Is Israel a victim or aggressor?

That was the title of a debate held on Thursday evening at Durham University and hosted by the Durham Union Society. I was invited to be one of the three proponents.
Other speakers included Jonathan Hoffman of the Zionist Federation and Douglas Murray of the Centre for Social Cohesion as proponents. The opponents were Keith Sonnet from UNISON, Dr Ghada Karmi, a Palestinian academic who lives in the U.K., and a student who substituted for a speaker who could not attend.

Each speaker had 10-15 minutes to make their case, and after the first four speakers, students were allowed to make interventions from the floor. At the end of the debate, the students “voted” by acclamation with the loudest shouters deemed to be the winners.
Hoffman opened with a survey of 2,000 years of Jewish history, repeating the theme that the Jewish people and Israel have been historical victims and are engaged in self-defense.
Karmi rebutted, and said that we (meaning she) no longer want to hear any more about anti-Semitism and the Holocaust. She told students that they should believe what they’ve seen with their own eyes – on television – despite Hoffman’s having built a compelling case that the BBC is biased as is much of the British media. She said nothing about the two peoples needing to find a solution, to learn to live together.
I spoke next, taking up where Hoffman ended, making the case that even today, an Israel that appears to be so much more powerful than its opponents is still very much engaged in self-defense and is not an aggressor. I stressed the role of Iran in the region, and pointed out that Israelis may be divided over issues like the settlements, but are united in their desire for peace.
The student who was unfortunately called in at the last minute to continue making the case for the opposition stumbled through his speech and I think most of us just felt sorry for the lad.
The student interventions were from both sides and some of the students were quite articulate in their defenses of Israel.
Murray ended the case for the proponents with a powerful discussion of the existential threat faced by Israel from Iran and its proxies, and threw back at Karmi the fact that even if she didn’t want to hear about anti-Semitism we would raise it anyway.
Sonnet ended the debate by making an essentially moderate argument – for two states, for a separation barrier that ran on the lines of the 1967 green line, against Iran and against Hamas. In some senses, Sonnet was closer in views to the proponents – especially myself – than he was to the one-state line of Karmi.

3 Comments on "Is Israel a victim or aggressor?"

  1. Jonathan Hoffman | 16/05/2009 at 15:38 |

    When we were walking away from the debating chamber Karmi asked me if Israel would ever stop wanting to wipe out all the Palestinians.

  2. Thanks for what sounds like a fair summary of a debate with complex and controversial issues. We need more debates of this kind.

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