What happened at the UCD L&H debate?

We were approached by the University College Dublin (UCD) Literary and Historical (L&H) Society on 13th September to debate the motion ‘This House Believes The West has Failed Palestine’. The debate was scheduled for Thursday 16th November at 6pm in UCD’s Fitzgerald Chamber.

As the College Debating Union in Ireland’s largest university, we were informed that their role is to create informed public discussions about important issues on campus and that ‘one such issue that students are incredibly interested in is the Israel-Palestine Conflict’. The Ireland Israel Alliance was asked to provide an Israeli perspective to the debate to ensure ‘an inclusive and balanced discussion’. 

UK Barrister & expert in international law, Natasha Hausdorff
UK Barrister & expert in international law, Natasha Hausdorff

Political commentator, columnist and DCU lecturer Dr Mark Humphrys, who spoke at our rally in May 2021 and subsequently represented us at a debate in Dun Laoghaire’s Eblana Club in October 2022, was contacted separately by the L&H Society. Mark agreed to participate.

We were informed by the L&H Society that there would be three speakers on either side, to include two student representatives. We were also informed that the two confirmed speakers on the Palestinian side would be Dr Jilan Wahba Abdalmajid (representative of the Palestinian Authority in Ireland) and Richard Boyd Barrett TD (People Before Profit). 

We subsequently asked UK Barrister and expert in international law Natasha Hausdorff to represent the Ireland Israel Alliance as our second speaker. Two days later L&H Society auditor Ayman Memon formally invited Natasha to take part. Natasha agreed on the basis that the confirmed speakers were as above. We trusted in good faith that the two student representatives on each side would be chosen fairly by the College Debating Union. 

On arrival at the Fitzgerald Chamber (UCD Student Centre) at just before 6pm we were told that the PA representative had pulled out the previous day and that a speaker by the name of Asad Abu Sharkh would replace her.

  • Sharkh was the International Spokesperson for the ‘Great March of Return’ – a series of violent riots that that took place at the Gaza border with Israel during 2018.

At the same time, we were advised that Ibrahim Halawa would represent the Palestinian side instead of a student representative. Halawa was jailed by the Egyptian regime for four years following his involvement in the Muslim Brotherhood protests in 2013, that the regime violently suppressed. His involvement included speaking on stage at a large Muslim Brotherhood rally in Rabaa al-Adawya Square, Cairo.

Perhaps the Ireland Israel Alliance was somewhat naive in assuming that the ‘student representation’ part was to assist UCD students in honing their nascent debating skills. No doubt that was the original intention when the L&H was founded in 1854 by Cardinal John Henry Newman.

The so-called ‘miscommunication’ came as a complete surprise to us and is not what we expected from the College Debating Union of Ireland’s largest university. Certainly, when we put Natasha Hausdorff’s name forward to represent the Israeli perspective, we were required to wait two days before the Union approved her as a speaker.

In the event, Dr Mark Humphrys was agreeable to debating the above named but Natasha Hausdorff, who had flown in especially from the UK, had no idea who these people were and commented:

“The Auditor informed me that Asad Abu Sharkh had been involved in the terrorist acts on the Gaza ‎border in 2018, which he referred to as the ‘March of Return’. I further learnt from the Auditor that Ibrahim Halawa had served ‎a prison sentence in Egypt for being a member of the Muslim Brotherhood. On the basis of this ‎information, I was not prepared to accept the last-minute change and share a platform with these ‎speakers. It was suggested by the L&H society that students would fill in for the proposition alongside Boyd Barrett, ‎and we on the opposition had no objection to that. This was not acceptable to the other side.”‎

Mark Humphrys respected Natasha’s decision, although he told me at the time that his prepared talk was “burning in my pocket”. He later addressed Ibrahim Halawa in an X post: “Dear Ibrahim. Since we were unable to debate yesterday, much to my frustration as well as yours, I will do my best to now arrange a debate on neutral ground. You versus me. Nothing can disrupt it. An evening of conversation if you prefer that format. I assume you are on? Mark.” At the time of writing, Ibrahim Halawa has not responded.

And so, after over an hour’s delay, the debate went ahead with one speaker on each side: Richard Boyd Barrett and Natasha Hausdorff. Under very challenging circumstances, Natasha Hausdorff spoke eloquently and delivered some very important truths to the audience. 

Sadly, the debate descended into chaos after only 36 minutes with heckling and interruptions from both sides. One supporter of Israel, while being escorted from the gallery by security, took what looked like an Israel T-shirt from his pocket. The cloth was grabbed by a supporter from the Palestinian side and thrown to the floor below. The scuffles involved Ibrahim Halawa and Asad Abu Sharkh. 

There followed repeated cries of ‘Allahu Akbar’ from a man in the chamber below and which were directed at a Jewish student. At this point many of the students and guests immediately stood up and quickly exited the chamber.

Those sitting closer to the man shouting ‘Allahu Akbar’ say that he also shouted “We will do what happened on October 7 again and again” and that the Jewish student, who was clearly extremely upset, responded with “I only have love for everyone – Jews, Muslims. Do you have any for me?” We are seeking to independently verify exactly what additional words were shouted.

These are clearly shocking images and words to hear on a Dublin university campus and it is now beyond time we ask some serious questions of our Irish universities. While we are always grateful for the opportunity to debate, is this really what we can expect of future debates – ‘miscommunications’, disinformation and aggressive shouts of ‘Allahu Akbar” at Jewish students? We also ask why was this aggressor not escorted from the chamber by security?

On Friday evening, the Ireland Israel Alliance received a very aggressive email DEMANDING the immediate removal of our video from YouTube, and that failure to do so would result in “severe consequences”. We have forwarded the email to An Garda Síochána.

It was always our intention to record and post this public debate for educational purposes and for which we received full permission from the L&H Society. 

We refuse to be intimidated.

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