The Israel-Palestine debate has been co-opted by those who have no real interest

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Responding to PalSoc's invited speaker, Marika Sherwood, Francesca Newton argues that, while Sherwood was unnessesarily incendiary, the entire debate has to move beyond "who can shout the loudest".

I was brought up to be both a Jew and a believer in and advocate of human rights. I want to take this time to explain why those things are not - and should never be - considered mutually exclusive, and why we need to forge a new path of discussion about Israel-Palestine.

Jews have been persecuted - and often murdered - at some point in pretty much every state they have inhabited - and that was before (and even sometimes after) the Shoah. As such, I believe in the right of Jews to a home nation in which they can be guaranteed freedom from persecution.

I also believe in the right of Palestinians to the same kind of home. Zionism, Judaism, and Israel are all different entities which have varying relationships with one another for every individual. Jews should never be expected to apologise for anything enacted by the Israeli government or military, and the conflation of all Jewishness with Israel is itself anti-Semitic.

Many Jews like myself are opposed to many of the actions of Benjamin Netanyahu's government - particularly, the continued building of and support for Israeli settlements on occupied land. The observation that Israel, since 1967, has been in occupation of Palestinian territories as they were agreed by the UN in 1947, and the Israeli military has enacted a number of (often violent) human rights abuses against Palestinians (check out the website of Amnesty International, a neutral charity, if you need some evidence) is not anti-Semitic. It's a fact. Claiming that every criticism of Israeli state or military policy is anti-Semitic only undermines a very much extant problem with real anti-Semitism, and decreases our ability to deal with it effectively.

Marika Sherwood's talk, and the chaos it descended into, was symptomatic of the myopia and refusal to engage with reality present on both 'sides' (a term I'm uncomfortable using, but which is the easiest here) of the Israel-Palestine debate. In terms of the events, I agree that her scarf (which depicted Yasser Arafat - a former leader of the PLO, and the voice of some horrendous comments inciting violence against Jews), and a number of things she said - particularly, her advertisement of a false historical conspiracy between the British Jewry and the government - were outright anti-Semitic. I also feel that certain pro-Palestinian students present, particularly one man, were blatantly disregarding the rules of free speech in shouting down Jewish and/or Zionist students when they tried to interject, but constantly interrupting while others were speaking. Both things made me uncomfortable.

"The general impression I got was that PalSoc were not aware of what they would set off in having Sherwood in to speak"

However, the general impression I got was that PalSoc were not aware of what they had set off in having Sherwood speak - although they absolutely should have been - and that they were as upset as anyone about the mess the event became. PalSoc are a society which aims to raise awareness about the abuses committed against the Palestinian people by the Israeli occupation, and that, in itself, is not anti-Semitic, nor necessarily anti-Zionist, since one can absolutely be a Zionist and disagree with the Israeli occupation of Palestinian land.

Similarly, while I am a wholehearted advocate of free speech, one speaker's decision to be incredibly overbearing in his rebuke of Sherwood - not to mention pulling out an Israeli flag and shouting Am Yisrael Chai - at an event which he knew to be made up primarily of pro-Palestinian students was, frankly, the most effective way possible to alienate attendees from any sympathy with Jews or with Israel. This made me uncomfortable as a Jew in the space.

I have not felt satisfied with any of the statements or articles I have read about the event since, from either PalSoc or Jewish and/or Zionist students, since all of them have failed to encompass in any way one another's perspectives. The whole debate surrounding Israel-Palestine - even beyond this talk, in the wider global media - seems to be vocalised on both 'sides' almost entirely by those with the least productive views. I know I'm far from an expert on Israel-Palestine, but I don't see how my knowledge can be improved when opportunities for education and discussion are consistently co-opted by those who seem to have no real interest in either.

"I take absolute affront to the idea that those aspects of my identity are at all incompatible with each other"

I am a proud socialist and humanitarian, and a proud Jew, and I take absolute affront to the idea that those aspects of my identity are at all incompatible with each other - that being Jewish should limit my ability to criticise Israel, or that being a humanitarian should drive me away from the aspects of Zionism that I do agree with, or from being able to voice concerns about anti-Semitism when it does enter the Israel-Palestine debate, which it sometimes absolutely does.

People on both 'sides' seem more concerned about the sound of their own voices and with labelling each other than about the practical realities of finding a solution which allows both Palestinians and Jews to live free from persecution or the threat of violence. If anyone is interested in having a conversation which is geared towards a productive and encompassing outcome, rather than a shouting match, please let me know.

Featured image: Unsplash / Rob Bye


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