Blog post

Cruising for a bruising? Critiquing the British Zionist movement (while trans)

An essay from Hil Aked, author of Friends of Israel: The Backlash Against Palestine Solidarity.

19 April 2023

Cruising for a bruising? Critiquing the British Zionist movement (while trans)

Some subjects can be relied upon to remain safely ensconced within the pages of a book. Other subjects, however, bite back. Writing about Israel/Palestine is always potentially inflammatory. Critiquing the contemporary British Zionist movement, from a pro-Palestinian standpoint, is perhaps especially likely to attract hostility. So why write a book virtually guaranteed to prove unpopular in some quarters?

It’s been argued that social science with the capacity to contribute to real-world change is necessarily conflictual and “likely to gain both friends and enemies for researchers” [1]. I wrote Friends of Israel: the Backlash against Palestine Solidarity because I believe that all actors – civil society organisations as well as governments – working to shore up support for Israeli apartheid, or to marginalise solidarity with Palestinians, ought to be held accountable and should not be immune to criticism. Their actions cause harm, albeit indirectly. 

I make no pretence of ‘objectivity’. My interest in studying this topic as a researcher originally grew out of time spent doing solidarity activism in the occupied West Bank in my early twenties. This period had a profound effect on me. I witnessed the pervasive injustice and brutality of Israeli apartheid alongside the dignity, humanity and steadfastness (sumud) of Palestinians’ daily resistance. I wrote this book, then, not out of a belligerent glee in controversy or a desire to sensationalise or provoke, but in the hope that subjecting Israel’s support networks here to critical scrutiny could make a contribution, however small, to undermining settler colonialism in Palestine. 

Israel’s far right government is only able to sustain its apartheid system due to the impunity it is granted on the international stage. Britain’s involvement in Palestinians’ dispossession has historically been, and remains, pivotal. Yet to examine pro-Israel organisations’ contribution is not to construct a fallacious argument that absent their activities the British government would somehow be supportive of Palestinian rights. On the contrary, studying the early years of the Zionist movement reveals the extent to which its perceived utility to the British Empire - which ruled Mandate Palestine for nearly thirty years - was, from the outset, critical to its success.

My book shows, however, that the Zionist movement today contributes to the oppression of Palestinians, and the maintenance of Israeli apartheid. It does this, in particular, by working to repress Palestine solidarity, through a variety of anti-democratic means including censorship, astroturfing and lawfare. Indeed, I focus on the way the Zionist movement has been forced to mobilise, in the last twelve or fifteen years, in response to a resurgent Palestine solidarity movement. In particular, the global Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign – initiated by Palestinians in 2005 – has grown strong enough to provoke a massive pro-Israel backlash, throwing the Zionist movement into sharp relief.

I highlight the way this repressive counter-campaign, led by the Israeli government,  strongly parallels the propaganda campaign waged in previous decades by the South African apartheid regime, which similarly sought to counteract a global boycott campaign emanating from civil society. One of the book’s central contentions is that civil society organisations play a critical role in state propaganda campaigns like these, in part due to being perceived as more legitimate and benign than official government spokespeople. 

Far from a monolithic bloc, the Zionist movement includes a diverse spectrum of actors, often in conflict with one another. Yet I also show that, when it comes to opposing boycotts of Israel, a range of actors work together, alongside the Israeli embassy. Examining the Zionist movement’s activities across five different arenas - parliament, civil society and the cultural arena, ‘lawfare’ in local government, universities, and the media - I show with detailed empirical evidence that state–private networks are a longstanding feature of pro-Israel activism.

This does not render pro-Israel actors ‘foreign agents’, however, and the book serves as a corrective to misguided ‘foreign influence’ narratives. My concern is with British actors’ complicity in the systematic denial of Palestinian rights, situated in the wider context of British state racism and colonial history.  

The book seeks to make an anti-racist intervention on a topic which - as this excerpt from the book’s introduction discusses - has become taboo. In this sense, rather than fetishising or exaggerating the Zionist movement’s power, the book highlights its limitations and works to undermine the antisemitic conspiracy theories which can gain traction in a climate of cultivated and pernicious ignorance, marked by the absence of serious, sensitive, informed, and robustly anti-racist discussion.

The culture of silence around this topic is also a marker of the Zionist movement’s success in keeping scrutiny of its own activities firmly beyond what the late Palestinian-American scholar Edward Said called “the responsible mainstream” of scholarship. Yet engaging in fraught or polarising topics like this, he observed, is a question of intellectual integrity. Said said: 

Nothing in my view is more reprehensible than those habits of mind in the intellectual that induce avoidance, that characteristic turning away from a difficult and principled position which you know to be the right one, but which you decide not to take. You do not want to appear too political; you are afraid of seeming controversial; you need the approval of a boss or an authority figure; you want to keep a reputation for being balanced, objective, moderate; your hope is to be asked back, to consult, to be on a board or prestigious committee, and so, to remain within the responsible mainstream…. For an intellectual these habits of mind are corrupting par excellence. If anything can denature, neutralise and finally kill a passionate intellectual life, it is these considerations, internalised and so to speak in the driver’s seat [2]

In the process of demystifying pro-Israel networks, I hope Friends of Israel carves out some space for a healthier discussion of the important topic of British complicity in Israeli apartheid. It is part of facing up to our colonial history and the state racism, militarism, carceral practices, border violence, denial of refugee rights and racial injustice that mark both Israel/Palestine and Britain, destroying the lives of racialised people.   

On a personal level, I can’t help but see a connection between the process of writing the book, and my simultaneous journey to understand myself as a trans person. In both cases, it took a long time to find the right words to say something difficult. The spectre of hostile, bullying, and perhaps interconnected [3] movements loomed large. In both cases, I eventually accepted that I would face antagonism from people who didn’t like what I had to say. Yet after agonising at length, I felt these were important truths that deserved to be told and might bring liberation a little nearer. 

Friends of Israel: the Backlash against Palestine Solidarity by Hil Aked is out now. Read an excerpt from the book here, and Hil Aked's Five Book Plan.


[1] Bent Flyvbjerg, Todd Landman, and Sanford Schram, Real Social Science: Applied  Phronesis (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012): 292.

[2]  Edward Said, “Representations of the Intellectual”, Reith Lectures, 21 July 1993.

[3]  Schotten, C. Heike. “TERFism, Zionism, and Right-Wing Annihilationism: Toward an Internationalist Genealogy of Extinction Phobia”, Transgender Studies Quarterly 9, no. 3 (2022): 334-364.

Filed under: israel-palestine