Israel advocacy groups and individuals are seeking to undermine Palestine solidarity activism on British campuses, using Islamophobic abuse and false accusations of antisemitism.
Last Thursday, former Israeli army officer Hen Mazzig, who served in the occupied West Bank as part of the Israeli occupation authorities’ forces, was invited to speak at University College London (UCL) by the Friends of Israel student society.
His presence prompted a protest – described by UCL as “non-violent” – by Palestinian students and their allies, angered by the presence of an individual who proudly participated in a decades-long military regime characterised by human rights and international law violations.
Meanwhile, some 20 or so “veteran” pro-Israel activists arrived, many of whom are known for their harassment of Palestinian students and extremist beliefs about the conflict – more of which below. The event itself was backed by CAMERA, a notoriously hard-line Israel advocacy group.
Even as the event and protest were ongoing, pro-Israel activists began reporting that they were being subjected to “violence” and “aggression” by student protesters. These claims were picked up and repeated unquestioningly in a number of media outlets.
Over the weekend, however, video footage emerged showing those pro-Israel activists from outside campus hurling Islamophobic and racist abuse at protesters – “Get out of our country!”, said one. Others referred to the students as “vermin” and Nazis.
Elliot Miller, an employee of a so-called “counter-extremism” outfit called Student Rights, was filmed shoving people, and shouting at protesters that Islam is a “violent religion”.
Student Rights was originally set up in 2009 explicitly to counter Palestine solidarity activism. Its first “director” was none other than Raheem Kassam, former Nigel Farage aide, now failed UKIP leadership candidate, and a friend of EDL-founder Tommy Robinson.
The racist language used by Israel’s supporters, including those who were present at UCL, continued after the event. Mazzig, for example, who said the experience was worse than his time in the Israeli army, referred to “barbaric” students as an “Arab mob”.
Another pro-Israel organiser, Stand With Us campus coordinator Devora Khafi, said the student protesters had “behave[d] like animals”, adding the following slur: “How dare they call me a killer whilst it’s their own people that are being taught the tactics of terrorism?”
As if the Orientalist, dehumanising language wasn’t enough, others even diminished the horrors of the Holocaust in their efforts to generate hysteria about proceedings: one Israeli news site called it a “pogrom”, others compared it to the “Warsaw Ghetto”.
The Simon Wiesenthal Centre, meanwhile, combined all of the above by comparing the protesters to Nazi Stormtroopers and “Jihadi volunteers”, and perhaps most disturbingly of all, describing them as a form of cancer to be uprooted (“this growth must be deracinated before it metastasizes”).
Yet on a blog supported by CAMERA, a pro-Israel activist who attended the event with “20 or so veterans” freely acknowledged there was never any danger: “I cannot in all honesty say I felt particularly threatened or anxious. It was pretty much water off the proverbial duck’s back.”
Those “veteran” pro-Israel activists who descended on the UCL campus are key to understanding this story. Among sections of the British Jewish community, there is frustration at what is seen as insufficient efforts by communal bodies to defend Israel and fight the so-called “new antisemitism”.
This discontent erupted very publicly in 2014, in the context of Israel’s slaughter of Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, which unsurprisingly prompted an unprecedented wave of solidarity with the Palestinians and anger with the Israeli government.
In the last two years, a number of grassroots groups have emerged across Britain in support of Israel, with established bodies like the Board of Deputies of British Jews having to play catch up, co-opting such efforts while under pressure from this more hard-line constituency.
A number of these extremist, “grassroots” groups or individuals were present at UCL last week, including Sharon Klaff of Campaign4Truth, who recently organised an event – with the support of the Israeli embassy – where Palestinian statehood and even identity was denied and scoffed at.
Campaign4Truth previously organised a panel event featuring a notorious academic who believes that “if Europe continues its current path” it will “fall before the Islamic challenge”.
Also present at the UCL event was Simon Cobbs, from Sussex Friends of Israel, a man best known for accosting peaceful demonstrators and shouting in their faces. Another attendee was David Collier, a blogger who creepily listed Palestinian students in the UK, whose presence he termed an “invasion”.
These are the kinds of groups who are pressuring the likes of the Board and Jewish Leadership Council (JLC) to mobilise as many resources as possible to fight Palestine solidarity activism. One such pro-Israel activist has vowed that their presence at students’ events “will increase”.
The attack on Palestine solidarity activists, and students in particular, is not just about intimidation and Islamophobia. It is also about using the smear of antisemitism to try and stifle debate, and stigmatise tactics like the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign.
A statement condemning the UCL protest was released in the name of the Board, the JLC, the Union of Jewish Students, and, notably, the Community Security Trust (CST), a charity whose evidence was heavily relied upon by the recent Home Affairs Select Committee report on antisemitism.
The statement, which referred to “violent” protests without any acknowledgement that this is a contested allegation, claimed that an “extreme and intolerant minority” on campus is “determined to prevent pro-Israel, Israeli or Jewish speakers from being heard.”
“Jewish” speakers? The Board, JLC, UJS and even CST are clearly happy to lend their names to a casual, and entirely unsubstantiated, accusation of antisemitism. In fact, the only two incidents cited were protests against a former head of the Israeli navy and Shin Bet, and an Israeli ex-army officer.
Attacks on legitimate political activity such as support for Palestinian rights and BDS are nothing new, even in recent times. Every indication is that this pro-Israel offensive is set to escalate.