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The Curious Tale of the Oxford Professor Who Hated Israel

by: Rabbi Shmuley Boteach - Last updated: 2003-07-02

The news this week that Andrew Wilkie, Oxford University's Nuffield Professor of Pathology, told an Israeli doctoral applicant that he was not prepared to take on Israelis as students because of the "gross human rights abuses" that Israelis inflict on Palestinians, and his further assertion that "I am not the only UK scientist with these views," sadly did not come as a shock to me.

When I first received emailed notification from outraged Jews the world over, who wrote to me as someone who had served as rabbi to the students of Oxford, I simply thought to myself, "Well, some things never change."

In my capacity as head of the Oxford L'Chaim Society, which over eleven years rose to become the second largest student organization in Oxford's history, I had brought Israel's leaders to lecture to the students and counter the flood of pro-Arab propaganda heard in stereo from both Arab and British speakers. The demonization of Israel was loud and frequent. But whereas Arab heads of State and Ministers were welcomed as official University guests, Israel's leaders were treated in a somewhat different manner.

I remember the nearly impossible task of persuading any Oxford college to join us as an official host for Binyamin Netanyahu, the first sitting Israeli Prime Minister ever to visit the University. When Yitzchak Shamir visited with us, nearly all of the leading academics I invited to dinner with him turned us down. Ariel Sharon, who in 1992 did us the great favor of opening our new Jewish Student Center in central Oxford, filling in for Ronald Regan when the former President had to cancel his lecture just days before he was to arrive, gave one of the Oxford Union's most memorable orations. Still, he too was snubbed by the nearly all the Oxford academics whom we always made it a point to invite. That is not to say that the University snubbed famous Jewish personalities.

Lest you believe that it was only the right-wing Prime Ministers who were snubbed, the same happened with Shimon Peres. Not only did a paucity of academics agree to dinner with him. Worse, when we took Mr. Peres to speak at our the Cambridge branch of the L'Chaim Society, a coalition of Arab and British students tried to have the police arrest him - I kid you not - on charges of war crimes. And a huge protest rally was organized against Mr. Peres with bullhorns blaring. Even the by Yitzhak Rabin, whose lecture at Oxford had to be cancelled on the day that he was to deliver it as he rushed from England to Israel in response to a deadly bus bombing in October 1994, was opposed by leading Oxford academics. And this was well after the Oslo accords were signed and he had won the Nobel Peace Prize!

Does this mean that British academia in general, and Oxford in particular, is anti-Semitic? My honest answer would have to be, no (or more precisely, not necessarily). Firstly, I have always argued that the Jewish community must proceed with great caution before making
accusations of Jew hatred. Anti-Semitism is deadly and it is repugnant.And we debase the seriousness of the allegation through misuse. Even when the University inexplicably singled out L'Chaim from over 300 Oxford societies to try and remove "Oxford University" from our official title - something for which we had obtained official permission and which even The Oxford University Tiddlywinks Society was granted without much hassle  -  I consistently and publicly disagreed with the many who said that the University's actions were motivated by anti-Semitism. Besides, the University has honored many Jewish personalities and indeed, the Chancellor, Lord Jenkins, accepted my invitation to dinner with Elie Wiesel, and a high number of very distinguished Oxford Professors accepted my invitation to dine with Simon Wiesenthal.

What is indisputable, as the Israel-bashing Prof. Wilkie, justifiably points out, is that most British academics have either little sympathy for, or outright hostility, toward, the State of Israel. I know that many believe that anti-Zionism is simply a mask for anti-Semitism, as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. so eloquently argued. But let's be charitable for a moment and ascribe the British intellectual's hostility toward Israel as resulting from the honored British tradition of championing the underdog. Of course, you have the right to ask what kind of intellectual would be so easily deceived as to accept that five million democratically-minded Jews, with no natural resources, pose a threat to six hundred million oil rich and military-minded Arabs? But hey, intelligent people have been fooled by even greater deceptions.

George Bernard Shaw called Hitler a great man, and Nelson Mandela has been saying for months that George Bush is a greater threat to world peace than Saddam Hussein! So let's continue to be charitable and simply assume that British anti-Zionist academics choose their position simply because the Palestinians are, of course, human beings who deserve rights, and they blame Israel for denying them their rights.

For the sake of argument, let us further assume that these saintly academics, working in their laboratories with halos over their heads, are absolutely correct. That rather than being a liberal democracy forced into militancy in order to thwart the designs of murderous terrorists, Israel is instead a colonial, occupying power who gets off oppressing Palestinians.

Even then, we would have the right to ask whether Prof. Wilkie and his colleagues have similarly denied places in their laboratories to Saudi students whose religious police force young female High School students back into burning buildings  rather than allow them to run out into the street without the hijab? Has the University turned away the many Saudi princes, some of whom I befriended at Oxford, because their brutal government punishes any criticism of the House of Saud with imprisonment and death?

Has Prof. Wilkie rejected Chinese student applicants over the Brutal oppression of Tibet, the slaughter at Tiananmen Square, or the outright suppression of all organized religion? Has Prof. Wilkie denied Kuwaiti students entry into his lab over their 1991  expulsion of over 350,000 Palestinians who they regarded as enemies of the State (something Israel has never even contemplated)? Have Jordanian students been kicked out of Oxford over King Hussein's war against the PLO in the early 1970's that left tens of thousands of Palestinians dead? I don't think so. When I was at Oxford I met the extremely friendly Jordanian princesses studying there, even though their government allows no democracy.

No, it seems that Prof. Wilkie and his ilk have a problem solely with Israel and noone else. And in my continued effort to be charitable to the esteemed scientist, allow me to assert that the good Professor's prejudices are animated not by Jew-hatred, but by ignorance.

Prof. Wilkie is no anti-Semite. He's just an uninformed ignoramus. A buffoon. A silly man who speaks before he thinks (he is now apologizing to all who will listen that he didn't mean what he said). A man who doesn't deserve to be a professor, not because he's prejudiced, but because he contravenes the very first law of science: refrain from drawing conclusions before you have the evidence. Prof. Wilkie is one of those unintellectual mediocrities, an ideological extremist, who substitutes passion for reason. The thought that a shoot-from-the-hip, out-of-control, uneducated fool is the head of an Oxford science department is alarming indeed.

Is Prof. Wilkie, who asserts that Palestinians only "wish to live in their own country," aware that for nearly a century they have repeatedly rejected a state of their own if it meant Israel's continued existence? Is the great man of science familiar with the Balfour declaration of 1917 which promised a Jewish and an Arab state carved out of the Middle East (accepted by the and Jews rejected by the Arabs), is he aware that Jordan constitutes 78% of the original British proposed Jewish homeland, has he heard of the British Peel Partition Proposal of 1937 (accepted by the Jews rejected by the Arabs), the UN Partition Plan of 1947 (accepted by the Jews and rejected by the Arabs), Ehud Barak and Bill Clinton's Camp David Proposal of 00 for a Palestinian State (accepted by the Jews and rejected by the Arabs)? Is he aware that even in the aftermath of its greatest victory in the Six Day War of 1967, Israel immediately made peace overtures to the Arab States who replied from Khartoum with their now infamous three noes (no negotiation, no peace, no recognition)?

In the final analysis, intellectual like Prof. Wilkie are not anti-Semites. They just don't know any better.

Often, those who harbor prejudices against others are told they need to be reeducated, the hope being that the darkness of their acquired biases will be purged through exposure to the light. But since you can't reeducate those who have not been educated in the first place, this remedy is useless with regards to Prof. Wilkie. Rather, I would simply counsel him that next time around, before deciding to become a spokesman for any particular issue, it's a good idea to know something about it first.