'Some people won't shake my hand because I'm Israeli'

January 23, 2003

Israeli students believe that many Britons fail to understand the complexities of the Middle East crisis, reports Chris Bunting.

For Uri Enoch, the most depressing thing about Israel's general election is its utter irrelevance to attempts to build peace in his homeland. The mathematics student at Manchester University says: "I don't believe it matters who is prime minister in Israel because there is simply no one to talk to.

"I really don't like being involved in politics. Many Israeli [as well as Palestinian] politicians are corrupt but the problem is that many Palestinians simply don't accept the right of Israel to exist. They don't hide it. They simply want to destroy us. On that basis, how can we negotiate?" he asks.

Enoch says he would vote for a centrist party if he could get back to Israel for the election next week. "There are extremists on both sides, but I don't think people in England realise that I and most Israelis believe in the right to Palestinian self-determination. After the peace process in the 1990s there was a huge euphoria in Israel. People thought it was a great step forward and for a few years it looked as if it would work. But the reason we had to go back into the areas we had given up, as I understand it, is that the Palestinian authorities were not only tolerating but encouraging suicide bombers to go into Israel. When they went in, they found labs where they were making bombs to kill us."

After two-and-a-half years in the UK, Enoch says he has been struck by the level of interest in his homeland, but less impressed by the average British person's understanding of the problems.

"If I tell a British person that I am an Israeli, usually the first thing they talk about is politics, which is frustrating for me because I try to avoid politics. I think people are well informed in the sense that they watch a lot about Israel on the television news, but the problem is the news gives the story as it breaks. It doesn't have any background to it.

People will see the Israeli army going into a Palestinian area, but they will not really understand the background as to why that is happening."

Enoch's views about British ignorance about the Middle East are common among Israeli students in the UK whom The THES spoke to, but surprisingly only one had heard of the proposed academic boycott of Israel that has roused much debate among academics and has led to reports that visits, research projects and publication of articles have been blocked as a result.

The boycott issue has been a particularly contentious issue in Manchester, where University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology academic Mona Baker was investigated after she fired two Israeli researchers from an academic journal, yet none of the Manchester students interviewed had heard of it.

Nir Almagor is a third-year law student at Manchester Metropolitan University and was previously a soldier in Lebanon and the Gaza strip for one-and-half years. He says he has encountered media distortion of what he believes is the true situation in his homeland. "In Israel we have Christians, Muslims, Bedouin people in very peaceful and positive relationships. This is not what we see on television. We see only the group of people who decided to discard this tolerance [Hamas, Islamic Jihad and some members of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation] and we are shown them as victims.

"What about the Likud Party? In the media over here it is seen as right wing with extremist views. It is not and Ariel Sharon is not an extremist.

It is in fact relatively near the centre of politics, not unlike the Conservative Party over here," Almagor says.

"The situation in Israel right now is very sad for both sides. Since the last peace talks, we have been suffering because of a lack of decision on the part of our leaders. Most Israelis think (the peace agreement) was a big loss of opportunity, but I think both sides are starting to get back to realising that something should happen in the near future and I am quite optimistic. I think we are not far from getting to agreement if Mr Sharon is elected again and he can form a strong coalition."

Tomer Schwarz, a third-year law undergraduate at Cambridge, acting chairperson of the Union of Israeli Students in the UK and the only student who had heard of the academic boycott, is not as optimistic. "I can hardly see any respect in which the parties will work towards negotiation. The signs are that the situation will only deteriorate further.

"The situation is complicated and there is a very English tendency to try to look at the mistakes on both sides. In this situation, it is clear that one party is more at fault than the other. The guilty party is the Palestinian leadership."

He believes that British people's misunderstanding of this tragic situation "goes beyond mere ignorance", accusing the media of bias. "It portrays a simplistic image of our homeland, of the Israelis as occupiers and the Palestinians as oppressed. It is difficult to blame people for their ignorance, many of whom are actively interested in the situation, if the media is feeding them distorted facts," he says.

"The history that is given to people is little more than legend. For instance, there is a misconception about the very existence of the Jewish people: many people regard Judaism as only a religion. We are not just a religious community, we are a people. This can lead to denial of our people's existence and is directly related to a denial of our right to exist in Israel.

"There is a view that Jews are foreigners to the land of Israel. This is history as legend again. Palestinians also have legitimate claims to the land but the Jewish people have yearned for their homeland for thousands of years and prayed for it and their every desire has been to go back to this land.

"There is also ignorance as a result of biased media coverage. I don't always approve of what the army is doing, but you will often find operations that are clearly self-defence being seen as acts of aggression in England. People will blindly see Palestinian acts, even atrocities, as understandable."

He believes this ignorance has driven calls for an academic boycott of Israel and adds that he has come across much less hostility from members of the Muslim community than from leftwing British people. "I have several Muslims on my mailing list and I have had a very constructive dialogue.

They tend to have a much more complex view of the situation and its difficulties," he says. "The problem generally comes from people with very anti-American views. They seem to feel that they need also to be anti-Israeli.

"I have had people reluctant to shake my hand because I am Israeli. They really don't like it when I say I was an officer in the Israeli army. Some people's point of view seems to be that, because I am an Israeli, I must be aggressive."

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