Monday, January 28, 2008

Norm, Ted, Michel, and Ghada at the Oxford Union

My blogger friend Richard Silverstein once advised me to stick with a story. So since I wrote on Norman Finkelstein at the Oxford Union last Fall -- his invitation, his disinvitation (which I called "disinvitement"), and his reinvitation, I thought I would report to my readers about his appearance there last Thursday night.

The only problem is that I don't live in Oxford, and as far I know, there is no podcast of the event. And even were I to attend Oxford, wouldn't I be morally bound to heed the advice of the anonymous "Zionist Federation official" who was quoted in the Jerusalem Post as having said, "All Oxford students with sense should stay away from this farce."

Oh, I forgot to mention that the "farce" was the debate, "This House believes that the State of Israel has a right to exist." Arguing in favor were Norman Finkelstein and Ted Honderich, a prominent British philosopher who has argued that Palestinian attacks against Israeli civilians are morally justifiable. Arguing against were to have been Ghada Karmi and Ilan Pappe, but the latter bowed out and was replaced by Michel Massih, a Palestinian barrister.

Of course, where there is Norman Finkelstein, there must be his Inspector Javert -- I mean, Dershowitz -- hounding him. And Alan, true to form, expressed his moral outrage in his blog

But back to our story. My Zionists readers will be pleased to know that even with the odds stacked against Israel, the proposition carried the day. Apparently, the Zionist Federation official's advice was heeded. Still, there are some liberal Zionist students at Oxford with abundant sense who attended, preferring engagement rather than boycott. One such student sent me the following report of the evening.

The debating chamber was almost full, but not as crowded as I thought it would be. In the end Ilan Pappe could not come - some university obligations I was told. In his place was a Palestinian barrister, called Michel Massih. The Union always opens its debates with student speakers. For Israel's existence, the opening student speaker was Jessica Prince, a very good Canadian debater. The Opposition student debater was called Lewis Turner - a prize winning debater.

Before any debate begins, the Union President (currently Emily Partingdon) always asks the Audience seomthing like 'does any honourable member wish to raise any business with me'. So I did, and gave a short speech based (I wasn't looking at the page as I made it so it might have been slightly different) on the text below:

"Thank you Madam President. I have a question for you which I know I am asking on behalf of many students, who like me, are absolutely baffled and disappointed by the bizarre choice of Norman Finkelstein and Ted Honderich to be the guest speakers proposing tonights motion: ‘this house supports the right of Israel to exist’.

"Both men have supported the actions of terrorist organisations intent on the destruction of Israel. Norman Finkelstein has described Hezbollah as ‘representing the hope’, while Ted Honderich has written that the use of terrorism against Israeli civilians is morally justifiable. What's more, Finkelstein has stated that (and I quote): "No, I do not support a two-state solution. I don't support states. I remain an old-fashioned communist. I see no value whatsoever in states" - and doesn't make him the most obvious candidate for tonights debate!"

"The two speakers are certainly not representative of the views of mainstream supporters of Israel’s existence, and the fact that they have been invited to, in effect, speak on our behalf, and make the case for Israel’s existence, is peculiar, and frankly insulting. That said, I do hope that both men will do what they were invited to do, and offer compelling and convincing reasons for Israel's existence.

"But to come to my question - If the Oxford Union were to invite two right-wing Zionists - say Melanie Philips and Ariel Sharon on life support - to speak for the motion ‘This House supports the existence of a Palestinian State’, then such a debate would be rightly denounced as a farce. With far left detractors of Israel making the case for its right to exist, Madam President, is tonight's debate any different?"

She answered by saying that the speakers are not representing anyone's views but their own, and that she has been having discussions with me, and that she is open to be e.mailed if anyone has any problems at any time. Immediately after she said that, someone else stood up to bring up business with her, explaining that he HAD e.maled her on this issue and had not received an reply for a week. She claimed that she invited him to a meeting, which he didn't bother coming to - he responded by saying that if she bothered to read his e.mail, she'd know that he couldn't come to it, and that she hadn't bothered to replly. In any case, what I said got a clap.

Then the debate started. Jessica began with something of a caveat, reiterating wht I had said about the Finkelstein and Honderich, and pointing out how peculiar it was that they were on her side. She got a laugh. She continued by saying that it was important to be clear on what is and what is not being debated. We are not, she explained, debating the occupation or any other Israeli policy. We are not debating what occured in 1948, and we are not debating the exact borders of the state. We are simply debating the existence of a Jewish state. She then stressed the usual points - the right to national self determination; the history of Jewish persecution; it's a democracy; the fact that no one debates the existence of Syria or saudi Arabia etc, so why always Israel?

Lewis Turner than came back by saying that you cannot divorce Israel from its racist policies. Because Israel is a zionist state, and Zionism is a necessarily racist ideology. (Law of return, demographic fears etc). Whereas, he said, if Saudi Arabia stopped persecuting homosexuals, it would remain Saudi Arabia, if Israel stopped haveing its racist law of return, it would cease to be Israel. This was the thrust of his talk.

Then, Finkelstein. He explained that the notion of an abstract right to a state is irrelevent, and meaningless; therefore what he believed on that matter is 'totally besides the point'. What matters, he explained, was that there is tremendous suffering in the area, and we had to examine the best way to end and deal with that suffering. Which was, he argued, an Israel and a Palestine. I think what he was trying to say was that if you pursue a one state solution, you risk leaving the Palestinians in the state of suffering that they are in for a far longer period of time. He several times stressed the point that 'this [ how to end their suffering] is real' and 'this is serious'. He then spoke briefly on the legal right for Israel to exist. It boiled down to: The UN said it exists, therefore it does. He also raised the question of why the two state solution hasn't happened, and blamed America and it's tiny allies like Micronesia for blocking votes in the UN. I have to say, while he didn't really speak for the motion, explaining Israel's right to exist, or rebutting the other sides argument (which is what is expected in a debate...) he wasn't as bad as I thought he would be. He also spoke vry quietly, and I'm told people at the back struggled to hear him.

In accordance with Union custom, speakers from the floor were then invited to give 2 minute speeches. The first for Israel, wearing a Palestinian and an Israeli flag around him, urged the audience to consider the implications of saying Israel should not exist - a one state solution, he argued, is a prelude to more fighting, more tensions, and potentially civil war. He then said the usual about why not ask about other countries...

The next student, speaking against Israel, accused the 'man in the flags' of being a racist. He said that one shouldn't fear the multiculturalism of a one state solution. He then said that Israel is not a democracy, because its democracy was based on having so much immigration so as to make the interests of one group marginal.

An Israeli law student then spoke. He stressed the link between Israel and the Jews throughout history - our prayers, our literature, the archeology etc.

The final speaker was a Palestinian student, who argued that Israel had neither a legal nor a moral right to exist. No legal right, because it was breaking resolution 183 [194?], and no moral right, because it had ethnically cleansed the Palestinians in 48.

Then Massih spoke. He focused on the law of return, stating that is racist, and giving a personal anecdote about how at Ben Gurion airport, he wasn't allowed back into Israel with his family when he wanted to go to Jerusalem, where he was born. He was very funny and charismatic, but had a slightly condescending and aggressive side to him as well - when a friend of mine made a point of information, to ask why, if he believes that bad policies deny a state its right to exist, he isn't concerned with the unnaceptable laws of Saudi Arabia etc, Massih pointed at him and asked 'Are you a Jew?' 'Why does that matter?', my friend replied. He went on 'Are you a Jew? Tell me, are you a Jew?' The audience was quite surprised, and I think one or two people may have mumbled shame at this point. My friend then said, 'Yes I am a Jew, but why does that matter?' and Massih replied 'Because you can go back and I cant, even though I was born there'.

Then Honderich spoke. He (somehow) managed to speak for 8 minutes wihtout talking about Israel once. Given that speakers are gven only 10 minutes overall, this was quite a problem. During those 8 minutes he tried to outline some philosophical principles - democracy, rights. But he wasn't particularly clear, and people after the debate joked about wanting to go to sleep during his talk. Someone said they thought his tatic was to bore us into submission. In any case. In the 7th minute I stood up to make a point of information. I was going to ask him to kindly finish his philophy lecture and do what he was invited to do, and explain why Israel should exist. He wouldn't take my point though. Had I thought more carefully, I would have made a point of order, and asked the President to please remind Honderich to stick to the conventions of a debate and actually debate. In any case. In the final two minutes (after the Union secretary had notified him he had only 2 minutes left) Honderich rushed through an explanation of the distinction between zionism and neo zionism. Zionism is legitimate he said - Jews have a right to national self determination, especially given their history. Neo-zionism - the settlements etc, is immoral. He concluded by saying that he supports the right of Palestinians to use terror against Israelis in historic Palestine. This statement was received with heckles of 'shame'.

Ghada Karmi was the final speaker. She was tremendously unpleasant in my opinion. She began by stating that she is totally confused about why this debate is even happening, and about why it was chosen - its madness to think that Israel has a right to exist. Karmi then spoke about the current situation in Gaza without electricity, and about how brutal the occupation was in general. I tried to make a point of information, to say that I'm an Israeli and I hate the occupation but that the occupation is not a necessary part of Israel's existence and how dare she speak of it as though it is. Anyway, she wouldn't take a single point of information throughout her talk. At one point she made a slip and spoke of the Jews replacing the Palestinian state, to which about a dozen people stood up to say 'point of inforamtion', to point out that in fact there was no Palestinian state, and that she was being ahistorical. When talking about the occupation, she also said that the settlers have their own roads because they cannot bear to look at Arabs. A student made a point of order, and asked the President to tell Karmi to retract her racist statment that all settlers are themselves racists. Karmi then clarified her point - something like: 'I am saying that Israel is a racist state'. Another funny point was when she looked to Finkelstein and Honderich and said 'I respect what you said a lot - you should be on our side but...' At which point myself and several others shoulted 'we know!' and got a laugh. Karmi finished her talk by ridiculing the notion of a Jewish connection to Israel, by explaining that the Jews were once canaanites, who then became Jews, many of whom then became Christians, and then became muslims. So all Palestinians are in fact the descendents of these canaanites, and have a stronger claim to the land than the Jews who left it. Karmi also likened the situation in Gaza to the Warsaw ghetto.

Phew. That's all, except to say that Honderich switched sides during Karmi's talk (there was a reason why but I cant remember it...) and that the vote went in Israel's favour, I am told, but only by 158 to 132. A friend of mine claimed to have seen Finkelstein walk out through the 'nay' door (against the motion)...but I'm treating "that claim" with a pinch of salt.

From the above it seems to me that the speakers didn't really speak to the question, either for or against; instead, they reverted to the one-state vs. two-state question, which had been the topic of the Fall debate. And that was as I predicted.

As for the question of Israel's "right to exist"....that is the subject for another post. Stay tuned.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...


I have a better topic for the Oxford Union to debate-Resolved Finkelstein and Dershowitz should take their act on the road as the latest Comedy Team.

Yours for Ron Paul...