THE BLOG
06/18/2007 12:15 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Price of British Jewish Criticism of Israel

For eleven years I served as Rabbi at Oxford University and witnessed the virulent anti-Israel sentiment of British academia. It wasn't only present when I hosted Israeli Prime Ministers from the right, like Ariel Sharon, Binyamin Netanyahu, and Yitzchak Shamir. It was equally present when I hosted standard-bearers of the left, like Shimon Peres, whom a group of students tried to have him arrested in the UK for crimes against humanity.

From the hundreds of students who stood on the streets chanting, "Netanyahu you should know, we support the PLO," to the even larger numbers who held placards dripping with mock blood and pointed at Ariel Sharon and his wife Lilly as they entered the Oxford Union at my side, I have seen enough not to be shocked by the British University and College Union's boycott of Israeli academics.

But what is often overlooked is how, sadly, many Jewish students at British universities are actually part of these anti-Israel demonstrations. I have pictures in my book, Moses of Oxford, of the Jewish and Israeli students who organized and led the demonstrations against Sharon, holding placards that read "Murderer" in large red letters.

And herein lies the problem. We in the United States are wondering how anything like the British academic or National Union of Journalists boycott against Israel could possibly happen. The knee-jerk reaction is to assume that the British are anti-Semitic. That may be so, although the jury is still out seeing that the British are both the progenitors of the Balfour declaration, as well as those who closed the gates of Palestine to Jewish holocaust refugees; they are both the gallant nation who alone fought Hitler but also the pro-Arab state who appointed the virulent Jew-hater Haj Amin al-Husseini as Grand Mufti of Jerusalem in 1922. So a blanket accusation of anti-Semitism is unfair. When it comes to anti-Semitism the British, like many nations, have a history of both good and bad.

And in truth, it does not much matter whether the British love or hate us. What does matter is what they do about it and what they think they can get away with.

I believe strongly that the only reason that the British academic union voted for their boycott is because they do not fear the reaction of their respected Jewish academic colleagues. Indeed, many of them believe that their Jewish counterparts condemn Israel as strongly as they do.
In the United States, brave and influential academics like Alan Dershowitz are organizing counter-boycotts, threatening both to embargo British academic lecturers in the United State as well galvanize American academics to refuse to participate in events from which Israeli academics are boycotted. We need to see more actions like these being taken by British academics.

British Jewry are some of the most stalwart and generous funders of Israel anywhere in the world. But their public defense of Israel -- especially when it comes to controversial polices -- is erratic. There is no British equivalent of AIPAC, for example, and many British Jews regard such overt pro-Israel pressure on government to be inappropriate and counter-productive. But the unintended consequence of such ambivalence is a license on the part of Israel's enemies to take outrageous action like this boycott. Let us remember that it was a British Jew, Herbert Samuel, who, as Palestine High Commissioner, appointed the Mufti to his position in the first place.

In my years at Oxford I had the honor of becoming close to Sir Isaiah Berlin, arguably the most celebrated British academic of the twentieth century and one of the greatest human beings I ever met. Sir Isaiah was a fiercely proud Jew who even shared his disappointment with me regarding certain leading academics in Oxford who denied their Jewishness. Although elderly and frail, he had me bring Jewish Rhodes scholars to meet him on several occasions to bolster their own Jewish identities. But he was also a strong critic of Israel's security policies and once openly refused an invitation to meet with Yitzchak Shamir, telling the press that Israel's Prime Minister was a brick wall with whom one was simply wasting a conversation. Now, if you're a British academic and you hear the greatest British living thinker condemning Israel's democratically elected leader as not even worth talking to, might you not conclude that even the Jews agreed with your scorn?

Then there were the bizarre comments of another great man, Chief Rabbi Sir Jonathan Sacks, who told the Guardian in 2002 that certain actions on the part of Israeli soldiers "on a daily basis" left him "profoundly shocked" and "uncomfortable as a Jew."

Now, no one is saying that Diaspora Jewry should not criticize policies of the Jewish state with which they disagree. But one must always keep in mind how such criticism might bolster Israel's most sworn enemies and how such criticism must be offered amid a solid affirmation of overall Jewish pride in Israel as well as an avowed public commitment to its security and survival.

In my years at Oxford I had a close relationship with the Arab students -- many of whom regularly attended our Friday night Shabbat meals -- including students from leading Arab dynasties, like the son of Prince Bandar of Saudi Arabia, who attended a lecture by Rebbetzin Esther Jungreis on the holocaust, and the son of the Jordanian ambassador who became a warm and sincere friend.

I was therefore saddened when once, after debating on behalf of Israel at the Oxford Union, an Arab student with whom I was close came over to me said, "Shmuley, you made no friends here tonight. In fact, you probably lost a great many." His words stung. Everyone wants to fit in and everyone would like to be popular. But I took his comments as the price a Jew must pay to stand with Israel against a constant cacophony of unfair criticism and attack.

And now that Israel faces a wholesale onslaught in a country that gave the world representative government and parliamentary democracy, it behooves every Jewish student and academic in a British University to state proudly and strongly that if you unfairly attack Israel you are attacking me, and if you boycott Israel you are not my friend. Period.

Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, winner of the
London Times Preacher of the Year 2000, is the author most recently of 'Shalom in the Home' (Meredith). www.shmuley.com