Friday 20 February 2015

When is an Israel society not an Israel Society?

Last week at Goldsmiths College in  South London in a Student Union debate to decide whether the Union should support the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, The meeting was told by a concerned student that “This is a motion against Jews on campus.” The debate at Goldsmiths was just one of several BDS debates that took place on British campuses last week as a prelude to Israel 'apartheid' week which is due to start on the 23 February.

What struck me about this comment was that it was made at a College known for its support of  Palestinian rights yet it appears that there are decent people out there who are concerned enough and willing to stand up and speak out against BDS and tell it is as it is; that BDS a discriminatory campaign against Jewish students on campus. 

One of Anglo-Jewry's problems has been that for far too long they have acted as bystanders and kept quiet  and not made a fuss in order not to cause Antisemitism. In fact this view has been promoted by the leadership for about the last 150 years and even now with all the discussion in the media about rising antisemitism in Britain and Europe, our leaders have tended to play down the community's concerns by saying it has never been a better time to be a Jew in Britain. However after the Paris killings many British Jews now feel uneasy about their future especially as they have realised they are potential targets for extremists. 
I make this point because I was told that when the members of the Jewish Society (J SOC) at the School Of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) were asked recently if they were willing to support a campaign against a BDS referendum which is to take place during Israel 'apartheid' week,  the majority of  the students said 'no', saying that it was not the  role  J SOC to stand up for Israel and lead the 'no' campaign.

Whilst I appreciate that one could in the past be a Jewish undergraduate at SOAS and keep your head down not getting involved, I cannot understand how after last summer's antisemitism and with Israel central to all our thoughts and prayers that they can say this let alone think it. Whether they like it or not, keeping quiet is no longer an option because  the Jews of Britain are now being held accountable for Israel's actions. This apparent  unwillingness to stand up and be counted has meant that the 'no' campaign to the BDS referendum is being organised by a handful of concerned Jewish students without the official backing of the SOAS J SOC.

The SOAS BDS referendum vote is radically different from other student BDS motions in that the Student Union itself rather than the SOAS Palestinian society is backing and organising the vote and the debate.  The BDS motion calls for a SOAS school-wide vote which includes academics and other staff. This is against the rules of the Student Union constitution and the 'no' campaigners have called for the vote to be cancelled if anyone other than students are allowed to vote. The aim of the proposers of the motion is to empower the Union to enter into discussions with the SOAS management to implement at SOAS an academic boycott of Israel. The boycotters are targeting the links SOAS currently has with the Hebrew University in Jerusalem (HU) as SOAS sends Hebrew language students to the HU for two semesters. If the BDS motion is adopted and even if SOAS refuses to discuss implementing BDS with the Union, pressure could be brought to bear on those students affected not to take up the option to go the HU.

Even if the referendum goes ahead and proposal is adopted, the Union trustees will be asked to consider if the BDS policy can be implemented because active support for BDS by the Union, which is a registered charity, is considered to be outside of the charitable objects of the Union, and in breach of SOAS Equality and Diversity policy.  
However the Student Union shop at SOAS already enforces BDS as they have removed from their shelves Israeli goods and if it were not for the efforts of the J SOC they would have stopped selling Kosher sandwiches as well.
You may well ask, "where is the SOAS Israel society in all this?" Doesn't it oppose the BDS referendum?" The simple answer is that the SOAS Israel society has been hijacked and I quote from their website that the SOAS Israel Society :

"Asks integral questions of Israeli hegemony, its systemic exclusion of huge swathes of Israeli society, the rising tide of deliberately anti-democratic legislation and its policies towards the Palestinian refugees inside and outside the occupied Palestinian territories."

The Israel Society was relaunched in 2012 with an event titled "Is BDS working?" One of the speakers at this event was Prof. Ilan Pappé. In other words, the SOAS Israel society is an anti-Israel society, rather than concentrating on building a greater understanding amongst its fellow students of all things about Israel e.g., its achievements,  its people, its culture , its politics as well as encouraging serious and critical debate about the Arab-Israeli conflict it concentrates instead on the negatives.

I contacted the SOAS Israel Society and was told that they are not a campaigning group and did not have an official position on BDS.  Yet when they held a meeting last week to discuss the BDS referendum I was told that I was not allowed to attend because I was not a member of SOAS. I am however reliably informed that there were several non-SOAS students at the meeting as well as many supporters of BDS.

So when is an Israel society not an Israel Society, when it's the SOAS Israel society.

Ronnie Fraser
The Academic Friends of Israel

Lord Jonathan Sacks

Advisory Board: 
Dr Manfred Gerstenfeld - Chairman of the Board of Fellows, Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.
Vivian Wineman - President of the Board of Deputies of British Jews
Amir Lev
John D A Levy - Director of the Academic Study Group on Israel and the Middle East
Andrew R. Marks, M.D. - Columbia University, USA
Professor Leslie Wagner CBE
Rt Hon Lord Young of Graffham

The Academic Friends of Israel Ltd is limited by guarantee and  registered in England No 5297417.

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