Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Oxford Union Brouhaha -- Post Mortem

Having corresponded with some of the people involved -- but not with the Oxford Union president, Luke Tryl -- and having read some of the accounts, this is my current take on the disinvitement of Finkelstein and its implications.

Luke Tryl, by his own admission, on three separate occasions, concedes that he felt under pressure from Alan Dershowitz and other groups for his decision to invite Norman Finkelstein to speak on behalf of the two-state solution. However, he claimed explicitly, both at the Oxford Union, and in an email to Avi Shlaim (the contents of which were discussed by Shlaim in a letter to the Jerusalem Post), that this pressure was not the decisive factor in his disinviting Finkelstein, i.e., that he did not cave in under pressure.

I am not interested in the psychology of Tryl. Needless to say, it is not in his interest to appear as somebody who caves in under pressure; better to say that he came to the conclusion that the initial decision was a mistake. But self-interest or not, the latter scenario may be the truth.

Paul Usiskin's group,UK Peace Now, initially appeared to take the credit (at least by implication in one of their news releases) for convincing Tryl; they then backed off when they saw the negative reaction. I am inclined to believe, with Shlaim, that they initially exaggerated their role. Still, after an email exchange with Usiskin, I take back my accusation that he has gone over to the neocons. It still may be worth distinguishing neocons from liberal Zionists. Paul's heart on several issues is in the right place. I just wish that his group continues to look for allies on his left and not merely on his right.

The most believable person with whom I corresponded is one of the pro-Israel students in the Oxford Union who approached Tryl and complained about Finkelstein's invitation. He was willing to concede that there was external pressure on Tryl, but that this was not, in his opinion, the reason for Tryl backing down.

Finally, there is the question of Lord Trimble's role. Trimble bowed out, he said, due to diary pressure. Jonathan Hoffman of Engage claimed that he refused to appear on the same panel with Finkelstein, and this was the decisive factor. Hoffman is inclined to accept the statements by Tryl that fit his views, and to dismiss those that do not.

As I wrote earlier, the culprit here appears to be Tryl. He owes Finkelstein an apology for disinviting him, for offering multiple explanations of the disinvitement, and for misrepresenting Finkelstein's position. I agree that the debate with the original panelists was flawed, and that it did not include all voices -- e.g., the position of Meron Benveniste, a Zionist who is a one-stater, or rightwing Israelis who are one-staters, or Jewish Zionists who are two-staters.

Was there censorship here? The purpose of the pro-Israel crowd was NOT to censor Finkelstein, or to prevent him from appearing at Oxford. Rather, it was to dictate under what rubric Finkelstein can appear; The Finkelstein they wish to portray -- an extreme, self-hating Jewish holocaust-devaluing supporter of Palestine -- can and should appear for what he "really" is, they say. But the real Finkelstein -- a moderate, if somewhat abrasive, scholars who supports a two-state solution because it is the international consensus -- cannot be allowed to appear. And why? Because it shatters the mythic worldview of his opponents, who to this hour simply cannot believe that Finkelstein favors a two-state solution, or that he is not an extremist.

It is very important for that crowd to marginalize Finkelstein as an extremist, and to portray themselves as centrists.

This reminds me of Alan Dershowitz's claim that he was not trying to silence Finkelstein when he tried to convince the University of California Press not to publish the book. Dershowitz claimed that he had no problem seeing the book published by an ideological, left wing house like Verso or Seven Stories. He simply did not want a mainstream academic publishing house publish the book, lest Finkelstein be taken seriously as a scholar. Apparently, he did not want the intense criticism of Israel to be associated with anybody besides the "anti-semites" and the "loonies of the left," two categories to which the real Finkelstein does not belong.

Once again, I can understand why the Zionists were upset with the choice, and they certainly had a right to express their opinion. But disinvitement at such a late date was scandalous.

Censorship is not only about silencing the Other. It is about retaining the power to determine how the Other will be perceived.

1 comment:

Richard Kuper said...

You might like to see Avi Shlaim's excellent take on this entitled "Israel, free speech, and the Oxford Union" in Open Democracy, 13th November. It carries the strap line "The collapse of a public debate on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a case-study of the vulnerability of open dialogue to closed minds, says Avi Shlaim."

Full article at http://www.opendemocracy.net/article/conflicts/israel_palestine/free_speech_oxford_union