Entering the small, hole-in-the wall pub decorated with neon Guinness signs and old wood-framed photographs of soccer teams and Irish Republican Army members, one would expect to embark on a long night of too much beer, raucous football watching, and frivolous drunken discussion. But on this particular Tuesday night, once the bar's backlights turned up and the moderator announced the beginning of the debate, nearly all in the bar hushed up and turned their apprehensive, surprisingly sober eyes toward the platform and its microphones.
Despite recent controversy surrounding the question of whether Israel is an apartheid state—from the third annual "Israeli Apartheid Week" this past February to Jimmy Carter's latest book, Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid—it still seems surprising that an Irish pub, of all places, would host a debate on the issue. Nonetheless, on February 27 the East Side pub Rocky Sullivan's examined whether Israel is an apartheid state as part of a monthly tradition of holding contentious disputations in its musky, narrow digs off Lexington and 28th St.
Arguing in the affirmative that Israel is an apartheid state was Hadas Thier, an Israeli-American City College student who is active in the International Socialist Organization. Defending Israel from the comparison to apartheid South Africa was Joel Pollak, a native South African who worked as a speechwriter for a South African parliamentarian and now studies law at Harvard University.
At first the audience's pervasive silence, broken with intermittent nervous giggles, matched the debaters' sarcastic flirtation with the issues surrounding the debate. Pollak began his introductory remarks with a toast saluting "the freedom and democracy" enjoyed by Israeli society. He continued by celebrating Israel as the "only country in the Middle East" where he could drink a pint of Guinness with his Arab and Jewish Israeli friends. On the other hand, Thier, accompanied by the healthy alternative to Pollak's Guinness, an apple and a glass of water, hardly celebrated the situation in the Middle East. Responding to Pollak with a sarcastic claim of ignorance, she doubted whether Pollak could ever actually imbibe "said Guinness with his Arab Israeli friends".
Soon the mocking tension between Pollak and Thier translated into a humorless antagonism between members of the audience. In fact, it seemed that the most exciting points of the debate took place amidst the darkened faces of the audience rather than on the stage. This parallel debate began with barely audible snickers that soon veered to more discernable cheers and boos. The back-and-forth culminated in a near yelling match after one woman used the question-and-answer period to call out another audience member's "hateful" accusations against her for being "a racist." Perhaps the most poignant scenes of audience participation were those involving Irish-American pubgoers, who were distinct from audience members who had come expressly to hear—and cheer or boo—Pollak and Thier. One elderly Irish man with a thick Gaelic accent and white hair long enough to reach his lower back challenged Pollak passionately, questioning what he understood to be the "discriminatory marriage laws practiced in Israel."
Around 8:30 p.m., when the debate began, some in the audience could have been forgiven for optimistically expecting a debate that would advance toward an agreement. Two and a half hours later, with Pollak's second beer gulped down, four small bites taken from Thier's apple, and the moderator persistently glancing at his watch, it was apparent that this debate was far too weighty to be solved in an Irish pub in the Murray Hill neighborhood of New York City. As order broke down towards the two-hour mark, with audience members nearly pushing each other over to get in line for questions, perhaps the most interesting challenge was directed at both of the debaters. A questioner brought up the irresponsibility and ineffectuality of discussions and debates, like this one, that tend only toward semantics and never really advance a mode of action for ending the very real suffering on the ground— suffering that persists whether one can prove or disprove the status of Israel as an apartheid state.
True to the nature of such a debate and the discourse surrounding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in general, neither Pollak nor Thier could provide this audience member with a satisfactory answer to his question, which was along the lines of the famous "what is to be done?" After listening to Pollak and Thier's rather evasive responses to his question, the young questioner finished his Guinness, made his way solemnly through the excited audience, and left the bar in silence.
Hannah Assadi is a junior majoring in MEALAC. She is a junior editor of The Current. She can be reached at email@example.com.