Safeguarding Zionist fragility on British campuses

In the context of mounting protests for a ceasefire across British campuses, we have seen a growing media and establishment discourse that correlates Palestinian protest, slogans, and symbols with risks to Jewish safety. On campuses, it has become salient, upheld, and projected by a Zionist cohort that centers its fears of intimidation, where Zionist discomfort is substituted for antisemitism if not a prelude to antisemitism and referenced interchangeably as one and the same. Likewise, governmental officials have iterated that UJS students (Union of Jewish Students) are being “made to feel unsafe on campus because of their faith.”

The perversity of the present genocidal moment is such that whilst words/motifs have become the source of angst for Zionists in Britain, in Palestine, and for those bearing witness, their trauma is the loss of limbs, parents, mass executions, displacement, white phosphorous, homelessness, and starvation. It is a genocide that has targeted all of Gaza’s four universities (90) and left numerous leading academics and students dead. For perspective, as Professor Awartani, president of the Palestine Academy for Science and Technology, put it, “The priority isn’t science — the priority is staying alive.” That was in early November. One of the last standing universities in Gaza was obliterated today

Nonetheless, amplified calls for the “safety and protection of Jews,” notably Zionist groups on campuses, have been matched with unprecedented action from the establishment, including the Prime Minister himself. The British Department for Education’s website, for example, published a five-point plan on how it was “protecting Jewish students on campus,” noting disciplinary measures and a multi-million-pound pledge to tackle antisemitism. 

While pursuing a “business as usual” approach with Israel, universities have also responded unusually quickly. A meeting convened with the head of Universities UK, Vivian Stern, and a number of pro-Israel institutions and MPS, reflected the will to summon a protectionist ensemble for students deemed on the “frontline” of the Zionist community’s struggle. 

In stark contrast to the ways in which Palestinian advocates were being discussed, subject to the disciplinary powers of the state, policed and surveyed across universities, the UJS merited special assurances by Stern that “antisemitism” would be fast-tracked through the right channels and that they would be heard amongst Vice Chancellors across the country. 

Notwithstanding the glaring lack of equivalent support observed for Palestinian or Muslim students, or the wilful instrumentalization of the contested IHRA definition of antisemitism, the meeting illustrated the degree to which pro-Israel institutions are granted institutional legitimacy without the scrutiny or oversight that routinely fall on (pro-)Palestinian students and academics.

Yet these concerted efforts to safeguard Jewish pro-Israel Zionist students on campus on account of their vulnerability fail to tally with the vociferous campaigning the UJS and their respective societies are renowned for instigating. Far from practicing a “quiet Zionism,” as some suggest, this pro-Israel collective has an impressive track record of soliciting complaints, particularly, although not exclusively, against black female leadership vocal on Israel’s brutal regime.

Zionist angst: deflecting genocide

Stella Maris is the latest subject of controversy. Her open letter criticizing Israel’s genocidal attacks has induced complaints by Zionist students, alumni, and anonymous signatories external to the university. They assert that Maris’s “unfounded accusations of ‘genocide,’ ‘apartheid,’ and ‘occupation’ concerning the Jewish State will further embolden attacks and hatred against…Jewish students” are “harmful,” “divisive,” and worthy of dismissal — if not retracted.

Bearing all the hallmarks of Zionist fragility, these widely publicized reactions reflect the inability of Israel’s ambassadors to contend with the reality of Israel’s genocidal violence or its critics. Unsettling Zionist sensibilities, this explains why Maris naming a “genocide” and its relevant historical context is construed as “divisive” and as a necessary prelude to antisemitism. 

Of course, “divisiveness” does not stem from naming a genocide, but from supporting one.

Herein lies the central plank of an affective Zionist politics; an appeal to protect pro-Israeli Zionist Jews on grounds of angst and vulnerability (often construed as synonymous with or leading to antisemitism), with the consequence, if not the aim, of deflecting, stigmatizing, and drowning out anti-Zionist voices. Such interventions are underlined by double-play, where activists advocate as Zionists but publicly claim “harm” on grounds of Jewishness.

In the service of defending Israel, aligning claims of antisemitic hatred (whether genuine or not) with Palestinian solidarity and enacting narratives of victimhood with incessant appeals to feel protected in a “hostile environment” has become the dominant recourse for pro-Israel Zionists where all else fails.

This discourse of liberal Zionist fragility is galloping its way around the globe, while the apocalyptic destruction of Gaza and its people remains secondary (rendered “tragic”), if not eclipsed altogether.

Professor Rashid Khalidi’s open letter to the Columbia Administration describes this privileged “politics of feeling” as relevant to kindergarten but entirely contrary to university settings. 

Zionist angst was a recurring theme in the UJS-instigated NUS inquiry report last year and has re-appeared with greater vigor. On November 23, at Cardiff Unions Annual General Meeting, when confronted with the prospect that Israel’s genocidal methodologies did not have widespread support amongst students, two students had panic attacks. This was attributed to intimidation and Jews being heckled and escorted off stage for their own safety.

As it transpired, not only was the alleged victim of heckling not Jewish (the student was a conservative ally), the co-author of the “ceasefire” motion deemed objectionable was Jewish. The union also qualified that nobody was escorted off stage.

It is noteworthy that these small facts were not considered relevant in media interviews, but translating scrutiny of Israel’s propaganda into an expression of antisemitism and attack on Jewish identity was.

It is equally telling that despite the motion (and Maris’s statement) demonstrating a measured and inclusive perspective recognizing both Jewish and Muslim students as victims of racism and two clauses of the motion being emphatic in not equating all Jews with Israel or Zionism, these are ignored entirely by Zionist critics in favor of a selective focus on insulating Israel and the Israeli army from scrutiny. Evidently, the sensationalized concern around the protection of Jews as Jews becomes, in this instance, entirely secondary to preserving Israel’s dwindling credibility. Given a reported prolific spike in antisemitism in the UK, these political priorities appear grossly misplaced.

A singular clause attentive to Israeli disinformation emerges as a particular concern to the UJS, an especially pertinent theme in motions passed (Campaigns 6) just two weeks later at the UJS National Conference 2023. 

As the logic of pro-Israel advocacy becomes apparent, it matters little that Maris neither apologized nor was removed from her position, or that Cardiff’s “ceasefire motion” was maintained, or indeed even that charges of genocidal intent alone, spread over eight pages of South Africa’s submission to the ICJ, have been spelled out in phenomenal detail. 

This is because, ultimately, the global rehearsal of Zionist “angst” has a tangible function to justify greater curtailment and stigma around Palestinian activism, aligned in these cases through baseless invocations of antisemitism and even designating pre-antisemitic formulas. The latter comes in the shape of longer-term efforts by lobbying groups to strengthen the enforcement of the IHRA on the premise that Israel-critical speech, particularly of the kind Maris employs, puts the “well-being of Jewish students at risk.” 

As such, the art of fragility is not a matter of straightforward deflection but the key to cultivating publicized discourses that demand little scrutiny of the discrepancies and untruths underlining pro-Israel interventions, but nonetheless work to add institutional legitimacy to Zionist aspirations.

Maintaining Israel’s legitimacy means managing its critics by fair or foul play.

This is why Randa Abdel Fattah is unambiguously precise in her observation that this well-cultivated discourse of Zionist fragility is deployed as a rhetorical shield to deflect from the reality of the Palestinian genocide. This is entirely in keeping with the time-honored tradition of deflection that guides many a project, especially the peace-seeking ones. 

That this peak in Zionist fragility coincides with Israel’s indiscriminate killing spree is not coincidental. The burden of rationalizing Israel’s “self- defense” narrative, when at least 23,000 Palestinians have been killed, has become especially arduous. Where it was once possible to mystify the original Nakba as some distant historical episode, it is much harder to ignore a live-streamed genocidal horror of decomposed babies and fathers having to amputate their daughters without anesthetic — images that, for months, been etched into our consciousness.

The prospect of confronting not the illusory violence of fellow students calling for Intifada but the momentous task of explaining away Israel’s brutal annihilation of Gaza, to themselves and others, induces discomfort and unease.

Yet, as unenviable and uncomfortable as defending a genocidal state must be, it is not Zionist activists on the “frontline” that are being removed from their positions or referred to Prevent; it is Palestinians and their Palestinian Solidarity counterparts at British universities and globally, including the heart of the Zionist regime

Following the October 7 attacks, the UJS renewed its constitutional commitments to support Israel against Hamas “by whatever means” Israel “deems necessary” (Campaigns 21), even as it executes what has been described as a textbook case of genocide. Despite the scale and depravity of Israel’s mission, which has starved and bombed a besieged population, this is yet to be registered. Instead, its latest annual meeting chose to note the historic genocide of the Armenian people. 

Arguably, upholding the Zionist supremacism of Israel, in all its “progressive” guises, might be considered key to any purported “divisions” on campus. It also compromises the welfare of a non-Zionist Jewish cohort, something never addressed by professionals involved in the security of Jewish students. 

Safeguarding Zionism does not equate to safeguarding Jews.

Embracing discomfort 

In the wake of South Africa’s cogent legal submission at the Hague, which recounted Israel’s crimes to a global audience, one can only expect these performative Zionist distractions to grow. It is about time this discomfort was reckoned with. 

Projecting Zionist angst onto Israel’s critics is ultimately self-defeating. No amount of self-centered protectionism and establishment mollycoddling that guarantees the criminalization and subduing of Israel’s critics, whether it be through enforced definitions or plain sailing witch-hunts, will assure the “safe spaces” Zionist collectives claim to seek. On the contrary, it assures the pro-Palestinian movement that they aim to contain. Momentum for Palestine remains undeterred and will continue.

As long as Israel continues along its Zionist trajectory, inflicting itself on Palestinian lives and land, those advocating for Israel will always be met with resistance. As with all colonial oppression, with the hindsight of many a racist empire, the return of the repressed is inevitable. 


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