The debate “This house would boycott Israel” at Queen Mary University of London was nothing short of my expectations about the usual anti-Israel rhetoric. The two speakers for the Proposition were Baroness Tonge, patron of Palestine Solidarity Campaign (PSC) UK and Kamel Hawwash, part of PSC’s Executive Board and author of the blog “Brum2Jerusalem”. Some of the things they said are:
“I have to say there is an Israeli lobby in the USA, which controls American politics by offering financial support – that is why no one ever dreams of speaking against AIPAC’s interests!” –
“Hamas is a democratic organisation. When they can, they provide food, housing and education for the people of Gaza and they expressed a wish to make peace with Israel numerous times in the past.”
“Jews have no historical connection to Israel at all. They have a religious one, I give them only that.”
“During the ferocious attacks by Israel on Gaza this summer, all Israelis were complaining about was their alarm system” – He made a dance to ridicule Israelis running to shelter while saying this, which prompted the audience to laugh about it.
I found it impossible to clap for these two speakers, not even out of respect or political correctness. Their ideas echoed some of Hamas’s ones; namely that a peace agreement is only negotiable on the basis of the so-called ‘67 borders in addition to the right of return for Palestinians. I therefore had no respect left for them because if God forbid, their ideas ever materialised into reality it would mean an end of our survival as Jews in Israel.
The two speakers against the proposition were Alan Johnson, who as always did himself justice even in such adverse circumstances. The second speaker was Robert Fine, who by the end of the debate seemed to agree with the speakers for the Proposition. It left me wondering whether QMBL Debate Society is truly unable to find a more charismatic and less insecure speaker for the Opposition or whether this move was done on purpose to have a weak Opposition to start with.
As it progressed, various audience members pointed out that the event was meaningless and “reductionist” and noted that it was a discussion about Israel’s legitimacy to exist, rather than a debate about boycotts and whether they are in any way beneficial to any of the parties in the Israel-Palestine conflict.
The only arguments in favour of boycotts were minimalistic and redundant, with Kamel Hawwash’s assertion that “We should support the BDS movement to put pressure on Israel” and Baroness Tonge pointing out that she supports the BDS “out of sheer frustration at the situation and lack of alternatives”.
The amount of absurdities we had to endure and the highly provocative way in which they were presented to us made it hard for some to even formulate a coherent question for the panel (and for this, we were publicly laughed at). To add to the frustration, towards the end of the discussion a girl from the audience repeatedly asserted that “Hamas is NOT a terrorist organisation”. At that point l found myself unable of internalising my emotions and a very loud “Shut up!” slipped from my lips. I admit I lost control and irrespective of my views, I should not have said that. Given my overwhelming reaction, I decided to stir clear from such events in the future.
At the end of the debate, the motion symbolically passed with approximately 70% of votes in favour of it. Around fifteen Jewish students participated to the event and achieved nothing in terms of benefitting our country. Let me point out that I believe this would be the case even had we won the debate.
The debate lasted two hours, meaning that although our intention was commendable, we collectively wasted approximately 30 hours that could have been spent by doing something that can concretely benefit Israel such as: organising and attending educational events about Israel, informing ourselves about the conflict and informing others about it either in person or using social media, doing work for any Israeli charity or humanitarian project such as Save A Child’s Heart, which unites Israelis and Palestinians through medicine.
It has now been five years during which I attended events where Israel is demonised and buzz-words such as “apartheid”, “colonialism”, “genocide”, “IDF soldiers are child murderers”, “Israel is a Nazi state” and “BDS” are constantly used. I have challenged speakers such as Norman Finkelstein, wrote to Universities’ Student Unions to report biased Chairs of events and out-of-order remarks, stood my ground during Israel Apartheid Week and attended anti-Israel counter-demonstrations.
The real reason for which from now onwards I will stir clear from the above is that I have come to believe that as Israel advocates, we achieve nothing by taking part in such events.
I do not believe in the argument that having an opposition at such events lessens the amount of lies perpetuated against Israel. Whether we sit in those lecture theatres or not, speakers are still going to follow their planned speeches and the audience is still going to be exposed to their points of view. Moreover, no matter how challenging our questions addressing anti-Israel speakers can be, they can always ignore or avoid answering them, rendering our presence at such events useless.
I also do not believe that if we stop going to such events we are signalling defeat to our opponents: I rather think our message is that we are tired of being part of such extremely biased events and prefer to spend our time doing something else.
We are tired of spending our time at events that demonise rather than inform.
We are tired of spending our time at events where we feel uncomfortable to speak up.
Nevertheless, the general feeling on UK campuses seems to be that discussion is essential. Hence there is a feeling amongst Israel supporters that we should be participating at controversial events because now, unlike in the past, we can meet and discuss the matter with our opponents.
I on the other hand have slowly come to believe that it is only worthwhile to engage in discussion when it produces change: the sort of discussion we are seeing at these events- in which each person expresses their point of view and no resolution is achieved- is a waste of time and energy.
I find myself agreeing with the fact that a tiny minority of people attend such events without a preformed opinion about the conflict and that we can therefore positively influence them. However, I prefer to remain realistic and ask you: my friends, how many times has a member of such audiences approached you exhibiting interest in your opinion? How many of us need to spend considerable time and effort by joining events filled with hate speech before we finally (hopefully) find that one person ready to listen to us?
I ask you to put things into perspective and admit that most people without an opinion about this conflict are not likely to take part at events that have the word “boycott” in their title, as they are clearly biased. These people are in fact more likely to be minding their own business on campus and be suddenly surrounded by anti-Israel propaganda such as during Israel Apartheid Week. I therefore think it is essential for us to be knowledgeable about the conflict and present on campus so that we can approach students, answer their questions, hold conversations with them offering facts rather than narratives and personally I found that members of Stand With Us have helped me and supported me a great deal in achieving this.
Let me conclude by sharing another very simple way to benefit Israel, which I have learnt from personal experience: if you are Israeli, do not be afraid to declare yourself so. In most cases this is beneficial as myriads of people we come across during our lives have never actually met an Israeli before. Their views are only based and influenced by how others choose to portray us. By getting to know us in person and realising that we are ordinary people just like them, people tend to positively change their opinion about Israelis and Israel.
When people we know discover we are Israeli, this enables them to appreciate the incongruence between the image of bloodthirsty, cruel Israelis generated by the media and groups such as PSC against how we Israelis actually are: loud, sometimes rude but truly compassionate and caring people.