For those who have been living under a rock, George Galloway, MP for Bradford West, stormed out of a debate at Christchurch College on Wednesday 20th February. He arrived (an hour and a half late) in order to debate Oxford University student Eylon Aslan-Levy on the question of whether Israel ought immediately withdraw from the West Bank. Upon realising that Levy was an Israeli citizen (by virtue of his parents’ citizenship), he proclaimed “I don’t debate with Israelis” and walked out of the room.
Galloway’s actions are in line with his position of “no platforming” Israelis; he consistently refuses to, as he says, “debate with Israelis”. My contention here is that this position is racist. Note that this need not entail a rejection of “no platforming” on the basis of political opinion (as advocated, for instance, by Unite Against Fascism with regards to the BNP).
By refusing to speak to Aslan-Levy or any of his fellow citizens, Galloway reduces the identity of Israelis to their nationality. Passport issuance, as Galloway is well aware, is not a choice. Refusing to engage with him purely because of this incidental feature of his person is racist. Substitute the word “Israeli” for “Pakistani” or “Chinese” and this ought become obvious.
Galloway was well aware of the topic of discussion in advance of his appearance in Oxford. He knew that he would be facing a student who opposed immediate Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank (Aslan-Levy in fact supports a phased withdrawal within the context of a structure peace settlement, a nuance no doubt lost on Galloway).
The only extra information, then, that Galloway picked up when he arrived in Oxford is that his opponent had a specific nationality. It was this information – a fact that had nothing to do with Levy’s opinions and everything to do with his nationality – that led Galloway to leave. This was not a principled opposition to speaking to Zionists – if it was, he would have refused to speak at all – but a racialised opposition to speaking to Israelis. By contrast, Galloway has seemingly no problem with speaking to Saddam Hussein (“I salute your courage, your strength, your indefatigability,” he said in 1994).
Underpinning Galloway’s actions lie crass, generalising assumptions. One is that all Israelis are Zionists, when 20% of the population are not Jewish and non-Zionist parties currently hold 11 of the 120 seats in the Israeli Parliament. Another is that all Zionists support the status quo in the West Bank, despite the fact that two of the three largest Zionist parties in Israel actively disavow it and urgently seek a two-state solution.
Ultimately, reducing someone to their nationality, and refusing to engage with them on that basis alone, is racist. It is a great shame that Oxford was deprived of hearing an important, extraordinarily complex debate about the situation in the West Bank. Galloway, a man who on his website claims to want a “fairer, more equal and just society”, ought be ashamed of himself.