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Pro-Israel propaganda cloaked with ‘progressive’ values at Britain’s universities

As students begin a new academic year, there are signs that pro-Israel propaganda initiatives at Britain’s universities are being given a boost. The Union of Jewish Students (UJS) has established a new role within the organisation of “Israel Engagement Officer”, a post being taken up by Canadian Beca Bookman. Bookman comes with considerable experience in working with the Israeli government to undermine Palestine solidarity, and is a past recipient of a “Hasbara in Action” award from the Menachem Begin Foundation.

According to the advertisement for the job, the position is part funded and supported by UJIA, Jewish Agency for Israel and, the Community Security Trust (CST), a charity whose remit is monitoring and tackling antisemitism. In addition, the work of the Israel Engagement Officer will be complemented by another new addition: an ‘emissary‘ (schlicha) from the Jewish Agency for Israel, sent to Britain in part to help hasbara initiatives on campus. These changes are being overseen by new president Joe Tarsh, who hopes to serve in the Israeli army and believes “UJS should be representing Israel on campus”.

In preparation for the term, the UJS team has met with the Israeli Ambassador to the UK Daniel Taub, and held a training summit that featured speakers from the Israeli embassy (Director of Public Diplomacy), Israel lobby group BICOM, and Labour Friends of Israel. There was also a panel discussion on campus hasbara that included representatives from liberal Zionist advocacy group Yachad, BICOM project ‘We Believe in Israel‘, and StandWithUs UK. The latter are active independently on UK campuses, as well as in association with UJS, and ran a week-long hasbara tour for “future British pro-Israel student leaders” over the summer.

UJS, as the main driver of Israel advocacy amongst students on UK campuses, has struggled in recent years to adapt to both a growing Palestine solidarity movement, and growing disquiet amongst young British Jews about traditional ‘Israel right or wrong’ approaches. UJS has responded with three main strategies.

One approach has been to raise the alarm about ‘extremism‘, including through the promotion of the discredited so-called EUMC working definition of antisemitism which the National Union of Students (NUS) renewed earlier this year. UJS claims that the working definition is “a useful set of guidelines to help Student Unions identify anti-Semitism and act against it” – omitting to mention that the EU’s Fundamental Rights Agency (successor to the EUMC) abandoned the draft text because it was not fit for purpose. What it has been good for, however, is making students worried about what they can and cannot discuss when it comes to Israeli apartheid.

Another tactic has been rebranding, which has for some years now has been a favoured approach by the Israeli government and other hasbara agencies. Thus UJS has conducted tours of “Tel Aviv” on campus and hosted hasbara-trained groups of Israelis, all in order to move the focus away from the ‘conflict’ and supposed ‘anti-Israel’ misinformation.

Finally, UJS has also sought to appropriate the discourse of the Palestine solidarity movement itself, by pushing a ‘liberation‘ campaign and explicitly endorsing a two-state solution. Cloaking hasbara with ‘progressive’ values seemed to have been inspired by the recommendations of Israeli think tank The Reut Institute, who hosted a UJS delegation in 2010. It was, however, an approach widely criticised within the Jewish community and was left to “fizzle out“.

Appeals to dialogue, rebranding, attacks on ‘extremists’, endorsements of a two-state solution: who knows which tired tactics UJS and their partner organisations will adopt this year. They are, however, likely to be on the defensive, given initiatives such as the October ‘Confronting Israeli Apartheid‘ conference, where UK-based students will plan and strategise for how best to advance solidarity with Palestinians on campuses. No wonder the Israeli government and its apologists are worried.

Published first by Middle East Monitor

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