At the end of the 2018-19 academic year, Warwick University Jewish Israeli Society has held two flagship events. The former, in which 50 local Christians joined us for a conference bringing together our two communities, was the very first of its kind.
Then, well over 1000 Warwick students attended our Eurovision Party, celebrating this year’s exciting show in Tel Aviv. This topped off a successful year where we engaged hundreds of students in Israel advocacy, and won awards from the Union of Jewish Students, UJIA and the Israeli Embassy in London for our work.
The future of Israel’s perception, and indeed that of the Jewish community in the UK, rests on the wider population, and that is something we have fully embraced over the last year.
Too often, university j-socs and community groups preach to the choir and direct their Israel advocacy towards fellow Jews. This is extremely important, and is necessary too, but it is not, and never will be, what we deem sufficient. That is why our on-campus activism has been proactive and loud, calling out to and engaging with the unknowing majority.
Warwick University has a history of hostility towards Israel and those who advocate for it, and is also not the most welcoming place for Jewish students, stemming from a 2010 episode of a student being marked down for advocating Zionist views in her dissertation, but also including recent stories of anti-Semitism, notably in a very high-profile case. Whilst these mark extreme instances, anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism exists at Warwick, just as it unfortunately does at every other UK university.
Yet we decided to change this narrative. It is not enough, as so many student groups are, to simply be responsive and reactive. In order to change people’s preconceptions and views, you need to be proactive and constructive. That is why this year, we have held a record-breaking array of events, including a sold-out shakshuka-making workshop, our 1000-strong Eurovision viewing party, and 180 people coming to hear from the former Vice President of the Israeli Supreme Court.
There are two themes and questions that we want to address: why bother engaging these people? And, how do we engage these people?
On the first, the future of how Israel is perceived in the UK, and indeed our community’s existence here, rests on the majority. It is of course true that not everyone is going to become a big and passionate Zionist. Ultimately, though, our motivation is to change people’s gut feelings towards Israel, from ‘Israel is an apartheid state that randomly kills Palestinian children’ (what the social media narrative wants them to believe) to ‘Israel is fully justified to defend itself and is actually quite a cool, vibrant and exciting country’ (what we hope people will come to realise). Whether this leads to people wanting to visit Israel on holiday, as many of our friends do, creating positive connotations and stories, or simply just people’s questioning or even calling out of untruths in something they read, the impact is a positive one. In their future workplaces and future families, we are giving students the tools and knowledge to view Israel in a strong light, and contest those who don’t.
The biggest challenge, however, is engaging these people. It is not difficult to attract a politics student to a talk about the Middle East, indeed they probably already have some idea about Israel too. What is much harder, is to attract the rest of campus to come along to our events. The best way to achieve this, as we have found, is to make Israel relevant to each individual. Don’t just expect any odd student to schlep to your event, schlep your event to them. Invite law students to hear about Israeli law, run an interactive cookery class where people will get to experience Israeli culture through food, or even simply incentivise students with free Israeli beer and – this we say from experience – people will leave your event thinking, ‘oh, those Jews and Israelis are actually pretty nice’!
This isn’t about reinventing the wheel. This is about being cross-communal and outward-looking. That is why we work so closely with the West Midlands Friends of Israel local community (mostly-Christian) group. Our greatest allies are not only eager to work with us, but want us to work with them. The future of the pro-Israel movement in the UK rests upon its leaders, on campuses and in communities, being outward-looking and constructing, not simply waiting for opportunities to fall into their laps or for crises to arrive. Hopefully, more pro-Israel students are waking up to this and taking the important step to engage with the indifferent majority and our patient, yet crucially important, allies.
- Angus Taylor and Zak Wagman are both on the Executive of Warwick University’s Jewish-Israeli Society. Both are part of StandWithUs UK’s Emerson Fellowship.