The academic boycott has been controversial to say the least - and the debate has been deeply felt, acrimonious and, occasionally, bordering on the threatening. In Birmingham, a significant proportion of the audience appeared to have come to voice their opposition to Pappe himself, as opposed to the boycott or any other issue. Another smaller group, including myself, came with serious suspicions about the project of Engage. Although both speakers presented thoughtful if controversial accounts of their positions, I am not so sure that the audience felt that we were engaged in a debate.And on the debate itself:
Hirsch stated clearly that he opposed the occupation of Palestine and supported the rights of Palestinians - but that he did not agree with the tactic of boycott, which he considered to be counterproductive and playing into the hands of anti-semites. Pappe spoke of the atrocities against Palestinians that he had witnessed and the reasons why he believed that only the pressure of international sanctions could change opinion in Israel.I just don't think debate with supporters of a triad of moral and political impairments, ie, Israel with its colonial settlement, ethnic cleansing and racist laws is possible. They lie, they distort and they attack individuals. That's it. The discussion needs to be on how to expose Israel for what it is and how to establish boycotts as a means of isolating Israel.
However, although it would seem that there was some common ground politically between these two positions, the discussion from the floor was not about how best to support Palestinians. A large number of contributions attacked Ilan Pappe for suggesting that Palestinians were suffering and needing support - because, it was alleged, this was a one-sided and violent view. Pro-Palestinian speakers felt they had to answer the allegation of anti-semitism - understandably, as that was how the debate was set up. One member of the audience expressed his regret that the discussion could not be conducted in a manner more in keeping with the dialogic traditions of Judaic scholarship. I clapped him - but not many others did.
UPDATE: I have to hand it to David Hirsh for posting Brian Robinson's report on the Birmingam debate.
At the very end, after Pappe's really quite brilliant - and emotionally highly appropriate, no dry ivory tower detached academic he - summing up (he spoke last) I'd felt he'd been given such an unfair time of it that I stood up from my seat in the 5th row and shouted out "Bravo Ilan"!) ... I went up to the platform afterwards - cos I've corresponded with both of them on and off for some time. I told David Hirsh that I thought these were appallingly difficult human problems, reminding both him and Ilan how difficult I'd found it to make up my mind on the concept of boycotting academia, but having thought a lot more about it, I was now definitely on Pappe's side ... He laughed and said that I'd be back in his camp in 2 months. But I really don't think he's right. I don't like being harrangued, I don't like false accusations of antisemitism (they act as smokescreen apologetics, they're exaggerated opportunistically, they're counterproductive) and I don't like ad hominem slurs.But please read the whole piece in full. Go here and scroll down.