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Reut: Israel is a normal country struggling to survive in ‘impossible reality’

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Editor’s note: We try to be fair in these parts, and to promote a debate between parties that have rarely addressed one another. The other day we ran a critique of the Reut Institute and Israel Studies by Ben White. Reut’s Eran Shayshon asked for space to respond. He’s got it.

In his article Battle of the trenches: academic boycott versus… ‘Israel Studies’ Ben White slams the “expansion” in Israel studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London, saying it is propaganda. White uses documents and blog posts that were written by the Reut Institute to argue that the initiative at SOAS constitutes part of a bigger rebranding strategy. The description of Reut as a powerful puppeteer is indeed flattering, but the reality is very different from the conspiracy theory that White seeks to promote. 

We at Reut argue that it is critically important to make a clear distinction between the assault on Israel’s right to exist and criticism of Israeli policy, harsh as it may be. We argue that the assault on Israel’s right to exist is being promoted by a relatively small number of organizations worldwide, which are loosely coordinated, and which can only be found on the political periphery in most places.

Why then, is there so much resentment for Israel? Many Palestinians, who visit London, comment that the hostility towards Israel evident on UK campuses simply does not exist in Ramallah. I believe that ideological zeal to see Israel’s destruction is not the basis for this phenomenon, in most cases.

Rather, a very small number of radical ideologues is effectively blurring the lines between legitimate criticism over Israeli policy and the assault on Israel’s legitimacy by engaging wider audiences in ‘acts of delegitimization’, such as the BDS Movement. While the stated goals of the movement are peace and justice, key activist and leaders of this movement openly admit, in the past even on this very blog, that “BDS does mean the end of the Jewish state.” 

The result is that many fail to grasp the complexity of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and no matter the circumstances, refuse to accept any justification for Israeli action. Everything is interpreted as an Israeli-Jewish conspiracy. This is why no Israeli government is ever taken as sincere when expressing its desire for peace, and the Israeli society’s tolerant approach towards the LGBT community is labeled ‘pinkwashing’. In this light, it is no wonder that a local British initiative to establish Israel studies at SOAS becomes a propaganda tool.

I do believe that a center for Israel studies is a good idea, but not because it will make students pro-Israel. I believe a center for Israel studies is a good idea because as an academic endeavour it will convey to students the nuance, the complexity, and the shades of grey that are the cornerstones of academic education. Such a center will shed light on an imperfect Israel, where there are social and economic gaps, and where tensions exist between several sectors of society. It may even show that not at all times Israel succeeds in upholding the standards set. But I am sure it will show that Israel is first and foremost a normal country, a democracy that is struggling for its survival in an impossible reality.

Lately it would seem that it is a custom for UK universities to receive funds from Islamic totalitarian regimes. Indeed, SOAS itself has been accused in the past of accepting a donation from a charity closely linked to the Iranian government. Did White see it necessary to condemn this? Not really, and in fact he made an effort to defend the Iranian President Ahmadinejad’s Holocaust denial. Did White condemn the Libyan regime’s support for the London School of Economics that was recently exposed and repudiated? Of course not, but a local initiative to establish centre for Israel studies must be a conspiracy.

What is it about an effort to offer our children an education based upon intellectual rigour that White feels so threatened by? What is it about an attempt to ensure that our children hear from both sides that White feels must be shut down? What is it about a center that seeks to educate rather than indoctrinate that White so opposes? Is it anti-Semitism? No, according to White, who argued that while he does not consider himself an anti-Semite, he “can also understand why some are.”

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