Healthy dialogue has to reach outer limits

By Dave Rich, March 1, 2012

A seminar at Birkbeck College, University of London, last week, showed how constructive dialogue can be held between people with deeply opposing views, while also proving that dialogue has limits to be defended.

Organised by the Pears Institute for the Study of Antisemitism, the seminar, Muslims and Jews: Citizenship, Identity and Prejudice in Europe, the US and Israel, covered the portrayal of Muslims and Jews in the British media, antisemitic incidents during the 2009 Gaza conflict, multiculturalism and Israel/Palestine debates in student unions.

Unlike the one-sided conferences that characterise so much anti-Israel campaigning on our campuses, this seminar housed a genuine mix of views.

Alongside academics from Britain, Israel and Germany were activists from CST, the Union of Jewish Students, BICOM, Jews for Justice for Palestinians, JCORE, the Islamic Foundation and East London Mosque.

These are not people or organisations who would normally gather around one table, but an academic seminar should, by its very nature, embrace a wide range of opinion, while allowing participants to express their views and air their disagreements in a structured and controlled environment.

This particular gathering had two valuable features: firstly, the mixture of academics and activists ensured that discussions were rooted in evidence-based research and on-the-ground experience.

Secondly, offensive or extreme views were challenged in a focused and informed way.

There is little that BICOM and JFJFP would agree on, but their representatives were as one voice in condemning the final speaker, Palestinian writer Karl Sabbagh, who stood by his endorsement of an antisemitic book by the ex-Israeli Gilad Atzmon.

When the Institute director, Professor David Feldman, told Sabbagh that his views illustrated just when anti-Israel advocacy becomes antisemitism, it was clear that dialogue had reached its limit.

Dave Rich is deputy director of communications at the Community Security Trust, and a postgraduate research student at the Pears Institute

Last updated: 3:12pm, March 1 2012