An Open Letter about Israel to the Students of Edinburgh University

From a Non Jewish, Scottish Scholar of Middle Eastern History

Jeff Cunningham
5 min readJan 16, 2024
Edinburgh Student Protesters

May I be permitted to say a few words? I am an Edinburgh graduate (MA 1975) who studied Persian, Arabic & Islamic History under William Montgomery Watt & Laurence Elwell Sutton, 2 of Britain ‘s great Middle East experts. I later went on to do a PhD at Cambridge & to teach Arabic & Islamic Studies at Newcastle University . Naturally, I am the author of several books & 100s of articles in this field.

I say all that to show that I am well informed in Middle Eastern affairs & that, for that reason, I am shocked & disheartened for a simple reason: there is not & has never been a system of apartheid in Israel. That is not my opinion, that is fact that can be tested against reality should anyone choose to visit Israel.

Let me spell this out, since I have the impression that many students are absolutely clueless in matters concerning Israel, & that they are, in all likelihood, the victims of extremely biased propaganda coming from the anti-Israel lobby.

Hating Israel

Being anti-Israel is not in itself objectionable. But I’m not talking about ordinary criticism of Israel . I’m speaking of a hatred that permits itself no boundaries in the lies & myths it pours out. Thus, Israel is repeatedly referred to as a “Nazi” state. In what sense is this true, even as a metaphor? Where are the Israeli concentration camps? The einzatsgruppen? The SS? The Nuremberg Laws?

None of these things nor anything remotely resembling them exists in Israel, precisely because the Jews, more than anyone on earth, understand what Nazism stood for. It is claimed that there has been an Israeli Holocaust in Gaza (or elsewhere). Where? When?

No honest historian would treat that claim with anything but the contempt. But calling Jews Nazis and saying they have committed a Holocaust is a way to subvert historical fact. Likewise apartheid.

No Apartheid

For apartheid to exist, there would have to be a situation that closely resembled how things were in South Africa under the apartheid regime. Unfortunately for those who believe this, a day in any part of Israel would be enough to show how ridiculous this is.

The most obvious focus for apartheid would be the country’s 20% Arab population. Under Israeli law, Arab Israelis have exactly the same rights as Jews or anyone else; Muslims have the same rights as Jews or Christians; Baha’is, severely persecuted in Iran, flourish in Israel, where they have their world center; Ahmadi Muslims, severely persecuted in Pakistan & elsewhere, are kept safe by Israel; or anyone else; the holy places of all religions are protected by Israeli law.

Free Arab Israelis

Arabs form 20% of the university population (an exact echo of their percentage in the general population). In Iran , the Bahai’s (the largest religious minority) are forbidden to study in any university or to run their own universities: why aren’t your members boycotting Iran ?

Arabs in Israel can go anywhere they want, unlike blacks in apartheid South Africa. They use public transport, they eat in restaurants, they go to swimming pools, they use libraries, they go to cinemas alongside Jews — something no blacks were able to do in South Africa .

Israeli hospitals not only treat Jews & Arabs, they also treat Palestinians from Gaza or the West Bank. On the same wards, in the same operating theatres.

Women’s Rights

In Israel, women have the same rights as men: there is no gender apartheid. Gay men & women face no restrictions, and Palestinian gays oftn escape into Israel, knowing they may be killed at home.

It seems bizarre to me that LGBT groups call for a boycott of Israel & say nothing about countries like Iran, where gay men are hanged or stoned to death. That illustrates a mindset that beggars belief.

Intelligent students thinking it’s better to be silent about regimes that kill gay people, but good to condemn the only country in the Middle East that rescues and protects gay people. Is that supposed to be a sick joke?

Open Minds

University is supposed to be about learning to use your brain, to think rationally, to examine evidence, to reach conclusions based on solid evidence, to compare sources, to weigh up one view against one or more others.

I do not object to well-documented criticism of Israel . I do object when supposedly intelligent people single the Jewish state out above states that are horrific in their treatment of their populations.

We are going through the biggest upheaval in the Middle East since the 7th & 8th centuries, & it’s clear that Arabs & Iranians are rebelling against terrifying regimes that fight back by killing their own citizens.

Draw Your Own Conclusion

Israeli citizens, Jews & Arabs alike, do not rebel (though they are free to protest). Yet Edinburgh students mount no demonstrations & call for no boycotts against Libya , Bahrain , Saudi Arabia , Yemen , & Iran. They prefer to make false accusations against one of the world’s freest countries, the only country in the Middle East that has taken in Darfur refugees, the only country in the ME that gives refuge to gay men & women, the only country in the ME that protects the Bahai’s…. Need I go on?

Do not make your minds up until you have given a fair hearing to both parties. You have a duty to your students, & that is to protect them from one-sided argument. They are not at university to be propagandized. & they are certainly not there to be tricked into Semitism by punishing one country among all the countries of the world, which happens to be the only Jewish state.

Your Duty

Your generation has a duty to ensure that the perennial racism of anti-Semitism never sets down roots among you. Today, however, there are clear signs that it has done so and is putting down more.

You have a chance to avert a very great evil, simply by using reason and a sense of fair play. Please tell me that this makes sense. I have given you some of the evidence. It’s up to you to find out more.

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