“A little bit challenging” and “a little bit interesting” – Why Ambassador Mark Regev’s Visit to the University of Leeds Provided More Questions than Answers

If you were wandering about campus last Wednesday the 14th November, those more eagle-eyed amongst you may have noticed an increased security presence patrolling outside Leeds University Union. For those of you who were less aware or just momentarily recovering from Hifi the night before, even if you missed the guards in high-vis jackets, you still probably heard the drums, the chants and the protests as Leeds’ Palestine Solidarity Group (PSG) provided a backdrop to the arrival of Mark Regev, Israel’s Ambassador to the UK, on campus. Regev had been invited by LUU’s Jewish Society (JSOC) to speak to students of Leeds about his role as an Ambassador and to provide some clarity about some of the most pressing issues dominating Israeli politics. With the talk limited to around 100 audience members, The Gryphon went along to see just why Regev’s visit appalled so many students, and why JSOC were so adamant that he be allowed to talk.

Tasked with chairing the discussion and holding the Ambassador to account was Dr Alan Craig, a visiting Research Fellow from Durham. As Chair of the European Association of Israel Studies, advisor to the Israel Institute and a member of the editorial board of Israel Studies Review, Dr Craig was well suited to pursue the questions on everyone’s lips, and also to pick up on any deficiencies or discrepancies within Regev’s answers. In his opening statements, Dr Craig made it clear that the event was not intended to be a propaganda tool, but to be an open and productive discussion: “there have been visits over the years by Israeli and Palestinian Ambassadors to the University, and the way in which these have been organised in the past is that these have taken place a little bit under the radar. But this is a slightly different event. This is an open, public event that’s put on by JSOC.”

Students on campus on Wednesday could not have failed to notice PSG’s protests.

“This is not an event that is designed to promote a particular Israeli policy that you guys are being asked to consider – this is an interaction, an interaction in which the questions and views from the people in the audience are as interesting to us as anything the ambassador has got to say as well.” Well aware that the Ambassador marked a divisive figure on campus, Dr Craig promised that “if there are people in the audience who are strong, committed supporters of Palestine – you guys are very welcome, and you will have an opportunity to voice your views.”

While the offer to challenge Regev was invited to those in attendance, the majority of disgruntled voices remained outside of the room, audible from inside its four walls. As a spokesperson, an ambassador, and ultimately a mouthpiece for the State of Israel, a number of students gathered outside the event to question whether such a figure should have been allowed on campus. Intermittent shouts of “Free Palestine” could be heard throughout the talk, providing a constant reminder that Regev’s presence was as divisive as it was revealing. However, the event organisers, JSOC, were resolute in their decision to host the Ambassador, stating afterwards:

“We are proud to have brought Ambassador Regev to campus to encourage debate and engagement on campus. We welcomed positive and productive discussion with respect maintained throughout. Professor Alan Craig, visiting research fellow, chaired the conversation challenging the ambassador throughout. All students were welcome to attend this open debate with all audience members invited to ask any questions.

“Having coordinated with the police our main responsibility was the safety and well-being of students on campus. It was disheartening to see posters around campus asking if students want to be ‘the oppressed or oppressor’. We welcomed the space for PSG to protest safely, as is their right, and we thank the union for allowing us to host the event.”

The event went on regardless of the protests. In light of the recent news that, earlier this week, Regev was forced to abandon a talk to students at City, University of London over security concerns, the fact that the Ambassador could even appear on campus was a testament to both the attention to detail on behalf of the event organisers and the peacefulness of the protests going on outside. As a result, the man himself soon arrived to a room of half respectful, half apprehensive hush.

Ambassador Regev is a man whose reputation precedes him. Known for his fiery and defensive nature, viral interviews with the likes of Jon Snow and Krishnan Guru-Murthy have burdened Regev with a weight of expectation he seems to carry into every interview. However, his passion was initially contained at the start of the discussion, as Regev briefly walked us through his journey from Australia to Israel, and how certain elements of his family history have influenced the way he thinks. As the son of a Holocaust survivor, Regev spoke about how the particular history of Jewish people often affects a Jewish person’s psyche or ideology – “I don’t want to be presumptuous, but I have no doubt that growing up in a family with a father who is a holocaust survivor affects the way you think.”

Asked by Dr Craig about the tension, as a spokesperson, between his personal views and the policies of the State he represents, Regev found that tensions were part and parcel of the job. “It’s a bit like being a lawyer and a client – it’s just that my client is the State of Israel. And I have to tell you that it’s an honour to be, from my perspective, an ambassador or spokesperson for the State of Israel. Can there sometimes be occasions where my personal views do not necessarily conform 100% with a particular government policy? It can happen on occasion. But that’s happened, I have to tell you, very seldom. I think people also respect your honesty and respect your transparency. In other words, don’t justify what you personally don’t believe and what you know was a mistake. I think it also gives you more credibility as a spokesperson if you’re willing to state publicly that you know your side can make mistakes.”

Despite claiming that he was more than willing to admit to the mistakes of his government, it didn’t take long for the Ambassador to go on the defensive. Referring to that day’s news that the Israeli Minister of Defence had resigned over a perceived ‘weaknesses’ in Israel’s policy towards Palestine, Dr Craig challenged Ambassador Regev on the premise that “Israeli policy towards Gaza is a failure and needs to be changed.” The Ambassador fired back, “I don’t accept the premise of your question. Because Israel is open to having the frontiers with Gaza moving, to having trucks going in everyday with food stuffs and medicines and whatever the civilian population of Gaza needs. In fact, the reason, or one of the fundamental reasons for the current tension in Gaza has been who has imposed sanctions on the Gaza strip.

“Because, as the people outside would say – they’d say Gaza is a jail. But what they wouldn’t say, is that the jailer is Hamas. The jailer is Hamas, that enforces an Islamist dictatorship inside the Gaza strip. And it has prevented the people of Gaza from enjoying the possibilities of economic development. […] Hamas took power in Gaza, and after doing so they say their holy war against Israel is more important than the wellbeing of the people of Gaza.”

“The people outside would say – they’d say Gaza is a jail. But what they wouldn’t say, is that the jailer is Hamas.”

With Regev passionately responding to the question, if you closed your eyes, you could have been forgiven for thinking he was appearing on national television, not a lecture theatre at the University of Leeds. In fact, the phrases ‘I don’t accept the premise of your question’ and ‘the jailer is Hamas’ are ones Regev has used during many interviews with UK news outlets. It was almost as if the Ambassador was unwilling to let his guard down at any point, unwilling to say even one word outside of his Ambassadorial line, giving the open discussion the slight feel of a hostile interview – an interview in which Regev held all the cards.

Mark Regev became Israel’s Ambassador to the UK in April 2016.

Referring here to the protesters, still audible from outside the lecture theatre, Regev did not hold back from letting his feelings known. “I would say this about the people protesting outside. They claim to be friends of the Palestinians. And I would ask as a question, are they really friends of the Palestinians? Because, basically, what they’re telling the Palestinians is: ‘don’t talk to Israel, don’t engage with Israel’ – that’s why you shouldn’t talk to me – ‘don’t, heaven forbid, negotiate with Israel’. They are saying ‘we will defeat Israel through our struggle’.

“Now, in the real world, how likely is that to happen? Is Israel about to be defeated militarily any time soon? Is Israel about to be defeated diplomatically anytime soon? Is Israel about to be defeated economically any time soon? In other words, these people outside are actually lying to the Palestinians. They’re telling the Palestinians keep knocking your heads against the wall. How do you expect to make peace, how do you expect to build a better future unless you’re willing to talk and engage with the other side?”

“But what in the real world are they doing? They are condemning the Palestinians to the status quo.”

Reminding the Ambassador that there are plenty of voices on the Israeli side who refuse to negotiate with Palestine, Regev again placed the onus for negotiation on Palestinians and Hamas. “You can talk with an enemy that wants to make peace with you and stop being an enemy. You can’t talk to someone who says you have no right to exist. What are you going to talk about? How we will commit suicide? In other words, there has to be a common basis where you can find common ground and, unfortunately, as long as Hamas remains stuck in a very extremist position, you don’t have that common basis.”

In light of the accusation that “they are condemning the Palestinians to the status quo”, PSG were quick to respond. “Regev’s comments show he knows nothing of the reality for Palestinians, those living in Palestine or in the diaspora. To claim he knows what’s best for Palestinians is offensive and reeks of Orientalism. Our protest was led by Palestinian voices who shared stories of being born in refugee camps, of life growing up in Gaza and the West Bank and of living displaced in Syria. We are leading an effective, nonviolent movement, united with students of all creeds and colours, to demand basic human rights and equality, to be able to live without being arrested or killed by an occupying military – this shouldn’t be controversial.

“If Regev wanted to know what Palestinians really think, he should have come outside and listened to us. Instead, he continued his attempts to spread state propaganda in order to normalise apartheid. He is continuing the infamous blame narrative, where our own deaths, occupation and refugee status are somehow our fault.”

PSG gathered outside LUU to voice their protests.

While it understandably took up the overwhelming majority of the discussion, not all of the day’s questions revolved around the ‘Israeli-Palestinian Conflict’, with one student pushing the Ambassador to provide a statement on the power of orthodox judaism in Israel and the extent to which it has an influence over issues of inclusivity and diversity within Jewish communities. Regev was guarded in his response. “So Israel in this area is a country of contradictions. Because on the one hand, at the moment, there’s no legal marriage for LGBT+ people in Israel. On the other hand, Israel was one of the first countries to recognise LGBT+ people into the military, and recognise its LGBT+ spouses legally. Israel’s record on this is mixed – it’s not totally bad and it’s not good either.

“We have had tension since day one, since we declared our independence in May 1948. We’ve had a tension between the more clericalist elements within Israeli society and the more secular, and like a lot of things you find compromises and compromises are never perfect. For instance, for orthodox Jews, the Kotel is ground zero of holiness and for them to have a woman rabbi fill in there, that is for them an abomination and you can’t do that in their opinion. And for reformed Jews and liberal Jews – that’s exactly the place you want to do it because it is the most holy place. So how do you find solutions? You try live and let live, some of them are not perfect. It’s difficult these issues; you’ve got to find compromises.”

Regev referred to the Kotel, also known as the Western Wall, in his answer. [Image: The Jerusalem Post]

While the student who challenged the Ambassador on this particular issue was grateful for Regev’s awareness of the problem, they remained slightly disheartened by his ‘live and let live’ response. After the event, the student commented “a ‘live and let live’ solution, as the ambassador suggested about the Kotel, is insufficient. This is the ideal but not the reality at the moment. Women are not granted their supreme-court given rights at the Kotel, with British Jewish women having been arrested, kettled and pelted with rocks for trying to peacefully pray.

“For many progressive Jews, the battle for equality in Israel continues. There is no public transport on Shabbat, no LGBT+ (or non-orthodox) marriage and women do not have equal prayer rights at the Kotel. This is because of the power of the Rabbinate, and it would be appreciated to see support on these causes from the Israeli delegation of diplomats and the ambassador based in the UK. With LGBT+ rights, Israel has made strides. But they must not get complacent – there is still a long way to go.”

“With LGBT+ rights, Israel has made strides. But they must not get complacent- there is still a long way to go.”

Touching on issues closer to home, Ambassador Regev provided a brief comment on the ever-prevalent issue of anti-Semitism within the UK Labour Party. “First of all, let’s look at progressive politics in this country. Historically, the left in this country has been very pro-Israel. Those Labour leaders of my father’s generation, they saw – as part of the Labour policy of making a better world – they saw the Jews as having a right to self determination, the Jews as having a state to themselves. They saw that as an essential part of a progressive agenda, they saw that as a part of making the world a better and more just place. Obviously, the current Labour leader is in a different mould. I understand that – that’s his right to have a different position, but there’s no doubt that, historically, Labour was on a different side.” Jeremy Corbyn touched on this issue during an interview with The Gryphon, LSTV and LSR back in October.

“Obviously, the current Labour leader is in a different mould. I understand that.”

While focusing on the roots of leftist ideology, Ambassador Regev speculated that perhaps this shift in liberal opinion has mirrored a shift in the fate of Jewish people themselves. “When Jews are victims, and then you can show solidarity with them, I understand. But what if the Jew has decided he doesn’t want to be a victim anymore? What if the Jew has decided enough of persecution, enough of being a minority? A Jew wants to be able to defend himself and to be sovereign and to be independent – do you still like the Jew or does the Jew have to be a victim? Part of Western civilisation I think is uncomfortable with the idea that the Jew is no longer the victim.”

“Part of western civilisation I think is uncomfortable with the idea that the Jew is no longer the victim.”

Building on this idea of discomfort, Dr Craig pressed the Ambassador on where exactly one draws a distinction between criticism of Israel and antisemitism. “It is not antisemitic to criticise the government of Israel, no government is beyond criticism”, Regev quickly answered. “It’s not antisemitic to criticise the policies of Israel. When does it become antisemitism? One can criticise the government of Britain and not deny the British people independence and sovereignty. Why is it that some people not only criticise the government of Israel but deny our right to independence and sovereignty?

“If you are criticising Israel like any other country that’s fine. If you hold Israel up to a standard of criticism and malice and hatred that no one else [receives], I would ask, where does that come from?” Swiftly responding that such a ‘standard’ may, in fact, come from a humanitarian sympathy for the Palestinian people, Ambassador Regev came across as overly dismissive. “Really? They really care about the Palestinians? If people really have sympathy for the Palestinians, there was a report put out two weeks ago by Human Rights Watch, documenting human rights abuses by the Hamas government in Gaza and by the Palestinian Authorities on the West Bank.

Regev referred to a report from Human Rights Watch in his response.

“Pro-Palestinian people ignored it. It’s not important because they’re not really interested in the human rights of the Palestinians – if they were, they’d be putting those reports front and centre in their vocal protests. They don’t do any of that. They do none of that. Is it really about the human rights of the Palestinians?”. This question was left unanswered amidst an uncomfortable silence in the room.

The process of looking towards other countries for comparative justification was a popular tactic for the Ambassador. Questioned on concerns over the recently passed Nation-State Bill, Regev suggested we “look what other countries do. You know there are literally dozens of countries within the United Nations who claim to be the national representation of a particular people – where a particular people has national self determination. In these countries there are also national minorities. But for us to say the state of Israel is the country where the Jewish people have national self determination, that is the way we define ourselves.

“There’s a lot of hypocrisy about the Israeli Nation-State Bill and, as my Prime Minister said, you can argue about the wording and could it have been done better – yes. But more than a hundred countries have an accepted national language. When we do it, it’s racist – even though, as I’ve said, over a hundred countries in the United Nations also have an official language. What Israel is doing, you can argue if it’s right or wrong, but it is very much in the norm in international behaviour, and to accuse Israel [of racism] – it’s just incorrect.”

“There is, I believe, a double standard. We can agree to disagree, but that’s what I believe very profoundly.”

Although it gave some contextual light to the unique way in which Israel is regarded within the international community, this rhetoric of ‘if they’re allowed to do it, we should be allowed to do it too’ – a thinly veiled reworking of an-eye-for-an-eye ideology – allowed the Ambassador to successfully evade some of the trickier questions put forward to him by Dr Craig and the audience. By using other countries as examples, the questions became no longer simply or specifically about Israel, but were transformed into overarching, philosophical and deeply complex musings as to whether the countries in question are morally justified in their actions. This was a question which Regev, quite frankly, declined to answer.

It was this defensive and outward-looking element to Regev’s arguments which meant that, ultimately, JSOC’s open event provided more questions than answers. For instance, while the offer to openly challenge and debate the Ambassador was extended throughout the event, time constraints and the sheer number of issues up for discussion meant that more complex issues or responses were passed over to prevent the dialogue from focusing solely on one element of Israeli foreign or domestic policy. Furthermore, there remains the looming question of whether allowing contentious figures to speak on campus actually benefits open discussion – a question which feeds into the growing debate around ‘no-platforming’ at UK universities. While many view no-platforming as damaging to productive discussions, there are many students who will be negatively affected, emotionally and mentally, by the presence on campus of figures they fundamentally disagree with.

Ultimately, what struck me most about Regev’s visit was that a worrying amount of his reasoning relied on hypothetical evidence, constructed on the spot. It became a common occurrence for the audience to hear the Ambassador say “let’s pretend I’m a University Professor here at Leeds”, “let’s have two Jews arguing in a Warsaw coffee shop in 1928” or “let’s say you’ve got a liberal left-wing American Jew.” It may be a chilling thought, but this emphasis on hypotheticals instead of concrete statistics ultimately suggested that any real, tangible, practical, achievable and long-lasting solutions to crises in Israel, Gaza and the West Bank are, at this point in time, simply a fantasy.

Robbie Cairns