride Society, the Feminist Book Club and Decolonise UEA shared a post campaigning for the SU to go forward with the definition change, irrespective of the views of Jewish students.
In Feb. 2022, the Jewish Society reached out to the Pride Society and suggested co-hosting an inclusive pride-themed Shabbat dinner to celebrate Pride Month. Initially, the Pride Society agreed and the Jewish Society organized the event, which included bringing a speaker from the charity Keshet to speak about allyship between Jews and the LGBT+ community. But the Pride Society dropped out days before the event.
When asked why, the Pride Society said they had concerns about the charity and asked if the speaker was planning on discussing “Israel and Zionism (the areas of concern).” The Jewish Society tried their best to assure Pride that these topics would not be addressed, but Pride nonetheless dropped out of the event and deemed it appropriate to state, “Also, I believe the SU have banned any talks on that.”
While anti-Zionists attempt to veil their hatred of Israel as something other than anti-Semitism, their unwillingness to associate with Jews who do not publicly denounce the State of Israel reveals their true beliefs.
In March 2022, the Jewish Society arranged for Israeli writer, speaker and activist Hen Mazzig to give a talk on campus. The purpose of the discussion was to inform the UEA community about the nuances of Israel, a country in which many non-Jews have expressed an interest. Hen covered interesting topics, such as the tragic history of Mizrahi Jews, the difficulties and triumphs of the LGBT+ community in the Middle East and how it is possible to be liberal, progressive and Zionist.
Unfortunately, if unsurprisingly, the decision to bring an Israeli speaker to campus seemed to ruffle some feathers. Although the Jewish society had obtained approval from the SU well in advance, and the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting and Analysis (CAMERA) had already funded the event, which was open and accessible to everyone, some students attempted to prevent the event from happening.
These students were from Decolonise. Ironically, this society claims to “acknowledge the ways that race, class, gender, sexuality and ability intersect to reinforce systemic prejudice” and “believe(s) in promoting an inclusive teaching and learning environment at UEA, diversity of knowledge and plurality of stories.”
Although Israeli citizens are obligated to serve in the Israel Defense Forces, a few members of Decolonise violently objected to the decision to let Mazzig on campus, making the weak argument that it was inappropriate to have an ex-IDF soldier on campus. They put up posters directly around the posters advertising the Mazzig talk. The posters accused Israel of “pinkwashing,” simply because Mazzig is openly queer and intended to talk about the LGBT+ community in the Middle East. One student even stormed into the SU office demanding to see proof that the event was permitted.
It should go without saying that it is unethical to mistreat Israeli citizens simply because of where they were raised, and it is embarrassingly antiquated to target people because of their queerness.
These “pinkwashing” posters and social-media posts calling for the cancellation of the talk echo the already prevalent issue of cancel culture, in which individuals and groups attempt to silence controversial speakers and opinions. Such actions and the cancelers’ refusal to attend the Mazzig event and participate in a debate are unfortunate because healthy debate fosters intellectual curiosity.
Listening to talks and reading about subjects not directly relevant to your agenda promote growth and reduce confirmation bias. The people who wanted to silence Mazzig because he is Israeli have a binary view of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. They see Israel as bad and the Palestinians as good, but the truth is much more complicated.
Despite the drama, Mazzig gave an interesting talk. He discussed his family’s Iraqi origins and how they were forced to flee due to anti-Semitic persecution. He also addressed the pinkwashing allegations circulating on campus. As Hen explained, those who accuse Israel of pinkwashing claim Israel attempts to divert attention away from its treatment of Palestinians by emphasizing its fair treatment of the LGBT+ community. Such allegations are nonsensical.
While communities in Israel are still lobbying for a same-sex marriage option, the fact that queer Israelis can serve openly in the military and the Knesset proves that Israel is becoming more progressive. LGBT+ rights and progress in any country are a cause for celebration, not a ruse for distraction. Tel Aviv’s reputation as one of the Middle East’s most welcoming cities for LGBT+ individuals and hosting one of the best Pride celebrations in the world suggests that Israel is genuinely accepting and supportive of the LGBT+ community.
In other parts of the Middle East, such as Iran, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Yemen, the death penalty can be applied if a person is found guilty of engaging in same-sex behavior. Israel is one of the only safe places for queers in the Middle East and grants refuge to queer Palestinians—yet, it is still vilified.
If someone feels they should criticize Israel, they should first do some research before jumping on the hate bandwagon. If they had a genuine thirst for knowledge rather than merely following the crowd, people would be aware that there is more to Israel than war.
Jasmine San, a psychology graduate, is a CAMERA on Campus UK Associate and a 2021-22 CAMERA on Campus UK Fellow.