In October of last year an academic conference was held at the University of Exeter on the topic of whether Israel was a settler colonial state. Whilst attracting significant academic interest it was not particularly well advertised to students, and with no students participating, it did not feel particularly accommodating to the student population. This was troubling to me because of the emotive nature of the debate. The JLC acknowledged this and worked hard to ensure another debate took place involving students, and so was born the debate/lecture last week entitled “the treatment of Israel in academic discourse at UK universities”, chaired by Sir Steve Smith, the Vice-Chancellor of the University.
On the ‘pro Israel side’ alongside myself (Vice-President of the Jewish society at the University), was the author, Alan Johnson and professor David Hirsch. On the opposing side was Professor Illan Pappe, Dr. Nadia Naser-Najjab and a PHD student who belonged to the Palestine Student body.
We argued that the treatment of Israel is often unfair because of the double standards it receives in comparison with other similar countries, its de-contextualisation and its wide demonization and the subsequent adverse effect on the experience of Jewish students on campus. With debates on free speech and safe spaces currently dominating discussions on campus, it was important as the student defending Israel, to show that university is fundamentally a place for open discussion between people with contrasting views on issues such as Israel, which includes not hiding one narrative through the likes of academic boycotts. At the same time we must remember to be non-confrontational, non-inflammatory and not to further discourse that demonises a minority on campus, so as to create a space in which students feel comfortable to voice their opinions and debate topics that matter to them.
The way Israel is treated in academic discourse has a fundamental effect on campus life. Attacks on Israel filter down to groups on campus campaigning against Israel, whether it be through the use of BDS, or what we saw recently at Kings College London. This becomes particularly worrying when Israel appears to be the one country singled out (through the likes of Israel Apartheid Week) for wrongdoing. Debating this is therefore vital to recognising and learning about the roots of anti-Israel sentiment and attempting to tackle it head on, in a democratic and dialogue led manner.
The debate was also very important in the context of the University. With a very small Jewish population and significant Arab and Islamic academic representation, Exeter can come across as an academic institution that disproportionately opposes Israel and even an unsafe space for Jewish students. However, by holding this debate, instead of protests such as Israel Apartheid Week that serves to divide parties, it gave us an opportunity to open dialogue and debate the issue in an inclusive and fair manner. Because the Jewish population is such a small minority on campus, there should be a greater onus on the university to foster rational debates that give equal representation and platform to those who want to defend Israel, as these debates and discussions directly affect the experience of life on campus as a Zionist Jew.
The format of the debate is something that should be taken forward. Including students and academics together is vital in highlighting both the effect that academic discourse can have on debates on campus, as well as the importance for students discussing a topic to examine multiple narratives and sometimes invisible reasons behind a conflict.