At the Goldsmiths Gaza debate

We spread the word about ‘The Great Debate – The Gaza Issue’ at Goldsmiths last week – I took some notes. Somebody made a video recording – might be worth checking the SU Middle Eastern Society page in a few days.

This debate was envisioned by its organisers (an unprecedented and positive parnership between Goldsmiths Middle-Eastern Society, Jewish Society and the Palestine & Israel Peace Society) as a departure from the kind of Israel/Palestine event Goldsmiths is used to. But something untoward happened with the way the panellists were recruited and fairly late in the day the organiser who had arranged Eric Lee and John Strawson found out that the other two speakers were known provocateurs. John Rose in particular practically lives in Goldsmiths Student Union as a guest of the Goldsmiths Palestine Twinning Campaigners.

Maybe the clue is on the Facebook event page – four panellists “two representing each ‘side'”. The dichotomy which disrupts so many campus debates about Israel and Palestine was also present here.

Consequently there were last minute worries on the part of the Student Union (the event was promoted as public on Facebook) who briefly attempted to limit the audience to Goldsmiths staff and students in the hope of avoiding the seemingly-inevitable controversy due to the choice of Israel-eliminationist panellists. During this last-minute flip-flopping about this, John Strawson cancelled (with the offer to return another time). In the end, the event remained public.

However there was a lot which was good about this event. The chair in particular was principled, firm, bright and something else – concerned that the audience should leave in a positive frame of mind. The mood was relatively tolerant despite some revolting statements from one ‘side’ of the panel. Eric Lee, being without anybody else on his ‘side’, was allocated the appropriate amount of extra time. The format was also good – three questions interspersed with panellists’ responses and questions from the floor. These well-conceived measures kept the toxicity which dogs SWP/RESPECT-organised events out of this one and distinguished the co-organisers as SU societies committed to improving general understanding of the Israel-Palestine conflict. Hopefully they will organise more events.

The notes I took at the time [pdf]. Worth noting is Ghada Karmi’s “extremely generous offer” to allow Jews to live alongside Palestinians in “my country”, and Eric Lee’s response. Karmi’s main argument was to insist that it was simple: Jews came, stole my country and threw me out. John Rose defended suicide bombing and Islamism as resistance to imperialism which deserve our “unconditional but critical support”. This deeply appalled Eric Lee on behalf of the Iranian workers who were betrayed by the Islamist counter-revolutionaries. For John Rose, the inclusion of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion in the Hamas charter was a “mistake”. He went on to evade a question on whether he’d condemn suicide bombing against innocent Israeli civilians by reading from a Darwish poem about a suicide bomber, making (regardless of Darwish’s intentions) the facile connection between suicide bombing and desparation. He closed with advice to “engage with the Jewish students” in order to change their minds as his mind had been changed. The SWP has been failing at this for decades.

8 Responses to “At the Goldsmiths Gaza debate”

  1. zkharya Says:

    I don’t understand what you mean by saying John Roses is a “provocateur”? You mean he argues the anti-Zionist case forcefully? Why would that have precluded Strawson’s participation?

  2. Mira Vogel Says:

    Zkharya, Rose thinks ordinary Jews need their minds rearranged but suicide bombers are the resistance. That does indeed seem to be the dominant position among anti-Zionists these days. But just because it’s normal doesn’t make it any the less disgraceful.

    “Why would that have precluded Strawson’s participation?”

    Don’t reckon it did. Says above that JS cancelled during the SU deciding, and then undeciding, to make the meeting private.

  3. zkharya Says:

    “two representing each ’side’”

    I still don’t understand: any kind of debate entails “sides”. Strawson’s not attending surely looked like a dearth of those prepared to speak sympathetically about Israel.

    I’m not necessarily in a position to criticize, since I couldn’t have stood in myself, for whatever reason.

    In any case, in a debate with no clearly defined motion, Strawson needn’t have represented any particular side but his own.

    Nor do I understand the fear of a student audience.

  4. Lynne T Says:


    I’m sure John Strawson can speak for himself, but if it was because the ostensibly pro-Palestinian cause was being represented by the likes of John Rose and Ghada Karmi, that the level of debate wasn’t likely to produce any light on the subject.

  5. Ariel H Says:

    As someone who was there, I’d just like to say that Mira has provided a very good summary (the notes are particularly useful if you want a sense of what was said).

    I too was impressed with the chair.

  6. Mira Vogel Says:


    “In any case, in a debate with no clearly defined motion, Strawson needn’t have represented any particular side but his own.”

    Yes, this was essentially a panel discussion with questions. It was intended as a departure from the current habit of importing a horrible conflict onto campuses up and down the country, and with it the totally inappropriate political litmus test of Zionist or anti-Zionist. But because two of the speakers hold extreme positions, these had to be countered.

    No particular significance of John Strawson cancelling – I wasn’t intending to give impression that there was.

    “The fear of a student audience.”

    I think you’re asking why would it have made a difference whether the meeting was open or closed. It was advertised as public and this may have been a factor in the speakers’ decision to participate. It was the reason Engage publicised it.

  7. zkharya Says:

    I see, Mira. I hadn’t realised John had refused to participate when the SU tried to close the meeting. That is very bad on their part: it totally wrecked the debate. It does look like amateurish incompetence.

  8. Stop the War Coalition and Stormfront promote the same event; University of Westminster hosts it « Greens Engage Says:

    […] and tend to be invited by partisans of the Palestinian factions who have vested interests in entrenching dichotomy and conflict. Sadly this is the most conspicuous kind of pro-Palestinian campaigning in Britain […]

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