Will pro-Israel groups seek to block Israeli Apartheid Week events on British campuses?
The possibility was hinted at recently by a director of pro-Israel legal activism group Jewish Human Rights Watch (JHRW), speaking during a meeting of the Board of Deputies of British Jews.
Robert Festenstein made the remarks in the context of a discussion about a new, campus-focused anti-boycott initiative by the Board and Union of Jewish Students.
During the debate, a number of deputies opposed the inclusion of the Palestinian flag in the campaign materials, including one on the grounds that it is a “terror flag”.
Others defended the use of the flag, and the initiative itself, as a strategic ploy in the fight against the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign.
Festenstein, however, used the debate to make a different point.
“The problem that we face”, he told the meeting, “is that there is a vicious and revolting campaign called Israeli Apartheid Week”, which “sadly has been a bit of a regular occurrence on campuses.”
He continued: “It’ll come in February next year, and I think what we should be doing whilst we have time is thinking about taking action as far as that is concerned.
It’s an intimidatory campaign, it’s massively antisemitic, in the way in which it clearly identifies Jews as their target, and it’s run by a number of well-known anti-Semitic organisations including of course the BDS movement.
Festenstein concluded by recommending that the board “take that on board”, in addition to the ongoing anti-BDS activities.
The language used by Festenstein to describe IAW, and his suggestion that the board should take “take action”, suggest that pro-Israel groups may pursue fresh attacks on freedom of speech and Palestine solidarity in the context of IAW events next year.
JHRW, who emerged in 2015 and was started by commodities trading advisor Manny Weiss, has made a habit of sending threats of legal action to venues and institutions hosting Palestine solidarity events (indeed, one was sent – fruitlessly – to a Hastings hotel where I recently spoke).
JHRW is perhaps best known for its legal action against three local authorities in response to council motions adopted in support of the Palestinian people. In June, JHRW lost its attempt to seek judicial review of these motions at the High Court, a significant setback for the group.
The board is similarly no stranger to seeking to stifle legitimate political expression. Last year, for example, the board pressured the University of Southampton to cancel an academic conference in the name of “balanced debate”.
IAW has become a global phenomenon, with events and activities that raise awareness of, and mobilise opposition to, Israel’s systematic violations of international law. Its focus, and success, is what angers Israel’s apologists, and British activists might be wise to prepare accordingly.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.