Around three decades ago, I was deputy editor at a small, now defunct, UK publication called the Jewish Observer and Middle East Review. In common with the JC, it devoted a great number of column inches to the issue of Palestinian propaganda on UK campuses.
Apart from news stories in both publications reporting the avalanche of Arab propaganda on campus, and a small, heroic number of individual voices calling for the Jewish community to do more to help students combat it, the Jewish establishment failed to step up — with human resources, educational support, PR or advertising campaigns or cash — to counter the Palestinian narrative being imparted to students across British universities.
The Israeli Embassy — which, one would have thought, would want to help Jewish students in their battle with their Palestinian counterparts for the hearts and minds of British undergraduates — took an even more casual view; one which could be neatly summarised as “are we bovvered?”
There was a great deal of chest-beating about how unpleasant it was for Jewish students to have to bear the full brunt of Arab activism — exacerbated in 1975 by the United Nations resolution equating Zionism with racism — but few people in the Jewish community, it seemed, recognised the more pernicious long-term implications of this wave of implacably anti-Israeli propaganda, and how it would impact on the way the conflict and Israel would be perceived by the wider world in future years.
Nor — with the noble exception of Marks & Spencer’s Michael Sacher, who founded and initially funded Bipac, the forerunner of Bicom — were we willing, as a community, to take the kind of steps urgently required to ensure Israel’s case was properly put on campus.
And so today, the Jewish community — and Israel — is reaping the whirlwind of that profound inability to grasp the wider implications of campus activism 30 years ago.
Because today, and for the past decade, many of those holding senior positions across a range of organisations, in law, politics, local and national government, unions, academia, and, most of all, media, passed through British universities when a zealous and lavishly funded Palestinian propaganda machine enjoyed virtual hegemony on UK campuses.
The long-term impact of such virulent anti-Israeli propaganda on non-Jewish, non-Muslim undergraduates may also help to explain the curious silence, today, in conflicts away from the Middle East — in Darfur, Rwanda, Bosnia and, currently, Sri Lanka. In all those places, despite the deaths of tens of thousands — sometimes millions — entire cohorts of media, academics and politicians seem barely to register the conflicts, let alone to call for boycotts, march on embassies or ask questions in Parliament.
And, as the JC reported last week, the Palestinian lobby remains unremittingly hard at work on campuses: stoking students’ anger at Israel’s Gaza incursion; pushing the “disproportionate” line; organising sit-ins and demonstrations in British universities; calling, again, for boycotts against Israeli academics; and arguing for boycotts of Israeli goods.
The UJS is far better organised and funded than it was in the 1970s. But there is a limit to what a student organisation can achieve without additional support and resources. Unlike 30 years ago, students today need more than mere breast-beating from us if they are effectively to organise themselves to challenge the Palestinian lobby.
We owe it to them — and to a future generation which will otherwise feel the impact of the current anti-Israel activism on campus 20 years hence — to help. Even if they don’t yet realise they need help.