On Monday (20th February), pro-Israel counter-protesters attacked an LSE Palestine Society protest (in the form of a mock checkpoint outside a university building on Houghton Street) with water balloons, hitting several people, knocking over a display and resulting in skirmishes.
I condemn the use of force against fellow student activists. Disagreements in our movement should be settled by rational discussion and debate, not by force. The fact that some found the Palestine Society protest upsetting or offensive is no justification for physically attacking it. Whatever your motivations, there is no actual justification for such actions except a desire to suppress a protest you dislike.
Beyond that, I want to make a few comments about the political issues involved.
Firstly, as a socialist and a democrat, I support protesting to highlight the terrible situation faced by the Palestinians (just as I support other oppressed nations, such as the Tamils, Sahrawi, and Kurds). Many of my comrades have visited Palestine and seen – and, in so far as this is possible for a non-Palestinian, experienced – the brutal reality of checkpoints and the Israeli Occupation more generally.
Secondly, the Pal Soc action was part of “Apartheid Week”. I repeat, I support the Palestinian struggle, but I reject the use of the term “apartheid” to describe Israel. The situation in the West Bank does, indeed, have a great deal in common with apartheid South Africa, as do most colonial regimes. Blanket use of the term to describe Israel, however, blurs out the crucial differences between the Israelis – a distinct nation including all classes of society, with the right to self-determination – and the South African whites – a narrow caste, intertwined with the country’s capitalist ruling class, existing by exploiting black labour. Arabs inside Israel face racism and discrimination, but Israel and its regime of Occupation in Palestine are two distinct things; no such distinction was possible with South Africa.
The political point here is that we should support a two-state settlement, with the right to self-determination for both Palestinians and Israelis.
Lastly, I want everyone in the student movement to ask themselves some searching questions about this. The attack on LSE Palestine Society was outrageous, and nothing gainsays that. At the same time, the more general reality is that activists on “both sides” in this debate have helped created an extremely emotionally charged atmosphere in which abuse and harassment of the “other side” is common. It is increasingly common for students from many different backgrounds and of many different views to experience aggressive behaviour because of their position on Palestine and Israel. I experienced a mild and ineffectual version of this during the ULU election campaign, when some of my opponents denounced me as a Zionist (untrue) and a racist (ludicrous and offensive) – and as if these terms were interchangeable! – because of my support for a two-state settlement.
This is not to say activists should not be passionate; I think I am passionate in my support of the oppressed Palestinians, and passionate in my simultaneous defence ofIsrael’s right to exist. Of course disagreement over important issues will involve heat and emotion. But that is exactly why we need to make an effort to debate these issues in a calm, rational, respectful way. This is not to say we have to respect each other’s positions, of course – just each other.