Thursday, October 25, 2007

Disinviting Finkelstein to Speak at the Oxford Union

Last week I posted a statement about the academic boycott in which I said that I am not ready to support it. Well, I am still not ready, but I am one step closer after I read about the antics of UK Friends of Peace Now on jews sans frontieres. It turns out that one of the co-chairs of this organization, a Paul Usiskin (this according to the Jerusalem Post), pressured the Oxford Union to drop Norman Finkelstein from a debate on the one-state/two-state solution. You can read about it on Finkelstein's blog. People are accusing Alan Dershowitz of derailing the invitation to Finkelstein -- hardly surprising, if true -- but from what I read, Usiskin is the culprit.

Finkelstein has long been a proponent of the two-state solution, along with his intellectual pere, Noam Chomsky. Chomsky has been attacked by one-staters for that. As I have said before on this blog, Finkelstein's views on Israel are quite moderate -- he does not demand a dismantling of the Zionist regime, or a return of all the refugees, but merely an end to the occupation. He is no Zionist, and he thinks that the founding of the state in 1948 was a mistake. Big deal. The question was not "Do you support Zionism," but "Do you support a one- or a two-state solution?"

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.

I have continually preached the importance of forging coalitions with the so-called Zionist left. I am a wimpy liberal -- I want to make a difference, and I know you have to cooperate. I am not expecting Friends of Peace Now to go out on a limb in favor of Norman Finkelstein. But if it is true that they helped derail the Oxford Union debate -- which would, admittedly, have involved a lot of Israel-bashing -- then they should be roundly condemned for it.

I hope somebody from there reads this blog and explains.


Richard Kuper said...

As a member of Peace Now UK I can shed some light on this, by posting details of two Peace Now UK newsflashes, both received on 23rd October.

The first simply said 'Great news, our own Paul Usiskin and Yossi Mekelberg will be speaking against the motion this evening in Oxford at the Oxford Union Debate.' and gave details of the speakers (2 only listed for each side).

The second was more exuberant. It reads, in full:

A very hot update from Paul

Oxford Union -2 State Solution/Peace Now UK - Victory before debate begins

The Oxford Union, internationally acclaimed debating forum witnessed a victory in a contentious Middle East debate even before the debate was held.

The motion: 'This House believes that one state is the only solution to the Israel Palestine Conflict' believed they had a built in majority and victory in this debate due tomorrow night.

Its proposers :Professors Avi Shlaim of St Antony's College Oxford, Ilan Pappe late of Haifa University and now at faraway Exeter University, and Dr Ghada Karmi of the Centre for Islamic Studies at Exeter, presumed they would win the debate with their insistence on the inclusion of Professor Norman Finkelstein formerly of De Paul's University USA on the team opposing the motion. Finkelstein is a far left detractor of Israel.

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."

The debate will proceed with students participating in what Usiskin describes as a "more open forum where a free flow of views can be held."

Jerry Haber said...

Dear Richard,

Thank you very much for this informative comment, which confirms my suspicions. So now I can go into shabbat realizing that my provisional condemnation is indeed justified.

I am simply appalled by Usiskin's manner and ignorance. He seems to have thought that inviting Norman Finkelstein was some sort of clever plot to throw the debate in advance, as if Finkelstein would "take a dive" for Palestine. That is simply extraordinary.

I invite Paul Usiskin, or his spokesman, now to issue some sort of clarification, or justification.

The whole thing is simply appaling. With friends like "Peace Now UK" who needs the neocons?

Progressive bloggers, take note!

Richard said...

I've sent an e mail to Mark Goldberg who, I was under the impression, was the senior leader of Peace Now UK. We'll see how he responds.

BTW, I was always under the impression that both Chomsky & Finkelstein were anti-Zionist & 1- staters. Pleasant surprise to hear otherwise. Do you have any links to statements Finkelstein has made which confirm these views. I don't doubt you but I hear & read so much crap about Finkelstein's alleged anti Israel views I'd like to be able to point people to the right place to rebut such charges.

Jerry Haber said...

I have to run before Shabbat, but in 2004 Chomsky gave an interview in which he backed a two-state solution as the lesser of evils of the available alternatives. He is not a big fan of states to begin with, and he would prefer a binationalist state, but, under the circumstances, he felt that this was a non-starter.
Chomsky was attacked from the left by Noah Cohen, and that set off a whole debate on the Axis of Logic website, which my good friend, Charles Manekin, weighed in on. You can see Chomsky's response to Cohen here

I will see if I can get to you a good link to Norman Finkelstein's views. But you can start off with the "debate" with Shlomo Ben Ami, in which Finkelstein praises Ben Ami, and suggests that people like Ben Ami could have pulled off an equitable settlement. Although Finkelstein gets in some shots, his criticism is respectful and muted. He really seems to admire Ben Ami.

I hasten to add that anti-Zionists who favor two-states do so not because they feel it is the ideal, but because they feel that it is the best that can be done under the circumstances. Many of them would be quite happy for such a two-state to evolve peacefully into a federation or union, or a bi-national state.

Shabbat Shalom

Jerry Haber said...

Try again with the link....

Peter H said...

I am generally a supporter of Norman Finkelstein, and skeptical about the Zionist Left, but I think Peace Now has a valid point. While it is true that the debate is not about Zionism per se, one of the major arguments (from the Jewish-Israeli side) against a 1-state solution is the need for a Jewish state, both as a means of protecting Jewish rights & affirming Jewish identity. There was no one on the Finkelstein/ Tachtell/Trimble side reflecting that perspective.

I'm also surprised that there was no Palestinian on the panel arguing for a 2-state solution.

An idea I have for a future panel on a one-state/two-state solution I have would be to invite an Israeli Zionist like Daniel Gavron or Meron Benvenisti to participate on the one-state side. I think it would be helpful in de-polarizing the debate, and serve to illustrate that there are many different forms a binational state could take.

Jerry Haber said...


You are right to disentagle several issues. One was: what would have been the ideal panel, or at least a representative one, for the debate And there I agree; it would make sense to have a mainstream Zionist two-stater, as well as Palestinian two-stater. The latter are certainly not hard to find, and I am sure that Peace Now UK would not have objected to Sari Nusseibeh, or even to his "right". Finkelstein represents the Palestinian two-state view. And that was the problem -- Finkelstein was hounded because he was Finkelstein, and not because of his views.

So the second issue is: was it legitimate to disinvite him? And I feel that there is a world of difference between not inviting him, and disinviting him.

By the way, Finkelstein emailed me that the Oxford Union president emailed him saying that Dershowitz threatened the Oxfore Union, and that was the reason for Finkelstein's disinviting. It may be that the UK Peace Now newsflash wanted to imply that Usiskin should get the credit for derailing Finkelstein (read above). Now it is more likely that the Union went back to Usiskin after it had already made up its mind to drop Finkelstein.

I don't know, though, I wasn't there.