On Friday, Marika Sherwood, a Hungarian-born Jew who survived the Holocaust, gave a talk about Israel’s occupation of Palestine in a warm backroom of the SU, in front of a whiteboard emblazoned with the red, white and green of the Palestinian flag. About sixty people of all ages and backgrounds sat listening, awaiting the opportunity to soak up what the event promised was Sherwood’s 'wealth of knowledge.' Yet, far from illuminating the complexities of the Israel-Palestine conflict, these two hours only served to underline how far we are from comprehending and moving past the difficulties of the conflict towards a resolution.
The first half was taken up by Sherwood’s talk. Moving between discussing her upbringing in Nazi-occupied Hungary to her experiences of the racialised education systems across the world and to modern politics, she gradually expounded her thoughts on Israel and Palestine. She was, of course, a very interesting speaker: the uniqueness of her biography granted powerful insights on racial politics over the last century. Yet, overshadowing these insights was a certain lazy ignorance. Her conspiracist linking of the Balfour declaration (the public statement that announced British support for a ‘national home for Jewish people’) with supposed money-lending by the Rothschilds (a prominent and wealthy Jewish family), for example, demonstrated a willingness to buy into the anti-Semitic canard of the Jews as the controlling, untrustworthy agents pulling the puppet-strings of society, despite a lack of evidence for her claims. Likewise, she used ‘Jews’ as a holonym to refer to the small number of Jews that make up the Israeli government, a dangerous generalisation. There were even vague collocations between the Israeli government and the Nazis (a tentative title for another talk she held was ‘you’re doing to the Palestinians what the Nazis did to me’). Naturally with these things, the query drifting through the air at the interval was ‘if she wasn’t Jewish, would she be getting away with these things?’
In the second half, the floor was opened up for questions. After a few concerning Sherwood’s life, an older man was picked to ask a question. Oddly, he made his way to the front to address the audience and, with a voice coarse and gravelly, began to attack the statements Sherwood made about Israel and Palestine. As his words grew more belligerent, so did the audience’s and the room, not for the last time, was engulfed by unintelligible shouting. He was asked to leave, he declined; when asked how he could be so rude and aggressive to Sherwood, a fellow Jew, he replied that she was not a Jew; he called her an anti-Semite; he denied that she had survived the Holocaust and, when an organiser put a hand on his back, he cried ‘assault.’ This set the tone for the rest of the talk. Some Israeli supporters denied any oppression of Palestinians, while others expressed concern that (Jewish people being a minority on campus) Sherwood’s words might propagate division, to which one Palestinian supporter shouted ‘fascist.’ ‘Sorry I couldn’t help myself,’ he smiled to his friend. In short, neither side came out with any credit and the extreme voices were allowed to dictate the dialogue, even after the older man was removed by security, holding an Israeli flag aloft and shouting ‘Am Yisrael Chai.’ What could have been a considered debate failed because those involved decided that ad hominem, untruth and sectarianism were the ways to go about it. The voices of moderation and objectivity were drowned out.
It is lazy to dismiss an argument as anti-Semitic and ignore its content even if it is a valid critique of the way the Israeli government has handled the Palestinian people. It is equally lazy to generalise and perpetuate false stereotypes in trying to justify a position you know little about, blurring the distinction between Jews and the Israeli government. Neither of these helps anyone understand any more about the conflict. They merely illustrate how both sides have shielded themselves against criticism and resorted to dogma to the detriment of debate. The issue is ultimately more complex than the parties at this event were willing to admit to, and will continue to be this complex for as long as both sides deny their own wrongdoings.
Equally as striking as the nature of these arguments, was the way every utterance was presaged by a ‘as someone who is half-Jewish…’ or a ‘as a person with Palestinian ancestry.’ Suddenly, the validity of any statement became dependent on the degree to which the speaker was Jewish or Palestinian. A veracious argument retains its veracity no matter what the speaker’s identity is. Therefore, by seeking validation for their arguments through their identity rather than through the arguments themselves, and likewise by attacking other arguments for the speaker’s identity, the audience members derailed the debate. Perhaps the event was inclined to this identitarianism from the start, by using Sherwood’s identity as a Holocaust survivor to lend weight to her views.
So now, as someone who is neither Jewish, nor Palestinian, I cannot see how the divide between the two peoples is ever going to be bridged when supporters on both sides refuse to engage with each other’s arguments, when identitarianism and ad hominem supercede rational debate, even in somewhere as far removed from the conflict as an artificially lit room in Bristol.