Debating the Middle East - without a fight


The secret to hosting Israel-related events without attracting "megaphone wars" lies in promoting balanced criticism and not tolerating antisemitism, according to a leading expert.

Dr Amnon Aran, a senior lecturer in international politics at City University in London, specialises in teaching students about the Middle East. Over the course of his career he has hosted a series of events on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict without attracting activists who attempt to shut down debate.

The solution, he explained, lies in balanced debate - while recognising that bias from educators cannot be eradicated.

He said: "The principal idea is that we do not try to take sides on the agenda, but really try to present both sides to the students. They recognise that this is a critical approach towards the debate, rather than an approach that adopts one side or another - the sort of megaphone warfare that we have been witnessing in previous years."

He added: "I don't think anyone can be impartial on the conflict, but it is important that when you present your view, you also give a counterview, that you give the counterview some weight rather than ridiculing or delegitimising it in any way.

"Students want their professors to give their opinions, which may stem from their analysis, but also to give more weight and exposure to counter-opinions."

Dr Aran said his own "red lines" on the debate came with "explicit" antisemitism, or people who attempted to shut down an event.

"We would not tolerate a handful of people shutting down an event, which is an anti-democratic act. That is unacceptable," he said.

"Another red line is where any legitimate criticism of Zionism or Israel - or the Palestinians for that matter - descends into racism and antisemitism.

"I err towards when it becomes explicit rather than implicit. And, of course, any incitement to murder or killing."

He said debate on the conflict benefits from comparing Israel to countries across the globe rather than just the region.

He said: "Rather than try to look at it as an exceptional case, as a lot of people do in academia and the public sphere, we try to situate Israel against a broader spectrum of other countries, of other conflicts. I think this is something that helps give a broader perspective.

"For example, Israel has quite a few similarities with South Korea and Taiwan, in so far as they both are located in a very demanding security environment, and they are both countries that have quite significant economies and technological prowess."

On Monday, Dr Aran's university hosted an Israel forum event with Dan Meridor, Israel's former deputy prime minister, in conversation with Guardian journalist Jonathan Freedland.

"Rather than reproducing a divide that exists, we are trying to break the divide," Dr Aran said.

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