At the University of Manchester anti-Israel demonstrators, reportedly from Action Palestine, surrounded and tried to attack deputy Israeli ambassador Talya Lador-Fresher after she’d given a political science lecture. She has the impression that they would have beaten her up if they could. The event had been postponed previously due to security concerns. A spokesperson for the University of Manchester commented irrelevantly:
“The University is fundamentally committed to freedom of speech, exercised within the law. It follows that it should also allow peaceful and lawful protest to take place on its campus.”
Not reassuring – the protest was not peaceful but violent.
There are political players at the extremes of Israeli and Palestinian society, along with their supporters, who would like us to consider this attack representative of Palestine solidarity, but it isn’t. At most, it represents support for the minority within Palestinian society which hates and attacks Israelis, and works to drive them away. In their approach and mentality Action Palestine activists have more in common with the extreme right Israelis who left a pipe-bomb outside the home of anti-occupation activist Ze’ev Sternhell than they have with genuine pro-Palestinian campaigners. They insist that they stand for Palestinian rights, dignity and freedom, and yet deny rights, dignity and freedom to Israelis. The only serious thing about them is their attempt to import the Middle East conflict onto a British campus.
Too often anti-Israel campaigners find antisemitism appealing, though they would be the last to admit this. Action Palestine hosted Bongani Masuku back in December 2009, at the same time as the University and College Union. The South African Human Rights Commission found Bongani Masuku guilty of hate speech against Jews a few days afterwards. UCU and Action Palestine would or should have known about the charges against him. They would or should have known that anti-Israel campaigning is often expressed as animosity to Jews, who are treated as proxy Israelis.
But, like UCU nationally, my local UCU branch at Goldsmiths attributes antisemitism to “the actions of the Israeli state” rather than to the groups and individuals who enact it, and leaves Jews to deal with it on their own. Harry’s Place points out that Action for Palestine is holding a seminar next week with Amnesty International and Ben White, who considers antisemitism “understandable”.
So where are we? A British campaign for Palestinian rights seeks education from an antisemitic speaker and attacks an Israeli. A reputable human rights organisation is content to partner with it. A trade union invites the antisemitic speaker to present on an anti-racist platform. A higher education institution can’t distinguish between peaceful protest and physical attack.
And precisely what does all this have to do with a political solution to the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians?
Palestinians are not free, and there is a need for a movement which supports and enables a negotiated political settlement and mutual understanding between ordinary citizens. Compare Action Palestine with 11 students at the Technische Universität Darmstadt. They run an annual Middle East Simulation event where 50 students from Israel, Palestine and Europe are assigned key roles, simulate the conflict and global responses, and discuss freely. Nobody gets beaten up and nobody is permitted to indulge their prejudices. They are currently inviting applications to attend.
Update: on Harry’s Place, Marco Schneebalg writes of ongoing efforts to reduce the tension on the University of Manchester campus over Israel and Palestine. He feels that the attacks on Talya Lador-Fresher were a marginal event which nevertheless undermined the Palestinian cause because of the way it was dealt with in the media. He is due a lot of credit for his bridge-building work (and it would be good to stop there). But. The good work he and others are doing doesn’t change the facts of the attacks, nor the way the University of Manchester, and Action Palestine, whom he deals with gently, handled them. Nor does it alter the fact that the vitriolic attacks are not six of one and half a dozen of the other. It is right to take physical attacks and hatred against people because of their nationality very seriously indeed. This doesn’t come across in Marco Schneebalg’s post, and this is perplexing. I wonder if this is a case of (I’m going to quote Sophie Buckland here because she puts it best, even though she’s referring to clashes about something else – and the post I link to is well-worth reading): “Where two ideologies clash there’s always someone who claims the middle ground for their own, however inconsistent and fractured it may be.”