Saturday, October 27, 2007

How the Israel Lobby Works -- Finkelstein and the Oxford Union

So what's the big deal? Alan Dershowitz did not threaten to sue the Oxford Union, or its president, Luke Tryl, if Norman Finkelstein was invited to speak in favor of the two-state solution. He did not threaten to break Tryl's legs, or to try to cancel funding, or to take him to court. All he did was threaten to write an op-ed against the Oxford Union (which he later did here). And why? Because it seemed absurd to him that a noted anti-Zionist like Finkelstein would argue in favor of the Jewish state. (That is not what the debate was about, but facts don't bother Dershowitz.) Facing Finkelstein would be three speakers who want to destroy the Jewish state, Avi Shlaim, Ilan Pappe, and Ghada Karmi. So how can you invite an "anti-semite" (Dershowitz's words) like Finkelstein to support the Jewish state. What a leftwing farce!

So Alan Dershowitz, exercising his right to free speech, wrote an op-ed and attacked the Union. Other groups also exerted pressure. And the Union, or more precisely, its president, Luke Tryl, caved in under the pressure. This is from what Tryl wrote to Finkelstein in email dated October 17

Dear Dr Finkelstein,

...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.

I hope that you understand my position, this is not ideal and I would be happy to welcome you as an individual speaker to the Union in a forthcoming term. I know that the President-Elect Emily Partington would be keen to host you in Hilary. I just did not want to see the debate compromised and given the Irving Griffin Controversy I couldn't fight a battle on all fronts.

Best wishes


So, who's to blame? Well, in my opinion, the blame falls pretty squarely on Tryl. Dershowitz was Dershowitz -- a pit bull that misrepresented the debate (it was not a debate about the legitimacy of Zionism), Finkelstein, and the Union. But because of an unflattering op-ed in FrontPage and the Jerusalem Post, you disinvite a speaker?

As if that weren't enough, when the debate was held -- with most of the players changed -- the Union did not repeat to the audience what Tryl had written to Finkelstein. Instead, they said that they had mistakenly invited Finkelstein, not knowing what his views were, or something to that effect.

That's how it works. Either you hang tough or you don't. Tryl folded.

Clearly, Dershowitz and UK Peace Now's Usiskin thought it was more important to get Finkelstein off the panel -- because they simply are incapable of understanding how an anti-Zionist can favor a two-state solution -- then allow the invitation to get through.

I gave up on Dershowitz a long time ago. Apparently UK Peace Now has gone over to the neocons as well.

Time to give up on the Oxford Union.

It's High Noon all over again.


Richard said...

Whoa, being anti-Zionist you can still support a 2 state solution! That is a bit hard to wrap one's brain around. I can see why a pea brain like Dersh would find it impossible to comprehend the notion.

Anonymous said...

In an introduction to one of his books, I don't recall which, he called himself a non-Zionist.

Jerry Haber said...

Thanks for the correction, anonymous.

The bottom line is that Dershowitz and Ussikin misrepresented seriously Finkelstein's position on the two-state question. They managed to convince Tryl (and perhaps Trimble) that the Union was being set up, that it had been mistaken to invite Finkelstein. That was the first sin -- to lie about your opponent's views in order to silence him. And that is simply what Usiskin and Dershowitz did.

The second sin committed was Tryl's, when he cancelled the debate.

And the third sin was when he gave contradictory explanations to Dershowitz and to the Union of why he cancelled.

Jerry Haber said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Paul Usiskin said...

I've avoided most of the wilder accusations and comments, especially from the US where in my view there is not as fiery or fair a debate on Israel-Palestine as there is here in the UK and especially on university campuses - where as at Oxford the balance favours the Palestinians.
I have not supported Dershowitz's campaign against Finkelstein. And I do support the very painful contentions that Finkelstein makes in his "Holocaust Industry", a book I find as flawed as its author, but whose thesis I accept, having spent some time of my own checking with Holocaust survivors on their levels of compensation.
It was after the release of this book in the UK that I had a series of trans-Atlantic telephone conversations with Finkelstein in an attempt to produce a documentary about him and the book. The BBC dropped the matter at the last minute - but that's another story. The clearest impression left me as a critical Zionist - and dual UK-Israel citizen - was that Finkelstein was no proponent of Israel. Perhaps the deep sense of injustice he feels about the Holocaust Industry and the way his own parents did not benefit fairly from it, and the way in which the industry has fed into the Israel-Palestine debate in the US, has pushed Finkelstein to his own defined margins.
Before entering the arena of the Oxford Union debate I spent time researching what Finkelstein has said about a 2 state solution. The problem is he has made no clear cut declaration on it, that I could find. Unlike myself, Peace Now-UK, Peace Now in Israel, APN etc on the one hand who declare their views on this, and Professors Shlaim and Pappe and Dr Karmi amongst others whose views on the matter are a on record on the other hand, Finkelstein's are illusory. Two things would have been smart - that Finkelstein himself would tell the President of the Union what his stance really is, and that rather than threats and accusations of intellectual terrorism the three original proponents of the motion - seeking fair and balanced debate - would themselves have announced that Finkelstein was being invited into the wrong camp.
It was thus the lack of balance in the debate that prompted me to communicate with the President of the Union, my name having already been suggested over a month prior to the debate itself and not as is suggested some neo-con association, if neo-con means blind support for Israel and a perpetuation of the occupation and the settlements at its heart.
Dershowitz also announced in the Jerusalem Post before the debate was held that there would be no debate and the Union was dead. That was inaccurate and I sought to correct that by writing to his office prior to the debate. I've had no ackowledgement to that.
But what should be understood by everyone is the first and in my view greatest pressure-point on the Union over this whole affair. And that is neither Dershowitz, nor me nor several others who communicated with the Union, but an erstwhile participant on the opposing side of the debate, Lord David Trimble. He wrote to the Union announcing that he couldn't participate with Finkelstein on his side because of Finkelstein's views on Israel-Palestine, and he withdrew. Trimble's stance more than any other impacted on the President of the Union. Finkelstein's reputation went before him and reached the ears of an ennobled Ulsterman. If anyone should be setting the record straight after all this it is Norman Finkelstein himself.

Paul Usiskin said...

PS The debate was not in the end cancelled. It was held with 3 national debate prize-winners from the Union proposing and I and 2 other Union debating supremos opposing.
The Union debaters would put many members of the Houses of Parliament to shame with their brilliance and their knowledge of the subject. The proponents also had the popular support of the Union members for whom Palestine is a very popular cause.
The outcome of the debate however was that the 1 state motion was defeated 191-60.

Jerry Haber said...

I am glad that Paul Usiskin has posted here his version of what happened at the Oxford Union. As I wrote in my post, I am agnostic as to who did what to whom when, since we have multiple versions of what transpired. So it was Lord Trimble who did in Finkelstein? (In the Pantry? With a Knife?) Really, this is the least interesting part of the discussion for me. Why Luke Tryl would pin the blame for pressure on Dershowitz and outside groups, and why the Peace Now newsflash would appear to take credit for the disinivitement of Finkelstein (when it was still cool to do so) is the stuff of Agatha Christe.

What concerns me, Paul, is what you wrote in your response:

"Two things would have been smart - that Finkelstein himself would tell the President of the Union what his stance really is, and that rather than threats and accusations of intellectual terrorism the three original proponents of the motion - seeking fair and balanced debate - would themselves have announced that Finkelstein was being invited into the wrong camp."

This implies quite strongly that you doubted, and still doubt, that Finkelstein is for a two-state solution -- no, you think that he is not really for a two-state solution. Not only does that misrepresent his public views (you pass over the evidence in silence), but it accuses him of intellectual dishonesty in signing up for a proposition in which he does not believe.

From Tryl's letter to Finkelstein, it appears that Finkelstein did tell Tryl what his views really are, but that the pressure from outside groups was too much for Tryl.

If something comes out of this dreadful mess, it is, I hope, the realization that one can favor the two-state solution without being a political Zionist.

Finally, one question (if you are still listening...) Had Chomsky been invited on the side of the two-staters, would you have protested? If not, then I am willing to temper my righteous indignation a tad. Chomsky has not only come out in a favor of it; he has endured a heap of scorn as a result. But I daresay that Alan Dershowitz would have written a similar op-ed.

You are right that I do not know first-hand the pressures that the Israel forces endure on campuses in the UK, although I read the papers. But Paul, I appeal to UK Peace Now to distance itself from the neocons, the Dershowitzes, and the left-bashers. And in the future, try not to be on the same side with them, and if you happen to be, accentuate the differences.

Anyway, I apologize about the neocon crack. I realize that life is more complicated than that.

Paul Usiskin said...

The only person who has associated me/PNUK with Dershowitz or the neocons is you. As for Chomsky I give him credit for both his 2 state solution support - I'm taking you word on it I haven't acrtually seen it - as well as his rejection of mearsheimer Walt's thesis on the Israel Lobby. Chomsky at the Union would be worth hearing, though Finkelstien's Holocaust Industry was flawed by its constant praise for Chomsky almost like "Rabbi Ve Mori". I haven't seen Finkelstein to Tryl and still have not found a clear Finkelstein declaration on 2 states. I also find it hard to ignore the evidence of my own ears with Finkelstein which you seem to have glossed over. Finally do not dismiss the impact of Trimble's intercession and withdrawal. Trimble is neither Jewish nor part of the so called pro-Israel lobby and carries much more weight in the UK and at the Oxford Union as a recently ennobled Peer of the Realm, much more I promise you than a rather overloud Jewish Law Professor from the US. As to PNUK and the neocons I'm still stunned you would suggest any relationship. What I think you conflate is the tenor and contents of the Israel-Palestine debate in the UK with that in the US and the word Zionist has a different measure on either side of the Atlantic. I hope you acknowledge the error about the debate being cancelled, that was very much Dershowitz fault in his Jerusalem Post article which was the source of much unbalanced comment here and in the US. Tryl never considered such a step.

Paul Usiskin said...

Now the Left? Well that's a much more complicated matter than ....Israel/Palestine. Another time yes?

Jerry Haber said...

Paul, we've got to stop meeting like this! Please let me know your email, and we can continue our chats in private (send it to

I don't believe I said that the debate was cancelled. If I do, then I retract that.

I grant you that Finkelstein has not said a lot about desirable solutions to Israel-Palestine solution, much less his own view. He says that is because he sees himself as a historian. In Image and Reality, p. 181, he criticizes Oslo, but for reasons that I myself raise, namely, that the two-state solution, as interpreted by Israel, is not two-states at all.

In his "debate" with Shlomo Ben Ami on Democracy Now, he said:

"Since the mid-1970s, there's been an international consensus for resolving the Israel-Palestine conflict. Most of your listeners will be familiar with it. It's called a two-state settlement, and a two-state settlement is pretty straightforward, uncomplicated. Israel has to fully withdraw from the West Bank and Gaza and Jerusalem, in accordance with the fundamental principle of international law, cited three times by Mr. Ben-Ami in the book, his book, that it's inadmissible to acquire territory by war. The West Bank, Gaza and Jerusalem, having been acquired by war, it's inadmissible for Israel to keep them. They have to be returned. On the Palestinian side and also the side of the neighboring Arab states, they have to recognize Israel's right to live in peace and security with its neighbors. That was the quid pro quo: recognition of Israel, Palestinian right to self-determination in the West Bank and Gaza with its capital in Jerusalem. That's the international consensus.

It's not complicated. It's also not controversial. You see it voted on every year in the United Nations. The votes typically something like 160 nations on one side, the United States, Israel and Naru, Palau, Tuvalu, Micronesia and the Marshall Islands on the other side. That's it."

In the absence of Finkelstein's criticism of a genuine two-state solution, and given that he said in other places that he thinks that the two-state solution is the most likely one, given international consensus, and given that his "moro ve-ravo" as you put it, Chomsky, came out in favor of the two-state solution for pragmatic reasons of international consensus -- why would you conclude that his non- or anti-Zionism, which is a matter of record, implies a rejection of the two-state solution.
Once again, you imply that Norman Finkelstein, of all people, would throw a debate! I realize that one need not believe in a proposition in order to debate it effectively; I learned that in third grade. But it would have been dishonest for him to have agreed to debate a position which he felt that he could not argue convincingly.

Richard said...

"The clearest impression left me as a critical Zionist - and dual UK-Israel citizen - was that Finkelstein was no proponent of Israel."

Norman Finkelstein is quoted in a 2002 debate with Alan Dershowitz broadcast on Democracy Now affirming his support of a 2 state solution. Paul, you haven't done enough research.

Second, yr theory about Trimble is based on Emanual Ottolenghi's Commentary Magazine conjecture which itself was based on no evidence. If you dislike being compared with neocons why do you place implicit credibility in such neocon rag?

No, as I've written before two would-be speakers at the debate independently affirm that OU insiders told them that Dershowitz caused the cancellation. Tryl's e mail to Finkelstein which Jerry published here seals the deal. Paul you're shouting into the wind & have zero credibility. As far as I'm concerned neither you nor any organization which would have you as leader has much credibility. And I say that as someone who strongly supports the work of Peace Now & APN.

I note that neither Ori Nir nor Leonard Fein have answered an e mail I wrote to them asking their views about what you did. Either they're too embarrassed to respond or they're content to let you stew in yr own juices. Needless to say they're not responsible for your decisions & statements. But you have brought embarrassement & dishonor on Peace Now as far as this progressive Zionist is concerned.

Not to mention the fact that you refused to even respond substantively via e mail to my own questions, a fact I was forced to acknowledge to my own blog readers.