Hen discussing Israels Neighbours Last Thursday, we had the pleasure of Lt. Hen Mazzig (Res.) coming to speak to us and fellow students at the University of Bristol, thanks to StandWithUs. Joining an audience predominantly made up of Jewish students, among other attendees, a few members of the Bristol Friends of Palestine Society (PalSoc) and other students that were interested in the conflict were present.

In the build up to university, we’d prepared for what can happen when you bring a pro-Israel speaker to campus. We were made aware of potential heckling, staged walk outs, and many other tactics employed by some anti-Israel students seeking to shut down dialogue on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The truth is that often, and especially on the issue of Israel, university is portrayed as a highly polarised place, with students on opposite sides ending up literally yelling at each other in large groups on the streets, and with little or no middle ground. We knew that these battles and this polarisation would reach a climax at the absurd ‘Israel Apartheid Week’ – a shameful spectacle which returned to British campuses last week – when once again Israel – and Israel alone – would be blamed for an extremely complex and multi-faceted conflict. We had prepared for gritty and often aggressive attacks from the other side, for losing friends over this issue, and for in some cases being made to feel guilty for standing up for the Jewish right to self-determination.

So, if you had told us before university that when we brought a former lieutenant of the IDF to talk on campus about the conflict we would be joined by members of the PalSoc, we would have been extremely anxious about what might transpire. Based on the experiences encountered by friends of ours who were already at or had recently graduated from universities across the UK, we probably would have expected heckling, aggression, perhaps a walk out, and almost certainly no embrace of dialogue. Thankfully, Bristol PalSoc did not meet those expectations.

Instead, when the event was posted in their Facebook page, the post spoke of a need for dialogue, and asked members to be respectful and not to show up unless they were willing to listen to another point of view. Just days after the defeat of their West Bank boycott motion at the Annual Members’ Meeting of the University of Bristol Student Union, the PalSoc recognised the essential nature of keeping a dialogue on the subject open, and mirrored that in the decision to be respectful when they came to hear Hen speak.

Speaking to some of their members after the talk, they expressed how insightful and endearing the unique position that Hen held and his story of being an openly gay soldier were. Nathan Beesley, a member of the PalSoc, tweeted Hen after the talk saying “Thanks to @HenMazzig for a compelling talk. Hopefully this is the start of an ongoing dialogue at @BristolUni #Israel #Palestine”. This tweet encapsulates the aim of the talk; to open up dialogue and establish an open and mutually respectful platform for debate. The idea of mutual respect when the Middle East is discussed has become a distant and unrealistic expectation on some campuses, but dozens of Bristol students have been able to show that it is both possible and constructive to establish this respect. Prior to Hen’s talk at Bristol, he was jeered at Exeter University and labelled a ‘murderer’ by students at Kings College London. Bristol students, by contrast, were able to put political differences aside and recognise the importance of listening to a different perspective on one of the world’s most dividing issues, setting what we believe is an example of how such discussions should be conducted across all campuses.

What the talk has opened up is not merely a one-off dialogue but will hopefully lead to a constant dialogue between members of the PalSoc and students like ourselves about any future events. Next week, in place of Israel Apartheid Week – which did not come to Bristol campus, largely because it conflicts so strongly with students’ desire for dialogue – the PalSoc are running a ‘Palestine Awareness Week.’ We have advertised this to peers who may be interested in the conflict via Facebook, encouraging participation and attendance. And, just as importantly, we have urged those that may get involved to show as much respect to the PalSoc events as they showed ours. That is the key – respect; it is what allows us to learn from each other and work together.

At the University of Bristol we are lucky that, as of yet, no ‘Mock Apartheid Walls’ have been erected, and no ‘Mock Checkpoints’ harassing students at entrances to buildings have been used as a way of protesting. Instead, we have just seen the power of a lecture theatre full of young, interested and liberal minds willing to listen to and question differing perspectives. The dynamics in Bristol have meant that as opposed to dumbing down the debate to soundbites such as “Genocide in Gaza” or “Apartheid Israel” without listening to the other side, we are fortunate to be in a university where students look past these simplistic and false statements that divert debate from an academic environment to a megaphone outside a Marks & Spencer’s.

Hen ended his talk the same way we would like to end this; whilst we may disagree on what has caused the conflict or how to solve it, there is the one quintessential view that we do share – all we want is peace.

This piece was jointly written by Jonathan Godsi (twitter- @JGodsi)