When I started university in the fall of 2016, I was hopeful about making a difference on campus. I was aware that anti-Zionism held a prominent position in British universities. I was aware of the size and scope of pro-Palestinian campaigns, straddling not just the Palestinian groups themselves, but often Arab, socialist and Islamic societies, too. However, I was hopeful that if I just had the right strategy: If I brought in the right speakers, conducted the right campaigns and publicly spoke the truth about Israel, I could change their minds.
How wrong I was.
In October of 2016, CAMERA’s event with speaker Hen Mazzig at University College London was violently protested by anti-Zionist students. They banged on the windows and walls, encircled the room and drowned out Hen’s voice. The protesters did not simply want to stop Hen from speaking. Rather, their aim was a display of hatred: passionate hatred. This hatred was evident as they laughed when we, the pro-Israel attendees of this event, were escorted out of the premises by the police. Their hatred was evident when their fingers were pointed in our faces, as they cried “Shame! Shame!” Shame on us for wanting to listen to an Israeli speaker!
Some argued that this opposition was as a result of Hen’s service in the Israel Defense Forces. However, the reality is that the protestors had a fundamental problem with not simply the IDF’s military actions, but with the very right to Jewish self-determination. One of the protestors, a student at UCL, was filmed arguing that, in the 21st century, “We don’t need no Jewish majority state.”
The aim of these anti-Zionists is ultimately to disenfranchise Jews from political power. To leave us isolated, powerless and weak.
At many institutions of higher education in the United Kingdom, they come far too close to succeeding: SOAS University of London, University College Birmingham, University College London, King’s College London, City of Bristol College and University of Warwick are just a few high-ranking, well-respected universities that have for too long been “written off” as places where anti-Zionist activism is simply an accepted part of student and academic life.
The problem is that this view is not simply held by a minority of students. It is institutionalized throughout universities across the United Kingdom in the centers of extracurricular life.
At top universities such as King’s and UCL, those harboring such opinions control the student unions and wrongfully use them as a vehicle for political activism with the aim of destroying the State of Israel. At King’s College London, this was evident last November, when in a defamatory and aggressive protest against a talk by Israeli Ambassador to the United Kingdom Mark Regev, the student union logo featured on a banner with the names of “martyrs” killed in recent Gaza border riots: members of Hamas, Islamic Jihad and so on. The student union was giving its public support to the more than year-long “March of Return” and standing in solidarity with terrorists who were killed whilst attempting to harm innocent Israeli civilians across the Gaza border. Recently, the Leeds University student union issued a warning statement about the Jewish Society’s Yom Ha’atzmaut celebrations, offering counseling for students who might be negatively impacted by this.
Tackling these issues has been problematic because university administrators are unfortunately too cowardly to act. Though they have a responsibility legally to both uphold freedom of speech and to protect the welfare of Jewish students, they are too often cowed from doing so by violent and aggressive anti-Zionist students.
This would suggest that the most strategic thing for Jewish students to do in order to be taken seriously by our universities is to adopt pro-Palestinian tactics. However, the reality is that with CAMERA, we have had considerable success not by stooping to their level, but by staying true to our values as Zionists who hold education and truth in high esteem.
CAMERA has organized successful events with Israeli speakers up and down the country. I have worked directly with dozens of talented students to aid them in hosting events and writing articles in support of Israel. Most recently, we organized a tour with Shai De Luca Tamasi, an Israeli and prominent television presenter in Canada, who addressed a large audience at Nottingham University in England. Jewish students who attended the event left with a stronger sense of their own identities. And non-Jewish students, including those who came in with misconceptions about Israel, left with a changed view of the Jewish state.
CAMERA’s Fellows are incredibly active in both pre-empting and responding to anti-Israel activism on campus. They organize events to try to engage with those who are undecided, or those who would like to learn more about Israel. They also respond to incidents on campus where Israel is smeared.
While we cannot always change the minds of anti-Zionist protesters, professors and administrators, we can stand up for our rights as Jews to host Israeli speakers, and celebrate Israel and our Zionist beliefs. The atmosphere across campuses in the United Kingdom remains very troubling for Jewish and pro-Israel students. Yet if we give up, we risk teaching a whole generation of British Jewish students that it’s better to stay quiet than to stand up for our right to self-determination.
We must therefore continue the fight.
Tamara Berens is a former campus associate with CAMERA on Campus and was president of the King’s College London Israel Society in 2017-18.