An Open Letter to the President of the University of Oxford Israel Society
A week ago, Ariel Hoffman was expelled from the University Israel Society for “violating the society’s aims,” or otherwise said, for expressing political views different from Society President Richard Black’s. This follows a recent change in Israel Society’s constitution allowing the President to “expel any member who breaks the rules.”
The aptly named Mr Black fails to understand the importance of freedom of expression within any organisation, and certainly in Israel’s political tradition. Under the new Israel Society constitution, at least 25% of Members of Israeli Parliament would also be banned from the Society for promoting a “non-Zionist” agenda as interpreted by Black’s leadership.
Indeed, Israel’s legal history shows a consistent constitutional commitment to free speech on all issues, particularly those concerning the Israeli-Arab conflict. Is it too much to ask that Oxford’s Israel Society adhere to these democratic principles?
The Israeli political right, currently in power, is obsessed over the international media image of Israel, while ignoring the most important things: strategic and moral outcomes of their policy. What they don’t realise is that no PR move can possibly hide a military oppression of three million Palestinians in the West Bank.
Black’s approach is no different: his Israel Society declares concern for “Israel’s image” to defend it from “Palestinian propaganda” attacks. Ironically, though, no single action undermined Israel’s image in Oxford more than Black’s political silencing.
Black’s society claims it “does not align with a particular political party,” but its actions betray obvious commitment to a right-wing agenda. The Society has strong links to StandWithUS, an international advocacy NGO tied to the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs. StandWithUS is a right-wing group that has for example actively campaigned against JStreet, a Jewish left-wing organisation that has criticised Netanyahu’s settlement policies. The heads of Israel Society owe an explanation regarding the nature of their relations with this right wing organization.
If Israel Society is indeed so committed to “plurality” as they claim, why do they not invite speakers from Jewish left-wing NGOs such as Yachad or Rabbis for Human Rights?
Black adopts the false idea that you can only be loyal to Israel if you attack Palestinians and their supporters: I think this is wrong. I am in favour of Palestinian freedom; this doesn’t make me less Israeli than Black (who incidentally is British). We must make a clear distinction between supporting the existence of Israel and supporting Netanyahu’s government and its oppressive policies.
The outcome is that Israel Society has been co-opted from a cultural society to a hard-line political advocacy group. In light of this it is no wonder that they dictate a uniformity of political opinions within the Society; any good PR strategist would confirm that without this, they would be unable to conduct an effective campaign.
Following the past week’s events in Israel Society, I met with many (if not most) Israeli students in Oxford. I am yet to meet a single one who shares Black’s hard-line position. Israel Society purports to represent Israelis in Oxford, but Black’s actions do not reflect the opinions of Israelis in this town. In fact, since Hoffman’s expulsion there are hardly any Israelis left in this Society.
This charade must end immediately. Black’s new constitution violates not only common sense but also Oxford University’s protocol on Freedom of speech. Israel Society must abolish this constitution which allows wanton exclusion of any member based on their opinions. Furthermore, they must revoke the exclusion of students kicked out last week. Alternatively, I propose they change their name to the “Netanyahu Support Society” and stop abusing the name of my country.
Finally, a word on Richard Black and James Elliott of Palestinian Society’s shouting match. Black accuses PalSoc of being “a vicious hub of anti-Israel and anti-Semitic hate,” while Elliott hits back saying “I don’t like being smeared as anti-Semitic, but I don’t bleed from it either… racist colonization of Palestine is the root of the struggle.” This is all absurd. What you both don’t realise is that the Israel-Palestine conflict is not a zero sum game. You can passionately support Palestinian liberty and an end to their oppression, whilst also agreeing that not only Arabs but Jews too deserve a state in their homeland. I appreciate your concern for the awful events occurring in Israel and Palestine; but please remember that the fires of hatred you ignite here in Oxford continue to blaze in Ramallah and Tel Aviv.
DPhil candidate, Lincoln College