At the University of East Anglia in Norwich, Jewish students on campus have faced discrimination. In May 2021 alone, Norwich was marred by antisemitic graffiti and slurs during anti-Zionist demonstrations. Jewish students were targeted for somehow being responsible for the actions of the Israeli government, and the UEA Student’s Union proposed revising their previously established definition of antisemitism due to pressure from non-Jewish students. Over the coming months, societies such as the Pride Society, the Feminist Book Club and Decolonise UEA shared a post campaigning for the Student’s Union to go forward with the definition change, irrespective of Jewish opinions.
Without harbouring resentment, in February 2022, the Jewish Society reached out to the Pride Society with the suggestion of collaboratively hosting an inclusive pride-themed Shabbat dinner to celebrate pride month. Despite initial agreements and the Jewish Society organising the event, including bringing a speaker from the charity Keshet from London to speak about allyship between Jews and the LGBT+ community, the Pride Society dropped out days before the event. When asked for their reason for this, Pride explained they had concerns about the charity and asked if the speaker was planning on discussing “Israel and Zionism”. Despite the Jewish Society trying their best to assure them that these topics would not be addressed, Pride still did not take part and deemed it appropriate to state, “Also, I believe the SU have banned any talks on that”.
While anti-Zionists attempt to veil their hatred of Israel as something other than antisemitism, their unwillingness to associate with Jews who do not publicly denounce the State of Israel reveals their true sentiment.
In March 2022, the UEA Jewish Society arranged for an Israeli writer, speaker, and activist, Hen Mazzig, to give a talk on campus. The purpose of the discussion was to inform the UEA community about the nuances of Israel, a country in which many non-Jews have expressed an interest. Hen covered interesting topics, such as the tragic history of Mizrahi Jews, the difficulties and triumphs of the LGBT+ community in the Middle East, and how it is possible to be a liberal, progressive and Zionist.
Unfortunately, yet unsurprisingly, the decision to allow an Israeli speaker on campus seemed to ruffle some feathers. Although the Jewish Society had obtained approval from the Student’s Union well in advance, and the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting and Analysis (CAMERA) had already funded the event, which was open and accessible to everyone, some students attempted to prevent the event from happening.
These students were from the Society, ‘Decolonise’. Ironically, this Society claims to “acknowledge the ways that race, class, gender, sexuality, and ability intersect to reinforce systemic prejudice” and “believe(s) in promoting an inclusive teaching and learning environment at UEA, diversity of knowledge and plurality of stories.” Although Israeli citizens are obligated to serve in the Israel Defence Forces, a few members of this group vitriolically objected to the decision to let Mazzig on campus, making the weak argument that it was inappropriate to have an ex-IDF soldier on campus. They placed posters accusing Israel of ‘pinkwashing’ directly around the posters advertising the Mazzig talk simply because Mazzig is openly queer and was talking about the LGBT+ community in the Middle East. One student even stormed into the Student’s Union office demanding to see proof that the event was permitted.
It should go without saying that it is unethical to mistreat Israeli citizens simply because of where they were raised, and it is embarrassingly antiquated to target people because of their queerness.
These pinkwashing posters and circulating social media posts calling for the cancellation of the talk echo the already prevalent issue of cancel culture, in which specific individuals attempt to silence controversial speakers and opinions for fear of offending. Such actions and the refusal of these individuals to attend the event and participate in the debate are unfortunate because healthy debate fosters intellectual curiosity. Listening to talks and reading about subjects not directly relevant to your agenda promotes growth and reduces confirmation bias. The people who wanted to silence Mazzig because he is Israeli have a binary view about the Israel-Palestine conflict. They see Israel as bad and Palestine as good; however, the truth is much more complicated.
Despite the drama, Mazzig gave an interesting talk. He discussed his family’s Iraqi origins and how they were forced to flee due to Jewish persecution and addressed the pinkwashing allegations circulating on campus. As Hen explained, those who accuse Israel of pinkwashing claim Israel attempts to divert attention away from its treatment of Palestinians by emphasising its fair treatment of the LGBT+ community. Such “pinkwashing” allegations are nonsensical.
While communities in Israel are still lobbying for a same-sex marriage option, the fact that queer Israelis can serve openly in the military and parliament proves that Israel is becoming more progressive. LGBT+ rights and progress in any country are a cause for celebration, not a ruse for distraction. Tel Aviv’s reputation as one of the Middle East’s most welcoming cities for LGBT+ individuals and hosting one of the best Pride celebrations in the world suggests that Israel is genuinely accepting and supportive of the LGBT+ community. In other parts of the Middle East, such as Iran, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, and Yemen, the death penalty can be applied if a person is found guilty of engaging in sexual behaviour with someone of the same sex. Israel is one of the only safe places for queers in the Middle East and grants refuge to queer Palestinians, yet, it is still vilified.
Therefore, like anything, if someone feels they can criticise Israel, they should do some research before jumping on the hate bandwagon. If they had a genuine thirst for knowledge rather than merely following the crowd, people would be aware that there is more to Israel than war.