A majority of Israeli Oxford students this week condemned the activities and agenda of the Oxford Israel Society.
In an open letter written to this newspaper by Israeli citizens based in Oxford, the society was accused of being “co-opted from a cultural society to a hard-line political advocacy group” and of “not reflect[ing] the opinions of Israelis in this town”.
21 students declared support for the letter, which warned that if action was not taken to rectify this, they would contact the relevant Oxford authorities to seek to force the society to change its name. The supporters make up the majority of Israelis studying in Oxford.
Read Yishai Mishor’s letter, published in full here
Israel Soc deny all the allegations. A statement in response signed by ten members reads: “The Oxford Israel Society is deeply disappointed by recent polemics in the student press directed against itself and its president… If members take issue with the society’s core values or the way it is run, we do encourage them to stand for elections rather than attack us personally in the press.”
The accusations centre around claims that Israel Soc is taking a right-wing political line by continuing its partnership with the American pro-Israel organisation StandWithUs and that free speech is being restricted within the society.
The letter points out that the Israel Soc constitution not only explicitly endorses the society’s partnership with StandWithUs, but also mandates the sending of delegates to its annual conference. Furthermore, much of Israel Soc’s funding comes from StandWithUs and the society’s fundraiser, Jonathan Hunter, is the StandWithUs Campus Director.
Yishai Mishor, a DPhil student at Lincoln, said: “It is wrong that a government is making itself involved with student politics. It is wrong that a student society is turning itself into a PR organisation in the service of a government.”
Hunter, speaking on behalf of the society, denied that StandWithUs was a political organisation and insisted it was “a purely educational body, which seeks to draw context in situations which otherwise have none.” He argued that the view of StandWithUs as right-wing was a “misperception”.
He further emphasised that the decision to remain in a partnership with StandWithUs was passed at the Israel Soc AGM last Sunday. “We believe in democracy, it was democratically ratified, obviously in any society people will disagree with the majority opinion but this is where we are,” Hunter commented. This was supported by the society’s official statement.
The Israelis who supported the letter’s publication pledged to take action if the society’s constitution was not rectified to end its partnership with StandWithUs. They pledged to contact the Proctors and seek to get the society’s name changed to the ‘Netanyahu Support Society’’, on the grounds that this would be more representative of the society’s political views.
Allegations made in the letter also question the number of Israelis in Oxford who are active members of the society: “There are hardly any Israelis left in this Society.”
Hunter claimed that there were three Israelis present at the society’s AGM, all of whom voted in favour of the new constitution.
The letter also highlights that the society’s constitution gives the President, Richard Black, the discretion to add and remove members. Supporters of Mishor allege the power is being used remove members who hold political views which are not in line with those of Black. As reported by the OxStu two weeks ago, Israeli student Ariel Hoffman was removed from the society after criticising aspects of its strategy.
Mishor said: “It is unacceptable that members of Israel Soc will be kicked out because someone decided that they hold the wrong views. This is completely contradicting the essence of Israeli democracy. “
Hunter responded to this claim, stating that Hoffman was removed “because he insulted many members.”
“It was his personal conduct, he was a nuisance to many people. We received messages from people saying ‘who is this guy, why does he keep upsetting me?’. I think Richard took legitimate action.” He also claimed that Hoffman has since been told that he can return to the society if he apologises to those he has offended, including Black.
StandWithUs has come under fire from Oxford-based Israelis for its political positions. In its literature, StandWithUs claims that retaining the E1 settlement area “is critical for Israel’s contiguity and security”. Building in E1 is considered illegal by the majority of the international community, including the EU, and is actively opposed by many centrist and left-wing politicians and organisations within Israel.
StandWithUs also claim that “Arab and Palestinian leaders caused the long-term displacement and suffering of Palestinian refugees”.
There is as yet no indication that Oxford University Israel Society plans to change its constitution in response to the letter.