There’s a new society on Campus, Friends of Israel Society, and Rachel Brown has caught up with the President Alexander Evans to find out what they are all about.
“I’m a right-wing nutter”, the new President proclaims with a glint of humour. Sitting tall in his royal blue jumper and crisp tweed suit jacket, Alexander Evans waxes rapturously in our two-hour interview about the new student society, Friends of Israel (FoI). Guild affiliated this January, the Society arrives just in time for their Israel-Palestine opposition’s major campaign: the Friends of Palestine (FoP), “Israeli Apartheid Week”. Part of the international campaign for the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) of Israel, the Society is hosting a 5-day programme including speakers and a Model UN crisis scenario, which started on Monday.
Alexander gives a firm “no” when I ask if his Society is a reaction to the week-long pro-Palestinian campaign. “Actually”, Alexander corrects me, the Society is a response to the “unacceptable levels of anti-Semitic behaviour costumed as protest”. The 2012 Gaza protest through Exeter, with FoP as central organisers, sparked the founder’s motivation to create a pro-Israel voice on campus. Alexander describes a banner carried at the protest which depicted not Israel’s flag, but the Jewish star of David – crossed out with a red line. Shouts from some protesters, “Zionist regime!” were also heard. More recently, Alexander witnessed a shout-out of “Fucking Jews!” during the otherwise peaceful Israel-Palestine debate. “JSoc [Jewish Society] can’t deal with it as a religious group.” Alexander explained this is a Guild rule about their faith organisation status. With the Star of David forming part of their logo, it seems the FoI will be stepping in as their protectors.
The new Society is for students who “feel a kinship with the state of Israel,” Alexander says with a confidence that permeates his answers. His knowledge of the conflict in incredible. He headlines Israel is the only functioning democracy in the Middle East, does not discriminate against homosexuals and holds a longstanding women’s rights record. Alex laments on the opposite stance, “They are not interested in any of the good stuff. They just cherry-pick.” But “the Society is not a vehicle for the conversion of people”, his enthusiasm propels him on, “it’s more a meeting place for people with similar views, a club – I like the word club.”
But the 2008 attempted bombing in Exeter by an Islamic terrorist brings home that when you join sides, the stakes can be much higher than a jolly old “club”. Alexander fondly describes Israel as a “European culture in the Middle East”, but a Western identity accompanies that title, so might there be some risk to its members? The Guild advised the group that creating FoI was indeed “contentious”. But the President is not worried about personal attacks, “I can deal with the insults.” Also resolute on the matter of Facebook debates, he opines these people “only damage their own careers”. With potential for disruptive behaviour at events, another firm reply: “We have mechanisms to deal with this.” And when the anti-Israel brigade hears the new President on the block’s views, for he is not one to mince his words, those “mechanisms” may well have to be flexed.
“We think it’s an insult to Africans”, says the President on the accusation Israel’s policy towards Palestinians in the occupied territories, which includes military law and water rationing, amounts to apartheid – an offence triable at the International Criminal Court. “Using this word, apartheid, is like using the word, holocaust”, it is, “trying to invoke something that a nice, white middle-class type will be shocked by”. “It is just Pavlovian association”, Alexander continues, “you can’t just use them for anything you like”.
The FoI leader listens closely as I ask him about his position on the Wall – surrounding over 400km of the contested West Bank, it is a barrier that Israel claims necessary to protect Israelis. Without pause, “The wall is appropriate.” He bursts on: “They are treated differently because it’s a security wall against Palestinian Authority attacks.” I describe a Wall crossing where Palestinians are forced to walk on a separate platform beneath causing dirt and dust from the shoes of Israeli’s to fall onto them. “That’s one crossing, I don’t know how true that is” – the only flimsy reply of the entire interview.
The new Society will be “raising awareness about the UK and Israel’s strong connection and history”. With a membership composed mostly of students on the Right of British Conservatism – a strong following from Freedom Society, UKIP supporters and the active Conservative Future crowd – this seems a classic Conservative agenda. The FoP President added, “It is clear that FoI are trying to appeal to people’s sense of nationalism.” Similarly though, the Israeli Apartheid Week will include an event co-hosted by Socialist Students (SocStu) and FoP tend to have a mutually-held members; it seems if you are on the Right, you are pro-Israel and the Left demands your FoP association. Whilst both Presidents have emphasised to me their “broad spectrum” of appeal, Party lines remain clearly drawn.
Relations between pro-Palestinians and pro-Israel camps are, between Exeter students at least, likely to be harmonious though. FoP President, Abdulla AlShamataan regrets he was asked several times about their relationship with Jewish Society; a FoI could help in “fighting the assumption that all Jews are supporters of Israel while anybody that isn’t, is anti-Semitic”, he says. Concern for conflation of politics with religiously incited hatred is shared by FoI Vice-President, Alex Karapancev who finds it “troubling when criticism of Israel crosses the boundary into anti-Semitism”.
But if each Society can sustain peaceful existence, both parties might benefit from self-awareness of how they perceive each other. FoI are planning a stall, a speaker and will be handing-our leaflets this week. Alexander also gives advisories to attendees of the Apartheid events this week. On petitions, he encourages students “not to sign anything associated with terrorism” and says speakers “should be very careful about what they say; there is a tendency to get carried away and go too far”. When I asked the SocStu President and active FoP member about his peers’ likely response to the new Society, his answer included, “We have always been aware that the University has Zionist students.” Both sides see each other as containing extreme views in their factions and this perception alone has potential for unhealthy debate.
In a move to cheer for though, FoP has sent the new Society an open invitation to their Palestinian panel discussion. Whether FoI accept this offer, on a campus where everything, and everyone, flows from the heart of the Forum, dialogue between groups is inevitable. Emotions this week could run high as students watch the documentary curated by Alice Walker and listen to primary accounts. If a pro-Israel leaflet fell into the wrong hands, sparks could fly. But as the SocStu President reminds us, the FoI are “perfectly within their rights to set up a Society”. Alexander affirms, “I am all for freedom of speech” and his Vice-President echoes, the University needs “a balanced dialogue rather than the one-sided discourse”.
Hopefully it will be these points along with belief in a constructive, kindly debate that chime as active members author the first chapter in these societies’ interaction. One thing’s for sure, the new FoI is led by a dynamic President who might be on the Right, but he’s certainly no nutter. I have faith all Presidents involved will lead their members into a week of positive debate, setting a tone to ensure both Societies will be energised by each other’s activities for years to come.
Rachel Brownbookmark me