OXFORD, England (JTA) – It’s Monday evening at the University of Oxford’s St. Antony’s College, and a well-dressed audience that includes distinguished faculty members is attending the opening of Israeli Apartheid Week on campus.
Just a few blocks away, at the University of Oxford’s Hertford College, a group of young British, American and Israeli students are meeting in a small room to discuss ideas for an Israeli cultural festival, the first to be held in this medieval City of Dreaming Spires.
At Oxford, it seems the Palestinians’ David-and-Goliath narrative of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict has been turned on its head.
Here it is the pro-Palestinian activists who enjoy widespread sympathy among young undergraduates and open support from some of the university’s most senior professors, while Israel sympathizers find themselves alone, fighting ignorance and sometimes outright hostility.
“Our aim is to extend the analyses of Israel beyond that of a belligerent state to one that is built and exists according to a racist structure,” said Omar Shweiki, a spokesman for the university’s Arab Cultural Society, which helped organize Israeli Apartheid Week at Oxford.
The events here are a part of a global campaign started four years ago to urge the international community to boycott and sanction Israel just as it did South Africa’s apartheid regime in the 1980s. Events are being held in Britain, the United States, Canada, South Africa and the Palestinian-populated territories through Feb. 18.
Among the presenters at Oxford’s Israeli Apartheid Week are Columbia University’s Joseph Massad, who in 2005 was the fulcrum of the controversy over anti-Israel teaching at Columbia, and Palestinian politician Mustafa Barghouti, who ran for Palestinian Authority president in 2005.
Shweiki said the week has been very popular at Oxford, with attendance exceeding typical academic events.
“Last year we had up to 130 people at a lecture – that’s pretty huge in Oxford standards,” Shweiki told JTA.
Some high-ranking university officials are involved in organizing the events.
Avi Shlaim, a professor of international relations at Oxford, a member of the college’s governing board and a member of the board of directors at Oxford’s Middle East Centre , was slated to chair one of the week’s two main sessions at St. Antony’s College. Shlaim, considered one of the prominent Israeli “new historians,” left Israel in the 1960s.
“We’ve always had support from senior professors in Oxford,” Shweiki said. “We feel that in general Oxford has become more receptive to our message as more people are becoming disillusioned with the peace process.”
Two weeks ago the Oxford student union sponsored a debate on the issue of Israel’s right to exist, assigning a vigorous American Jewish critic of Israel, Professor Norman Finkelstein, to present the case for Israel. The union eventually conceded Israel’s right to exist by a slim margin.
“There’s something pervasive within the university in support for the Palestinian narrative,” said Emanuele Ottolenghi, a former lecturer in Israel studies at St. Antony’s Middle East Centre and now executive director of the American Jewish Committee-sponsored Transatlantic Institute in Brussels.
“The Middle East appears each and every trimester on the agenda of the union’s debates,” Ottolenghi said, “but never, at least as far as I remember, was any topic other than the Israeli-Palestinian conflict discussed, and usually the most vocal anti-Israeli voices are invited.”
Reuven Ziegler, an Israeli graduate student in law at Oxford, says undergraduates at the university, who are predominantly British, tend to be much more pro-Palestinian than graduate students, many of whom come from countries where public opinion is less hostile toward Israel, such as the United States, Canada or Germany.
If a student at Oxford says “Israel is nothing but a racist country committing war crimes against Palestinians,” explained Amit Kohn, an Israeli post-doctoral student, “that wouldn’t be considered as a radical statement here.”
Kohn and Ziegler were among those who turned up Monday at Hertford College to plan the Israeli cultural festival.
Over bottles of Coke and kosher hummus, the newly founded Oxford University Israeli Cultural Society planned the festival, to be held in May to coincide with Israel’s 60th anniversary, to present Israeli cultural life, including literature, music and food.
The society was started just two weeks ago by a handful of Jewish students, most of them undergraduates. While the university boasts a flourishing Jewish students society and a local Chabad house, neither focus on Israel.
Naomi Berlin, one of the society’s founders and a visiting undergraduate student from Tufts University in Massachusetts, says Israel is presented at Oxford only in politicized ways.
“There’s ignorance towards Israel in many American campuses as well,” Berlin said, “but it’s not as prevalent and normalized as it is here in Oxford. And in such an intellectual atmosphere, I find this inconceivable.”
Adam Parker, the president of the cultural society, says he hopes its activities will attract non-Jewish students. Ultimately, however, Israelis are the target audience, he said.
“I want the Israeli students in Oxford to have one place where they could meet, speak Hebrew and feel proud to be Israeli,” Parker told JTA.