Southampton furore marks the unravelling of hysterical Israel lobby
Earlier this week, the University of Southampton pulled the plug on a forthcoming conference about Israel and international law.
The decision to withdraw permission for the event was taken on “health and safety” grounds, but came after months of pressure by pro-Israel groups who objected to the conference’s contents. A legal challenge to the decision is now underway.
Whatever the final outcome, this story is significant for the way in which it illustrates not so much the pro-Israel lobby’s power, but its weaknesses.
This is not necessarily immediately obvious, but there are in fact three serious problems facing Israel’s apologists.
Panic leads to over-reach
For more than a decade, Israel’s supporters in the UK have watched with growing consternation as the country’s image has taken a battering.
Examples abound, such as a poll of the British public which ranked Israel as one of the most unfavourably viewed countries, second only to North Korea.
A Westminster vote on Palestinian statehood in October saw MPs defy the opposition of the main pro-Israel lobby groups by 274 to 12. The response to the vote from “the Jewish community and the Israeli government”, wrote one columnist in The Jerusalem Post, “bordered on the hysterical“.
Israel’s assault on the Gaza Strip in the summer of 2014, meanwhile, prompted unprecedented political fallout in the UK, including from members of the traditionally Israel-sympathetic Conservative party.
Alongside such developments, there has been a growth in support for the Palestinian-led Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign, with different motions and initiatives being adopted in trade unions, on university campuses, and elsewhere.
This is the context in which the Board of Deputies of British Jews, the Jewish Leadership Council, and the Zionist Federation decided to lobby a university to cancel an academic conference.
Yet in doing so, they placed themselves on the wrong side of a debate about free speech, creating a narrative of Israel’s supporters versus academic freedom.
To stop the conference going ahead, the tactics got more desperate, and in a telling sign, even some supporters of Israel began to show signs of discomfort.
One Israeli journalist ridiculed the claim by the Board of Deputies’ Jonathan Arkush that the conference was “antisemitic”, while a website intended to counter the academic boycott of Israel hosted a thorough demolition of the pro-censorship arguments.
Thus, no matter what happens now, those groups and individuals who campaigned for the conference to be cancelled have guaranteed two outcomes: the conference (and its themes) got far more attention than it would have otherwise, and the pro-Israel lobby groups got terrible PR.
Elite access versus grassroots support
This episode also exemplifies another problem facing Israel’s supporters in Britain: the difference between elite access and grassroots support.
Pressure to cancel the conference was applied through the highest channels, in letters to, and meetings with, the vice-chancellor and other university officials. This included a meeting with Universities UK, attended by Britain’s ambassador in Tel Aviv.
There was even interference by Communities Minister Eric Pickles, who declared the conference to be outside the bounds of “legitimate academic debate”.
The only indication of “public” support for the cancellation of the conference was a Zionist Federation-run petition on Change.org, which gathered around 6,500 signatures over the course of a month.
However, a petition expressing outrage at Southampton dropping the event was signed by a similar number of people in just 48 hours.
In addition, over the past three weeks, more than 900 professors and researchers, including academics from Oxbridge, Russell Group universities and Ivy League schools in the US, have signed a statement in support of the conference and slamming the interference by Israel advocates.
In other words, while pressure on the University of Southampton to drop the conference took place almost exclusively at the level of closed meetings with senior officials, huge support for the conference taking place has been expressed by both academia and the general public.
Bicom, one of the key Israel lobby groups in the UK, recently ran a conference under the banner of its “We Believe in Israel” initiative. Delegates were urged to make Israel’s case to friends and neighbours, such as by holding “dinner parties” where propaganda talking points could be raised.
If that sounds like an awkward guide to expanding a cult, that’s because those driving such initiatives are painfully aware of the huge disparity in grassroots support for Israel on the one hand, and for Palestinian rights on the other.
Around 1,500 were said to have attended Bicom’s conference, around the same number who took to the streets of London to express support for Israel during the assault on Gaza.
By contrast, tens of thousands marched in opposition to Israel’s atrocities, more than once, and 100,000 people urged the UK government to end arms sales to Israel – just some examples.
The Israeli government itself
The third, and perhaps most fundamental, problem facing the pro-Israel lobby is the Israeli government itself, and its policies towards the Palestinians.
Israel’s military rule over millions of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip has lasted for almost half a century. Expanding settlements and home demolitions are just some of the ways in which Israel’s occupation systematically violates both Palestinian rights and international law.
In the past decade, Israel has battered the besieged Gaza Strip repeatedly, bringing the might of its military to bear on a majority-refugee population, and killing more than 4,000 Palestinians.
Furthermore, Israelis are electing governments that not only persist in illegal policies, but include coalition partners actively opposed to allowing a Palestinian state. One professor who signed the academics’ statement of support for the conference cited Netanyahu’s recent victory at the polls.
Taken together, these three problems – of panicked over-reach, elite access but a lack of grassroots support, both compounded by Israel’s actual policies – represent a challenge to Israel’s advocates that will likely prove impossible to overcome.
At the time of writing, Southampton’s cancellation of the conference is being condemned by dozens of senior academics and 6,600 members of the public – but has been praised by Michael Gove and the Israeli embassy.
In the long-run, that’s not a promising balance sheet for the apartheid apologists.