Last Thursday, I participated in a debate on Palestine/Israel organised by the University of Birmingham Debating Society. The format of the event was similar to the BBC television show ‘Question Time’, with six panellists taking both pre-prepared questions, and points from the audience. The debate was held in conjunction with both the Jewish Society and Friends of Palestine Society, a rare occasion when the two groups have shared a platform.
The whole debate can be watched on YouTube, but one of the talking points of the evening came when, barely half an hour in, an audience member asked the panel if Israel is an apartheid state. The chair’s unexpected reply was that this was not a subject that could be discussed: “I’ve been told I can’t have that as a question”, she stressed (watch here). Inevitably, all the panellists then proceeded to address the issue – Victor Kattan said he’d refer to “A”.
What the audience didn’t know is that in the run up to the event, members of the Jewish Society had pressured the Debating Society to prohibit my book ‘Israeli Apartheid: A Beginner’s Guide’ from being available for purchase. Despite the fact that J-Soc was free to make available any of their own literature without restriction, J-Soc students threatened to withdraw their official association with the event, if I brought along copies of my book to sell. Eventually, they backed down when the Debating Society refused to concede the point.
But that’s not all. Further crucial context is the adoption by the Birmingham student union in 2010 of the notoriously politicised and discredited ‘EUMC working definition of antisemitism’. This 2005 document, left to gather dust by the EUMC’s successor body the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA), has been ably critiqued by Richard Kuper here, here, and here, and also by Antony Lerman here.
In fact, earlier this year, the Universities and College Union (UCU) voted overwhelmingly in favour of a motion that criticised the way in which the working definition “is being used to silence debate about Israel and Palestine on campus”.
Thus after the J-Soc attempts to prevent the sale of my book, the debate organisers were understandably anxious about encouraging a question on apartheid that could see them accused of racism, according to an interpretation of the student union policy.
This was the first time that the Debating Society had held an Israel-Palestine debate since the EUMC motion passed; it was, in effect, a test case. What transpired on Thursday not only showed the extent to which groups will go to stifle discussion of Israel’s crimes, but also how such efforts can so often spectacularly backfire.