Interview with Colin Shindler

Jean Cohen

As the lead-up to this year’s NWSS Foundation Lecture, I made a Shindler’s List ( I couldn’t resist saying that!) and, as usual, electronically sat down with Colin Shindler, who was in Caesarea, to discuss BDS and anti-Israel student groups.

Thank you for agreeing to be interviewed, Colin. I’d like to focus on an Israel related issue: anti-Israel, Pro-Palestinian activism organisations at the University Level. As an American, the main one coming to mind is Students for Justice in Palestine in the United States. I know they were established at the University of California Berkeley in 1993. But by 2016 there were over 80 chapters, almost worldwide.

It is significant that the SJP was established in 1993 – the year that Rabin and Arafat shook hands on the White House lawn. It suggests that the SJP emerged from those opposed to Arafat and the Oslo Peace process. The Oslo Accord boycotters in turn emerged from those in Egypt who were opposed to the Camp David peace accord in 1979 between Begin and Sadat.

It suggests that the SJP and similar rejectionist organisations in the UK cannot bring themselves to admit that the Jews in Israel have a right to national self-determination. Only a Greater Palestine will suffice.

Of course, it can be argued reasonably that the policies of Netanyahu’s coalitions of the centre Right and far Right have aided such anti-Zionist organisations. But would they have acted any differently if Rabin had lived if their approach was so hard line and rejectionist?

The Israel-Palestine conflict can be looked at as Israel against Palestine or vice-versa. It can also be looked at as the peace camps in both Israel and Palestine against their rejectionists. In this sense, the SJP belongs undoubtedly to the Palestinian rejectionist camp and not to the Palestinian peace camp.

Q. How did the BDS movement evolve?
The BDS movement found it very difficult to make headway while there was relative peace between Israelis and Palestinians in the 1990s. However, the al-Aqsa Intifada after 2001 allowed it to flow into the mainstream of the far Left in the UK which painted the Israel-Palestine conflict in simplistic black and white terms. This appeals to young people who wish to make the world a better place – and indeed achieve justice for the Palestinians. What is not understood is that the Israeli peace camp matters. It is only Zionist Israelis who can make the arguments for peace in the Middle East within Israel itself.

Q. SJP claims as a goal protecting and promoting the rights of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and properties as stipulated in United Nations General Assembly Resolution 194.Can you explain Resolution 194? And Israel’s counter argument or response?

This resolution indicates the rejectionist nature of the SJP since all Israelis, from left to right, oppose this move. It states that refugees wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbours should be permitted to do so at the earliest practicable date, and that compensation should be paid for the property of those choosing not to return and for loss of or damage to property which, under principles of international law or equity, should be made good by the Governments or authorities responsible.
Resolution 194 significantly states that they should be permitted to return – not must be permitted.

A wide-ranging opinion poll by Khalil Shikaki of Ramallah some 15 years ago suggested that less than 10% said that they would actually return – and that figure translated into reality is much smaller. Very few would wish to alter their lives in other countries 70 years after the establishment of Israel. However, compensation or a return to a state of Palestine on the West Bank would be broadly acceptable to both sides if governments in power accepted that compromises would have to be made in the cause of peace.

As you can imagine, this scientific research of Shikaki was not greeted kindly by those who viewed Resolution 194 as simply another instrument in the propaganda campaign against Israel.

Q. One striking thing about SJP is how media savvy they are. They use Facebook and Twitter to do outreach to individuals and organise and promote events and other online social media networks for a broader reach and visibility. My suspicion is that there is another deeper layer behind the scenes comprising professionals writing and directing the PR. Your thoughts?

As Trump’s election indicated, ordinary people fall for the biggest nonsense via social media. From the boycotters’ viewpoint, why shouldn’t the Palestinian case therefore be promoted in this fashion? Social media does not educate people about the complexities of the conflict. Why Zionism is different and not wrong.

My sense is that this is a new front in the megaphone war in which both sides will shout at each other. However, it will almost certainly not lead to understanding the other point of view even if you disagree with it.

Q. What about the rise of anti-Semitism in the UK?

The rise of social media has allowed some anti-Zionists to voice anti-Jewish comments. Some are profoundly ignorant of Jewish history and clearly have no understanding of Zionism. There are some on the far Left in the UK who believe that anti-Zionism can never be anti-Semitic. In Israel there are some on the far Right who believe that anti-Zionism is always anti-Semitic. The reality is often in between these two extremes depending on the context of such remarks.

Q. Most disturbing is the impunity with which they disrupt Jewish events on campuses. They are seldom censured or punished. How should parents/other people concerned with civil liberties and free speech (especially Alumni) make this public?

Well, of course, they have to publicise it. But it is also a rite of passage for Jewish students. It makes them ask themselves who they are and what Israel means to them. How do I understand my Jewishness? Quite often Jewish students conclude that they have to organise themselves and they become activists. They often understand the situation and how to respond to it much better than their parents and the communal leadership.

Q. How can we distinguish between political opposition, hate speech and anti-Jewish rhetoric in debates and campaigns in the world of higher education?

Freedom of speech in the classroom is the hallmark of academic debate. The solution is not to close down debate, but to challenge distortion and falsehood vociferously. Only self-education about Israeli history and the veracity of Zionism can assist any challenge. Most vice-chancellors in higher education are neither pro-Israel nor pro-Palestine, but pro-debate unless it is clearly racist. During Operation Cast Lead in 2009 when Israel went into Gaza, I had organised a series of lectures commemorating the centenary of the founding of Tel Aviv. The Director of SOAS came under intense pressure to cancel these lectures, but he refused to budge – in the name of free and fair debate.

Thank you, Colin. You’ve given our readers quite a lot to think about.


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