Is an Israeli Think Tank Behind the New SOAS Israel Studies Posts? Ben White vs. the Reut Institute
When I wrote about the establishment of two new academic posts in Israel studies at SOAS, funded by the Pears Foundation, I was unaware that Ben White had already posted a piece on Mondoweiss giving his take on the announcement. Two days later, on 15 April, Eran Shayson of the Israeli Reut Institute, which describes itself as ‘an innovative policy group designed to provide real-time, long-term strategic decision-support to Israeli leaders and decision-makers’, responded to White’s piece.
In my post I argued that it was very difficult for the sponsors of the posts and for the professor of Israel Studies at SOAS, Colin Shindler, to separate the Pears Foundation’s engagement in supporting advocacy for Israel from its ‘academic’ objectives for these two new positions. White goes further and links the new posts directly to the report produced by the Reut Institute and originally published in 2009 that concluded that London was the international hub for organizations bent on delegitimizing Israel and recommended combating the delegitimization by rebranding Israel through, among other means, the establishment of Israel studies departments and posts at universities.
Wright is right to draw attention to the work and influence of the Reut think tank, which interviewed dozens of people in London, including myself, before producing its report and recommendations. Israel’s current hasbara (propaganda) policy is clearly using some of Reut’s ideas. However, what’s interesting about Reut in relation to the SOAS posts is that the Pears Foundation were into rebranding through a more ‘objective’ portrayal of Israel well before Reut produced its report. I know this from personal encounters I had with the chairman of the Pears Foundation, Trevor Pears, and the foundation’s director, Charles Keidan, back in 2007 and 2008. In meetings with them, Trevor Pears openly laid out his bifurcated strategy for expressing the foundation’s relationship with Israel. On the one hand, he was drawing attention to civil and human rights problems in Israel, through support for such organizations as the New Israel Fund and individual initiatives designed to raise Jewish awareness of the plight of Israel’s Arab/Palestinian citizens. On the other hand he was putting funds into activities aimed at publicising Israel’s academic and scientific endeavours and achievements. He would have no truck with the idea that these two approaches might cancel each other out rather than reinforce each other.
I’m convinced that Trevor Pears had followed the twists and turns of Jewish pro-Israel groups in the early 2000s as they struggled to move towards an approach to hasbara based on the notion that branding or rebranding was key. And this was largely, though not exclusively, focused on discussions about how BICOM, the Britain Israel Communications and Research Centre, into which hundreds of thousands of pounds were being poured, should operate. These discussions took place against a background of deep dissatisfaction with the results of this investment. Israel’s image in the UK and internationally seemed to be deteriorating rapidly, with neither Israel’s diplomats nor a well-funded body like BICOM able to do anything about it. I sat in on some of these discussions where it was unanimously assumed that the only problem was finding the right way to present Israel’s ‘true’ image. Not an inch of space was given to the idea that perhaps Israel’s policies might be wrong and that without a change of political direction by the Israeli government, no amount of rebranding would be of any value.
In his reply, Reut’s Eran Shayson wrote: ‘The description of Reut as a powerful puppeteer is indeed flattering, but the reality is very different from the conspiracy theory that White seeks to promote.’ Although this rather overstates what White was claiming, as I have tried to show above, in the case of Pears and SOAS, the impetus for the expansion of Israel studies predates the work of Reut, so it’s not accurate to suggest that Pears is carrying out an agenda it picked up from Reut. Nevertheless, White’s quotes from Reut’s reports and blogposts accurately reflect Reut’s rebranding approach. And while Shayson seems to set out from a reasonable starting point by writing: ‘ We at Reut argue that it is critically important to make a clear distinction between the assault on Israel’s right to exist and criticism of Israeli policy, harsh as it may be’, he goes on to fatally undermine this position by showing that making this ‘clear distinction’ is precisely what Reut is unable to do.
Shayson talks about the teaching of Israel studies as ‘conveying nuance and complexity’ but shows no willingness to see any nuance or complexity in the actions and arguments of supporters of BDS or others who severely criticise Israel. In the end, it all seems to come down to the argument that such campaigns see everything they are fighting as ‘an Israeli-Jewish conspiracy’. In other words, it’s ‘antisemitism stupid’. So who is delegitimizing whom here? On the one hand he seems to believe that Israel studies show Israel as an imperfect country, warts and all, but on the other hand he states: ‘But I am sure it will show that Israel is first and foremost a normal country, a democracy that is struggling for its survival in an impossible reality’ – a conviction that prejudges the results of objective academic study and contains three fundamentally contested notions about Israel and the context in which it exists: ‘normal’, ‘democracy’ and ‘impossible reality’.
Shayson further undermines his argument by demonstrating that his own grip on reality is not so secure and by indulging in some demonizing of his own. He seems to think that Gaddafi’s Libya is an ‘Islamic totalitarian regime’. Gaddafi’s regime is certainly vile, but calling it ‘Islamic totalitarian’ is hardly accurate. When Shayson wants to criticise White he seems to think it’s enough to quote the dubious attacks of the odious smear site Cif Watch or claim that White believes that antisemitism is justified.
The problem facing Reut, BICOM and the entire pro-Israel lobby and hasbara outfits is that they are constantly facing the problem of explaining away the unjustifiable. Their fightback against international condemnation and criticism of Israel does not lack the investment of brain power, concentrated effort and funds and it could be argued that they have had some marginal success, but it’s rather like the sand wall children build to stop the waves encroaching on their sand castles at the seaside: it works, briefly, but in the end collapses under the weight of the watery reality.
This seems to lead pro-Israel groups into ever more bizarre ways of stating their case for Israel, some of which seem to conflict with the fundamentals of Judaism, of which the state of Israel is supposed to be an expression. So we learn that the Jewish Community Centre for London (JCC) is publicising an event called ‘We Believe in Israel’, the national Israel Engagement Conference convened by BICOM.
The aim is to bring a thousand people together from across the community to show their support and learn more about Israel. We are delighted that Makom, the leading Israel education and engagement initiative, will be an integral part of the programme exploring the vibrant complexity of Israel, alongside a variety of information-sharing sessions led by leading experts.
What other country needs to ground support for itself in a quasi-religious formulation? If it all comes down to ‘believing’ in Israel as one ‘believes’ in Judaism, something has gone terribly wrong. It only confirms the fact that the confused, misplaced but widespread equation of Israel with Judaism – as if the former is by definition synonymous or interchangeable with the latter – has taken deep and dangerous hold on the psyche of those who make it their business to come to Israel’s defence no matter what it does. It seems to me that these people do not have have Israel’s true interests at heart. Indeed, they exemplify how they themselves and the Israeli government are responsible for the delegitmization of Israel.