Statement from the Debating Society

Recent speculation on facebook and other forms of social media have led to the necessity of The Debating Society clarifying its position on various events in the last few days. We hope that this statement is able to provide some information that sheds some light on what has happened so far, and specifically explains the position of Debating Society with regard to recent events.


On Thursday 24 November Debating Society held, in conjunction with both the Jewish Society and the Friends of Palestine Society, an Israel/Palestine Question-Time event. A lot of work went into the organisation of this event, and we are particularly proud of the effort gone to by our Public Debates Organiser, Lauren Seager, to work with both societies to produce this debate, which was attended by over 300 people.


There are, however, two incidents with regards to which we feel the need to clarify our position and reasoning. The first of these is the reaction of the Chair to the question “Is Israel an Apartheid State?” being asked, the reaction being “we can’t have that as a question”. Clarification was given during the debate that talking about such issues was clearly not prohibited, but that “the issue was with the emotivity of the language being used” and that “perhaps more accessible language could be used”.


The background to this reaction is that, prior to the event occurring, there were some objections to Ben White selling his book “Israeli Apartheid” after the event. This objection was given on the grounds that the word apartheid in the title of his book and the issue itself was offensive and that as the event was co-hosted by the three socieities, by association this would legitimise the author’s work. The Debating Society was worried, therefore, that use of the word “apartheid” in conjunction with the state of Israel would upset some sections of the audience in a way that other debate surrounding the issue of equality would not.


In retrospect, this ought to have been handled differently. Clarification should have been sought from those holding the objection to the sale of Ben White’s book to ascertain whether the use of the word apartheid was problematic only in the context of the sale of that book, or whether it would be problematic in the debate as a whole. However, we as The Debating Society would like to make it clear that our intentions were only ever to provide a forum for the discussion of this sensitive issue in which everyone felt respected, and we therefore took the objections raised before the event very seriously. It is important also to note that the organisers of this event were more cautious, in this instance, of causing offence than is perhaps the case in other debates we host because the issue is so sensitive and events on the issue have been the focus of previous controversy at this university.


Further, there was some alarm with regards to the EUMC definition of anti-semitism, which a Guild Council motion passed last year as a guiding document when considering cases of anti-semitism. It was a cause of worry that potentially, under the terms within this document, discussion arising from the issue of apartheid could result in anti-semitic statements being said; as a result of which The Debating Society may face problems.


The second issue is one that has been raised on the Better Guild forum. The Debating Society would like to make the following clarifications:


  1. We were aware of the situation that is mentioned by Carmen Castrillon on the Better Guild forum. We would have preferred to take, in the first instance, less public action that, we feel, would have been more likely to lead to a friendly resolution for all. Such action would have included (but not been limited to) asking all the individuals involved for a specific description of the events that occurred subsequent to the Israel/Palestine Question-Time and attempting to resolve matters informally. If such conversations had led to a problem that we felt needed to be addressed more formally, we would have been prepared to do so.
  2. The Debating Society is, at present, not in possession of the full information necessary to act further with regards to the claims made, and would like to speak to individuals involved before committing itself to further action. Steps are being taken to meet with these individuals.
  3. The Debating Society is committed to the protection of all individuals that attend and volunteer at its events. Consequently, if The Debating Society feels that it has sufficient confirmation of inappropriate actions that negatively impact upon such volunteers, it will support those volunteers in any proceedings they wish to take.