Hasbara Fail: At Oxford, Students Don’t Buy Israel’s Case

No public diplomacy campaign, no sloganeering and no infographic shared online can counter Israel’s reputation as synonymous with bigotry, violence and the oppression of human rights.

Yesterday evening I spoke to my grandfather for the first time since arriving at the University of Oxford three weeks ago. His first question did not deal with my health, eating habits or satisfaction with my new home but rather with the collegiate response to the recent terror wave in Israel. “Are they all protesting against us?” he asked.

My response was no, they are not. Since the outburst of violence three weeks ago, there have been no mass protests against Israel, no calls to boycott its products, no petitions demanding the University recognize the State of Palestine, no marches on the local Chabad house and no urgent pleas for a one state solution. Rather, there is indifference — to Israeli and Palestinian victims alike.

This indifference is such that many people I converse with are unaware of the magnitude of violence now facing both sides. When my friends open the newspaper they elegantly skip past news items dealing with Israel. When they surf onto news websites, they gracefully scroll down to the financial section and during conversations they tactfully move from this subject to that of the weather. This indifference stems from their frustration with the conflict, their lack of belief it will be resolved and overall fatigue with hearing about Israeli settlements. They have had enough.

Yet the indifference at Oxford towards the recent outbreak of violence should not be mistaken with acceptance of Israel’s policies vis-a-vis the Palestinians. The feeling towards Israel becomes apparent in hallway conversations with other students. There is a facial expression one encounters time and again when you say you’re from Israel. It is not one of repulsion — but of disapproval, of anger and of condemnation.

It would be fair to claim that, if the past is any indicator, Oxford and the other top-tier UK universities are key incubators of the future leadership of the UK. But Oxford is much more that. It is a global melting pot: The dining halls are filled each night with students from Switzerland, the Netherlands, Korea, Japan, Nigeria, Egypt and India. Conversations flow from English to French and to Swazi

The manner in which Israel is perceived by all these future leaders is therefore of great importance — and it is perceived poorly.

When conversations regarding Israel do ensue, they deal with the disproportionate use of power during the 2014 war in Gaza, the high death toll among Palestinians (statistics which many British students with whom I have spoken can quote), the violent behavior of settlers towards Palestinians documented in videos that have gone viral in the UK as elsewhere, the checkpoints, the economic ruin of the Gaza strip and the continued refusal of Israel to recognize Palestinian independence. There are students who can recite without difficulty Prime Minister Netanyahu’s comment on Israel’s election day about the need to counter ‘droves’ of Arab Israelis on their way to vote.

During such conversations, my personal politics are not seen as relevant. I am an Israeli, and therefore I am accountable for the policies, statements and actions of the Israeli government, policies that I have spent a decade adamantly opposing.

Despite immense efforts, Oxford scholars do not regard Israel as a high tech nation, a gay tourist destination or a model for modern democracy. They remain unconvinced by Prime Minister Netanyahu’s assertions that Israel is the bastion of Western norms, the forefront in the struggle over terror. Nor do they prescribe to Israel’s moral relativism according to which the world must denounce Saudi Arabia and Bashar Assad before it denounces Israel. In the eyes of Oxford’s students, injustice elsewhere is not a defense for injustice in Israel.

To this international community, Israel is synonymous with bigotry, violence, hate and the oppression of human rights. It is the global spread of this notion that reveals that no public diplomacy campaign, no sophisticated national slogan and no infographic shared online by StandWithUs can counter the impact of the images that arose from Gaza in 2008, and 2012 and 2014, or those that currently emerge from Jerusalem.

Nelson Mandela, in his 1994 inaugural speech, spoke about how post-apartheid South Africa would never more “suffer the indignity of being the skunk of the world.” It is after you have talked with all these students from all over the world, after you have been greeted time and again with the same expression of condemnation, that you realize that these days, Israel is the skunk of the world.