More than 200 students gathered at St. John’s Old Divinity School on 27 February for a public panel entitled “Six Years On: The Syrian Revolution.” Organised by the Middle East and North Africa Forum (MENAF) – a “non-partisan” student group officially registered with the University – the event was advertised on Facebook as a “high-level panel discussion on the future of the Syrian Conflict”. Speakers originally scheduled to appear at the event included two unidentified ‘Syrian Opposition Insiders’ – one from the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and another from the Syrian National Coalition (SNC) – as well as Thaer Al-Hajji, a Syrian Kurdish activist, and Nir Boms, a fellow at the International Centre for Counter-terrorism in Herzliya.
Though promoted as an “incredible chance to hear from and talk to the ‘real’ Syrian Opposition” the event that took place was misleadingly different from the one described online. Far from being an ‘objective’ forum for dialogue on the Syrian conflict, the MENAF panel was instead co-opted by the veiled propagation of special interests. Speaker cancellations, which were not communicated to ticket holders ahead of time or discussed at the event, meant that Boms was the only originally scheduled speaker to appear. He was joined by the publicly discredited Syrian oppositionist Issam Zeitoun, and their colleague (name omitted)*, an Israeli-American of Syrian descent who described himself as being involved in Israeli government activities.
The panel unfolded without any substantial discussion of the Syrian revolution, save for Zeitoun’s remarks on the brutality of the Assad regime, which were cut short due to time constraints. There was little explanation, for example, about how or why the conflict began, about the key actors and groups involved, or about the potential path forward for the Syrian people. Instead, two of the three panelists focused disproportionately on the topic of Israel and its humanitarian activities in Syria. This included Boms’ half-hour presentation entitled Forbidden Aid: The Case of Israeli Humanitarian Diplomacy in Syria. Those familiar with the well-documented challenges surrounding aid in Syria might expect that a presentation of this kind would detail the structural challenges or political complexities of delivering life-saving relief to Syrians in need. What transpired, however, was an aggrandizing presentation of Israel’s good deeds.
Championing Israel before academic audiences is not a new undertaking for Boms. He is the former Vice President of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies (FDD), a Washington D.C. think-tank and offshoot of the Endowment for Middle East Truth (EMET). The latter organisation describes itself as having “an unabashedly […] pro-Israel stance,” and works to lobby the US congress on matters relating to Israeli security. Among the various political activities that Boms oversaw as VP at the EMET-backed FDD were free tours of Israel for American academics. According to a Slate interview with Robert Farley, tour participant and political scientist at the University of Kentucky, “the goal of the trip was to inculcate a particular view of the Israeli security situation and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict… It was understood that the military occupation of the West Bank was necessary to prevent a terrorist campaign against Israel.”.
The political calculus underlying Boms’ presentation was not countered by the other speakers, despite MENAF’s espoused commitment to organising ‘objective’ events that give voice and platform to diverse viewpoints. This includes the remarks by Syrian oppositionist Zeitoun, who works with Boms to organise aid activities inside Syria. The pair have spoken together publicly about their humanitarian efforts in the past, including at a June 2016 conference in Herzliya, Israel, where Zeitoun was described as a “foreign relations representative” of the Free Syrian Army (FSA). This sparked condemnation from the FSA’s official delegation, who responded with a public statement distancing themselves from Zeitoun: “Issam Zeitoun falsely claims to represent the Free Syrian Army and he has participated in meetings in occupied Palestine. We write to assert unequivocally that we […] have no knowledge or affiliations with him. The Syrian revolution against dictatorship is part and parcel of people’s struggles for self-determination and this includes the struggle of our Palestinian brothers and sisters […].”
Zeitoun, who has been living outside of Syria since the 1990s, clarified his role as an ‘independent oppositionist’ in the days following the conference, and apologised for what he said was an error made by the conference organisers. Nonetheless, he was again featured on a panel discussion in January of this year at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, where he appeared as a “liaison for the Free Syrian Army with the international community”, according to The Times of Israel. Similar confusions about Zeitoun’s affiliations appear to have clouded the MENAF panel, as it was never clarified if Zeitoun was the unidentified FSA member alluded to in the event advertisement.
The opaque character of Zeitoun’s background raises serious questions about his credibility and the interests he represents, especially considering his unlikely working relationship with Boms. If comments made by Zeitoun in interviews with conservative American media outlets are any indication, then the extent to which his opinions and perspectives can be seen as representative of the Syrian resistance is limited at best. This includes comments made to Breitbart news such as ““Palestinians don’t even realise they live in paradise…even Gaza is better than Syria ever was,” and “Israel is a superpower in the region… they built a country where the Arabs failed".
A closer examination of MENAF and its off-campus affiliations offers some insight into the composition of Monday’s panel. This includes MENAF’s relationship with the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America (CAMERA), a self-described “media-monitoring, research and membership organisation [with] an unshakeable belief in the causes of Zionism and Israel.” Together with EMET, CAMERA runs a college campus initiative and fellowship program that provides university students with training, resources, and financial support to “bravely and publicly defend Israel against hostility and distortions on campus.” EMET-CAMERA student fellows receive $1,000 a year personally, as well as up to $4,000 of funding for campus events and activities. MENAF is listed as an official CAMERA-EMET group on the organisation's website, alongside the name of a MENAF co-founder, who is a registered CAMERA Fellow.
Despite claiming to be an apolitical student initiative, previous MENAF events reveal a strong pro-Israel stance that is indicative of CAMERA groups elsewhere. MENAF’s inaugural event in Michaelmas Term, for example, was a one-on-one discussion between Israeli Ambassador to the UK Mark Regev and a Cambridge professor Glen Rangwala. Three pro-Israel advocacy organisations — CAMERA, StandWithUs, and the American Jewish Committee — sponsored the event. In February, MENAF invited several speakers to discuss “Security Challenges in the Modern Middle East,” including former Israel Defense Forces General Elazar Stern. According to the chairman of his political party, Stern was “sent to London [in February] to fight BDS,” or the movement for boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel. Less than 24 hours before MENAF’s event was scheduled to take place, a human rights organisation in the UK called for the arrest of General Stern in connection with alleged war crimes. The two other speakers scheduled to participate withdrew soon after, ostensibly to avoid being associated with an alleged war criminal. MENAF hosted the event anyway.
In their defence, not all MENAF activities have strayed from the group’s discursive ambit in such a way that has facilitated overt pro-Israeli grandstanding. Nevertheless, a significant number of events have displayed partisanship incompatible with claims to neutrality. How is it possible, then, that MENAF is funded and groomed by Israeli interest groups, and consistently organises high-profile campus events that show a strong partiality towards the Israel cause, yet also claims to be objective? Why is it that out of the 60-plus campus clubs supported by CAMERA and EMET globally, MENAF is one of the only student groups that does not explicitly use the word ‘Israel’ in its name? And is it realistic to expect that the MENAF Syria panel, even if carried out as originally planned, could have been an objective forum for debate about the Syrian Civil War?
While we value and respect the University’s core principles of freedom of thought and opinion, we also believe that honesty and transparency are crucial for maintaining the integrity of public discourse on campus. The Six Years On event was not a panel about the Syrian revolution, nor was it an “incredible” opportunity to hear directly from Syrian activists or members of the FSA. Though we appreciate that MENAF issued a brief apology to its club members following the event, the statement was not sent to electronically-registered ticket holders (many of whom were not MENAF members), nor was it publicly circulated online. Further, by failing to make clear the affiliations and agendas of the speakers present on Monday night from the onset of the event, MENAF facilitated the political masquerading of special interest groups in the name of the Syrian revolution. In doing so, it misled its audience, demeaned its claims to political neutrality, and undermined its stated mission to foster objective dialogue on campus. Most unfortunate of all, however, MENAF wasted an important opportunity to raise awareness and engagement at Cambridge regarding the conflict in Syria.
At her talk on campus last month, celebrated Syrian novelist Samar Yazbek was asked what the international community could do to help Syrians. Yazbek responded that students, researchers, and journalists should not underestimate the power of small acts, or the power of truth and the written word, to support the Syrian resistance: “Through telling stories honestly, through spreading the truth about the situation in Syria… we can give voice to the victims of this war, and we can render justice possible.”
Authors’ disclosure: We acknowledge that this event was originally advertised as “off the record” and closed to the press due to security concerns. To this end, we have only shared information about the panel and speakers that is publicly available elsewhere, including from advertisements, interviews and articles about nearly-identical public lectures given by Boms and Zeitoun in both Israel and the U.K.
With solidarity and support from:
Ahmed Abdelbaky, Secretary, Cambridge University Arab Society
Beth Jamal, President, Cambridge University Palestine Society
Catriona Spaven-Donn, Co-President of Cambridge Student Action for Refugees
Dina Tahboub, Vice President, Cambridge University Arab Society
Hogai Aryoubi, Co-President, Cambridge University Afghan Society
Hunadda Sabbagh, Publicity Officer, Cambridge University Arab Society
Isobel Houston, Co-President of Cambridge Student Action for Refugees
Parwana Fayyaz, Co-President, Cambridge University Afghan Society
Abdulla Zaman, Department of History, Cambridge University
Alice Markham, Cambridge University Palestine Society
Amin Alhussain, Department of Medicine, Cambridge University
Amina Shareef, Faculty of Education, Cambridge University
Annie Hamill, Centre of Development Studies, Cambridge University
Arthur Bickersteth, Faculty of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies, Cambridge University
Aya Helmy, Cambridge University Palestine Society
Barzan Sadiq, Graduate School of Life Sciences, Cambridge University
Bilal Abou El Ela Bourquin, Cambridge University Arab Society
Blandine Bénézit, Department of Development Studies, Cambridge University
Carys Goodwin, Department of Politics and International Studies, Cambridge University
Clover Godsal, Faculty of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies, Cambridge University
Dena Qaddumi, Department of Architecture, Cambridge University
Dilar Dirik, Department of Sociology, Cambridge University
Ed McNally, Cambridge Defend Education
Eliran Bar-El, Department of Sociology, Cambridge University
Dr. Felix Stein, Department of Social Anthropology, Cambridge University
Hakan Sandal, Centre for Gender Studies, Cambridge University
Inez Daltrop, Faculty of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies, Cambridge University
Jason Okundaye, Human, Social, and Political Sciences, Cambridge University
José Ciro Martínez, Department of Politics and International Studies, Cambridge University
Josh Ivinson, Cambridge University Palestine Society
Julia Erdelmann, Department of Education, Cambridge University
Mahvish Ahmad, Department of Sociology, Cambridge University
Maria Khwaja, Department of Education, Cambridge University
Mohammed Uzair Belgami, Department of Social Anthropology, Cambridge University
Nabila Idris, Centre of Development Studies, Cambridge University
Nimrah Malik, Cambridge University Palestine Society
Safieh Grace Kabir, Cambridge Defend Education
Sahil Shah, Critical Theory and Practice Seminar
Sophia Kakarala, Faculty of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies, Cambridge University
Surer Mohamed, Cambridge University Somali Society
Talin Ghazarian, Department of Archaeology, Cambridge University
Thilal Halimah, Department of Education, Cambridge University
Vanessa McKay, Department of History, Cambridge University
Dr. Waseem Yaqoob, Faculty of History, University of Cambridge
William James, Department of Education, University of Cambridge
William Liebrecht, Faculty of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies, Cambridge University
Zeyana Yussuf, Human, Social, and Political Sciences, Cambridge University
Garrett Rubin and Adam Streeter are MPhil students at the University of Cambridge, studying International Development Education and International Politics respectively. Prior to Cambridge, both Rubin and Streeter lived and worked in the Middle East for several years.