The Finkelstein brouhaha at Oxford

(For comprehensive commentary and reporting on this story, head over to the excellent blog, The Magnes Zionist:Self-Criticism from an Israeli, American, and Orthodox Jewish Perspective)

There has been a lot of back and forth about what is apparently the latest incident of muzzling, but frankly, I’m not entirely convinced.

Norman Finkelstein was to argue against this motion put forth at Oxford: ‘This House believes that one state is the only solution to the Israel Palestine Conflict’ and in favor of a two-state solution. Finkelstein was, at a relatively late date, replaced on the two-state team by Peace Now-UK Co-Chair Paul Usiskina, who, unlike Finkelstein, is much more sympathetic to Israel and grounds his two-state argument in a Zionist framework. In protest, the one-state team (Israeli professors Ilan Pappe and Avi Shlaim, and UK’s Dr. Ghada Karmi) withdrew from the debate.
Karmi wrote about what happened in the Guardian, and on what she regards as a form of Intellectual Terrorism, a product of the US Israel Lobby exported to the UK.

According to Luke Tyrel, the head of the Oxford Union, pressure to disinvite Finkelstein came from numerous parties, but especially Finkelstein nemesis Alan Dershowitz, who was originally invited to participate but declined.

Many people expressed concern that the debate as it stood was imbalanced and people felt that as someone who had apparently expressed anti-zionist sentiments that you might not be appropriate for this debate. I tried to convince them otherwise but was accused of putting forward an imbalanced debate and various groups put pressure on me. I received numerous emails attacking the debate and Alan Dershowitz threatened to write an Oped attacking the Union. What is more he apparently attacked me personally in a televised lecture to Yale.

(Indeed, Dershowitz wrote his essay anyway, and saw Oxford Union is Dead printed in the right-wing echo chamber at Frontpage Amagazine and the Jerusalem Post.)

All of that said, I have to say I can see why many at Oxford were upset when it was announced that Finkelstein would argue against the motion. Having a debate between severe critics of Israeli policy does not seem like much of a debate to me at all. I’d expect anti-Zionists would also cry foul if Alan Dershowitz, Finkelstein’s mortal enemy, were to argue for one state. Or if a debate about Israeli human rights violations consisted of 4 unconditional fans, and 2 critics.
It is true, as Judah Magnes Zionist wisely observed:

This is a question that is endlessly debated among the left, and it would have been a brilliant strategic coup to get a known critic of Israel to argue for two states. After all, many of us think that a one-state solution shafts the Palestinians because it fails to address the question of Palestinian national aspirations.

So, is the Oxford Union a debating arena only for internecine conflicts within the left, or, would a fair debate genuinely represent the different sides of this debate? I think in this setting, the latter, while in a left setting, a debate between leftist supporters of one versus two states would be a fruitful and necessary debate.

Ultimately, this seems to be a case of both/and, versus one or the other.

If their goal is to represent a fair range of opinions, Oxford Union simply made a poor choice in inviting Finkelstein to argue on behalf of the two-state solution. Was disinviting him the best way to correct this poor judgment? No. Was the head of the Union subject to enormous pressure to disinvite him, especially, inappropriately, by Dershowitz? Yes.

Did Peace Now-UK Co-Chair Paul Usiskin add flames to the fire with his self-congratulatory email, triumphant email? (see below) Yes.

Peace Now-UK Co-Chair Paul Usiskin, an Israel-UK dual citizen, had already been asked to be considered in the debate a month ago but heard nothing back.
On seeing Professor Finkelstein’s name in the team opposing the motion, he told the Union they were seeking sensation over substance but also that they were denying a proper and balanced debate. After a week of contacts with the Union’s President Luke Tryll, the Union dropped Finkelstein and invited Usiskin.

Oxford Jewish student sources told Usiskin that the proposers were disgruntled at his inclusion in the debate against them. They insisted on Finkelstein’s re-invitation. When the Union refused, they withdrew from the debate.

“They clearly thought they had it sown up,” said Usiskin. “I believe they’re desperate for another arena in which to deligitimize Israel, after the failure to begin the academic boycott of Israel – in which all three were key. What they expected was a clear field for a one state solution as the start of creating that new arena. Those of us who believe in Israel and support a 2 state solution remained steadfast and denied them their victory.”

Should we automatically judge this as a truly outrageous case of muzzling critics of Israeli policy? I don’t think it should stand as a textbook case.

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