Semi-automatic biros and hummus: Israel comes to Cambridge

Eddie Millett 1 November 2014

Security was bound to be tight in the run-up to Israeli ambassador Daniel Taub’s speech at the Union, but the first I knew of it was when I got busted by local police for cycling the wrong way down Trinity Street. Arriving at the Union, to be met by barricades, protesters, and a scrutinising pat-down by ex-Mossad heavies, it became dramatically clear that this was to be no run-of-the-mill interview.                                                                         

After being relieved of all my possessions, even down to my biro (‘it’s a potential weapon’, I was gruffly told), I was shown into the Union’s red room to await Taub’s arrival. ‘You’ll get two questions, maybe three if you’re lucky’, one of the slightly jittery press officers informed me.

Upstairs in the Union’s library, Taub was talking exclusively with members of Cambridge’s Jewish Society, about the future of Israel and their place within it, so I took the chance to chat to Tim Squirrell, the Cambridge Union Society's President.

On the subject of the Palestinian Society protests happening outside, Squirrell was even-handed: ‘we did in fact invite a number of Palestinian notaries along, but they declined’. He remained philosophical about one recent complaint levelled at the Union, that speakers ‘offer their propaganda, then piss off in a blacked-out car’, stating his feeling that ‘we do need to increase the amount of interaction between students and speakers’ over and above the current level.

Even he hadn’t escaped the brusque efficiency of Israeli security methods, funded in part by the Union itself, with the Union angling for a security contribution from JSoc in return for their use of the Library: ‘I got barred from entering earlier, and it took a lot of persuading to get them to let me in!’

Taub, when he finally arrived mobbed by Israeli security heavies, was careful to point out that he would have openly welcomed the chance to address PalSoc. ‘My aim in coming is to make people as knowledgeable as possible, and to speak to as many groups as possible. I want to inform people.’

I put to Taub the sentiment expressed to me only recently by John Lyndon, Chief Operating Officer of the grassroots Israeli-Palestinian political organisation OneVoice: ‘nobody’s harder to dialogue with about the conflict than a British male undergraduate’. Taub, however, seems up to the challenge. ‘I relish the electric atmosphere of places like Cambridge. It takes commitment to create intellectual spaces like the Union for dialogue’, and on many campuses ‘the challenge is one of actually creating the space in the first place.’ Unsurprisingly, then, PalSoc’s protest outside was not well-received: ‘such tactics of intimidation limit the ability of those intellectual spaces to function’.

Ever the consummate diplomat – described by another journalist as ‘very slick’ – Taub was able to block and parry my more pointed questioning. I asked him about events that took place this week in the Silwan neighbourhood of East Jerusalem, in which nine Jewish Israeli families arrived in the dead of night to take over two empty buildings. Operating under the auspices of the aggressive settler organisation Ateret Cohanim, their action is part of a wider attempt to dilute the Palestinian identity of East Jerusalem.

If settling Jews beyond the ‘Green Line’ in Palestinian East Jerusalem is legitimate, I ask him why organisations are sneaking in settlers in the middle of the night. On this question Taub prevaricated, highlighting that Arabs are ‘perfectly entitled’ to move into Jewish areas, stating that he didn’t have all the evidence for what had gone on in Silwan recently. 

As talk turns to the subject of this summer’s conflict, Taub emphasises the role of the media. ‘There is a special responsibility on the media’ to expose ‘where and why there is suffering’.

Before Taub was whisked away, I had time to nudge him once more. ‘What are your thoughts on the Hummus solution?’ I asked, referring to the satirical third alternative for the region to the proposed one-state and two-state solutions, by which everyone gets so much free hummus they all stop fighting and go home. He gives a genuine grin at that, and makes a sharp quip about collective indigestion issues.

Then he’s off – one of his heavies steps in and cuts us off, and we are spirited away. Taub, like Netanyahu, is a consummate diplomat: always prepared with an answer to the most pointed of questions, able to block and parry with effective evidence, or, failing that, cast doubt on assertions.

As a new poll by the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, released this week, reveals that 74% of Jewish Israelis oppose the establishment of a Palestinian state along the pre-1967 borders, we are at a crucial crossroads in the narrative of the State of Israel. The intense professionalism of Israel’s diplomatic service, while a credit to it, is also a visible demonstration of the manner in which Israel has continued to skirt around difficult issues all summer. Indeed the last-minute total live media blackout at the Union last night, as the regular livestream was cancelled, is a gag on media freedom that is worryingly indicative.

One last comment of Taub’s struck me in particular though, as he stated that the most useful thing he could bring to the Union was not more rehashed Israeli spin, but his genuine ‘experience of the negotiating room’. The individual narratives that make up this conflict are poorly represented by media buzzwords such as ‘left-wing’ or ‘right-wing’, ‘2-stater’ or ‘settler’: talk to Israeli anti-fascists violently assaulted on the streets of Tel Aviv, long-established Negev dwellers sick of Qassam rockets, or bright graduates of Birzeit University in Ramallah desperate for an internship and an European inter-rail ticket, and the picture starts to become a lot more complex than the TV news ticker would make it out.