Just over a week ago, I returned to my alma mater, the University of St Andrews, in Scotland, to attend a debate on the motion “This House believes Israel is a force for good in the Middle East”. I was an active member of the Debating Society in my time as a student, both as an undergraduate and a postgraduate, and I try to return from time to time to see how the Society is getting on (and to tell the young people how much better it was in my day, which, with the passage of time, is sometimes true and sometimes quite, quite false).
It is always a bittersweet experience returning to a university once you start to lose the bloom of youth. On the one hand, I am vastly wiser and more experienced than I was a student (though I don’t claim to be objectively wise), and I wish, in some ways, that I could bestow some of the knowledge I have now on my younger self. On the other hand, there is a breathless vibrancy about bright young people which I suppose I might have had in my youth, but which has certainly gone now. Breathlessness these days comes from walking up the stairs.
The University of St Andrews Debating Society is an old and distinguished one. It claims its origins from 1794 (only the most historically rigorous would dispute this) and has, of late, become extremely successful in competitive debating at a national, European and international level. It sits in the venerable surroundings of Lower Parliament Hall, which served as the meeting place of the Scottish Parliament in 1645 (while Edinburgh was ridden with plague). Tradition is very important; gowns are worn, a sword is carried and the committee processes into the chamber.
So to the debate. First, the speakers. On the proposition were Michael Freeman, Counsellor for Civil Society Affairs at the Israeli Embassy in London; and Alex Don, a former student and 2015 European Debating Champion who now works – don’t they all? – for a management consultancy. In opposition were Arthur Goodman, a member of the executive committee of an organization called Jews for Justice for Palestine; and Malcolm Ben M’hindi, formerly of the UN Agency for Palestinian Refugees. Not a bad slate, then, and certainly one with which, back in the days when I was in charge of arranging speakers, I would have been perfectly happy. If I’m going to be excessively critical, I would guess that Mr Don was a last-minute addition, as his firm was hosting an event in town earlier that day, and as an able debater he would be able to slot in at short notice without disgracing himself. But I digress.
Mr Freeman opened the debate, and, though I admit to some bias, spoke excellently. He described the many achievements of Israel, the only functioning democracy in the Middle East, the only state with (dare I say it?) Western-like respect for the rule of law and human rights, with an independent judiciary and a free press. The case for Israel was well made, and I enjoyed talking to him afterwards, though I fear I may have ranted somewhat.
Mr Goodman, of course, went to the heart of any debate on Israel, that is, the treatment of the Palestinians. It’s a sore spot for anyone who seeks to defend the State of Israel, and a weakness in any argument. He spoke ploddingly, I thought, but even the most ardent Zionist must admit that an equitable settlement between Jew and Palestinian is still far off. But an odd thing struck me; there is a strange strain of self-loathing among some Jews, into which category the Jews for Justice for Palestine must surely fall. Now, some will say that it is not a matter of self-loathing at all, but a distinction between Judaism and Zionism. One can be a Jew, the argument goes, and still disapprove, sometimes vehemently, of the policies of the State of Israel. In Parliament, the arena I know best after 11 years working there, the most notable proponent of this strain was the late Sir Gerald Kaufman, who could barely walk past a debate without condemning Israel. De mortuis nil nisi bonum, I know, but I shan’t miss him.
The second speakers on either side didn’t bring much that was new to the debate. That is not their fault: the lineation of the debate on Israel is easily sketched but not so easily fleshed out. The other problem is that, on this subject, views tend to be firmly entrenched. Debate is, fundamentally, about persuasion, and that is often not possible when it comes to Israel. If you are a committed Zionist, you will hear nothing bad about the shining city on the hill. If you are a fervent proponent of the Palestinian cause, nothing that Israel does, or indeed can do, will redeem it in your eyes.
To the result. The debating chamber was reasonably full, and in the end it was 44 votes for the proposition, 57 for the opposition, and 33 abstentions, so the motion was defeated. What interested me, however, more, really, than the result was the number of abstentions. It could be that those 33 students were chronically indecisive; more likely, I suspect (and hope), they came with open minds, and found neither side sufficiently convincing.
Perhaps it was the motion. In my long years in the Debating Society, I thought a lot about motions and their framing. They have to allow for debate, of course (“This House believes in motherhood and apple pie” would not get you much of an argument), but, to draw in the crowds, without whom, after all, the whole exercise is pointless, they sometimes have to be provocative. I argued fiercely, back in the 2000s, for us to debate the motion “This House believes Islam is inherently dangerous”, but the powers-that-be were too scared of a furore. Sometimes you need to rile people to get them to come along, to fire them up to speak, to get them to care enough to participate.
But you can, by pursuing the roar of the crowd, set up false dichotomies. It is perfectly possible to believe that there is much to be admired about Israel, while also accepting its shortcomings, and that may leave you not quite able to endorse the proposition that it is a force for good in the Middle East, as the motion put forward.
Me? I voted in proposition. I’ve always taken the view that one should approach debating motions on the on-balance principle. On balance, are you for or against? I’ve never been one for abstaining, generally, unless the arguments on both sides have been so egregiously bad that I can’t bring myself to put my hand up to one of them (and that has happened in the past). On this motion, I considered: on balance, is Israel a force for good or bad in the Middle East? And I could not vote for anything but the proposition.
I looked again at my hastily-scribbled notes for the evening, as I was determined to speak from the floor and made sure to catch the Speaker’s eye. They are difficult to decipher, but, if I think back, my argument ran thus. Israel is a democracy, a liberal, pluralistic democracy with every facet of public engagement that we in the West would recognise. Unlike us, though, and unlike almost every other country in the world, it faces a genuinely existential threat. There are other nations on earth, some its close neighbours, who openly and unapologetically want it to cease to exist. It also has a population which, in living memory, a European nation sought to destroy. This is not special pleading or shroud-waving. What it means, I would argue, is that we have to understand that, while Israel is in almost every sense a Western-style democracy, it exists in a wholly different situation to us.
Is it a force for good? Well, more so than a force for ill, if you ask me. This doesn’t mean that everything it does is good, but if confronted by the choice “yes” or “no”, then I will always vote “yes”. Endorsing a debating motion does not mean you would carry it to the ends of the earth. For me, anyway. It’s a matter of weighing the options and coming to a balanced view. Put it this way: I wish more Middle Eastern countries were like Israel.
One footnote. My friend Tobias and I, old members of the Debating Society, attended the debate wearing yarmulkes. One speaker from the floor accused us being part of an “Israeli cabal”. Little did our accuser know we had just come from a restaurant where we’d eaten two dozens oysters. Never judge a book buy its kippah, would be my advice. But I still voted in proposition. Bad Jew, yes. Jew nonetheless. Which I suppose encapsulates my whole point: bad Israel, sometimes. Israel nonetheless.