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Israel, free speech, and the Oxford Union

About the author
Avi Shlaim is a professor of international relations at the University of Oxford and the author of Israel and Palestine: Reappraisals, Revisions, Refutations (Verso, 2009).

Israel is often portrayed by its supporters as an island of democracy in a sea of authoritarianism. But these very same supporters, in their excessive zeal for their cause, sometimes end up by violating one of the most fundamental principles of democracy - the right to free speech. While accepting free speech as a universal value, all too often they try to restrict it when it comes to Israel and its treatment of the Palestinians. The result is not to encourage but to stifle debate about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Avi Shlaim is a professor of international relations at St Antony's College, Oxford.

Among his books are The Iron Wall: Israel and the Arab World (WW Norton, 1999) and (as co-editor) The War for Palestine: Rewriting the History of 1948 (Cambridge University Press, 2001). His most recent book is Lion of Jordan: the Life of King Hussein in War and Peace (Penguin, 2007)

Britain prides itself on its tradition of free speech and civilised debate on all subjects, including Israel. The great majority of British Jews are part of this tradition. Jonathan Sacks, the Chief Rabbi, is a notable example of this fair-minded, liberal, and pluralistic tradition. One of his sixteen books is called The Dignity of Difference: How to Avoid the Clash of Civilizations. On the other side of the Atlantic, on the other hand, the public debate on the subject of Israel is much more fierce and partisan, leaving relatively little space for the dignity of difference. The passion with which many prominent American Jews defend Israel betrays an atavistic attitude of "my country, right or wrong".

One example is Alan M Dershowitz, the Harvard law professor and crusader on behalf of Israel. One of his books is called The Case for Israel. As the title suggests, this is not an objective, academic treatise but a lawyer's brief for his client. The lawyer in question is no friend of free speech when it comes to criticism of Israel, however well substantiated. Recent events in Oxford suggest that those of us who thought that attempts to stifle free debate about Israel are confined to American campuses need to think again.

A debate dissolves

The Oxford Union is one of the world's most illustrious debating chambers and a bastion of free speech. It was founded in the 19th century to uphold the principle of free speech and debate in England at a time when they were being severely curtailed. Recently, however, the union failed to live up to its lofty ideals. A debate was scheduled for 23 October 2007 on the motion "This house believes that one-state is the only solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict". Ilan Pappé, Ghada Karmi and I agreed to speak for the motion; Norman G Finkelstein, the American-Jewish academic, David (Lord) Trimble, the Northern Irish politician, and Peter Tatchell, the gay-rights activist, accepted the invitation to speak against. In the end the debate took place without any of the scheduled speakers after an ugly and acrimonious, American-style row over the make-up of the panel.

Various friends of Israel complained to Luke Tryl, the president of the Oxford Union, that the debate was "unbalanced" because it included Norman G Finkelstein, a well-known critic of Israel, on the "pro-Israel" side. What they failed to grasp, or deliberately chose to ignore, was that the motion was not for or against Israel but about alternative solutions to the Israel-Palestine conflict. Professor Dershowitz was the first and the most aggressive of the protestors. He himself had been invited to speak but he replied that he would participate only if he could dictate the motion and approve the other speakers. These preposterous conditions were rejected and Dershowitz stayed away. But he did not simply sulk in his tent: that is not his style. He wrote to Tryl that it was outrageous for the union to give Finkelstein a platform but, once again, he met with a rebuff. Dershowitz then turned his polemical blunderbuss directly against Finkelstein, calling him "an anti-Semitic bigot" in an article he posted on FrontPageMag.com on 19 October 2007 under the title "Oxford Union is Dead".

Peace Now-UK co-chair Paul Usiskin not only added to the pressure on Tryl to drop Finkelstein but offered to take his place. On 14 October a small delegation of Oxford undergraduates went to see Tryl to question the inclusion of Finkelstein and Tatchell on the "pro-Israel" side and to argue that the whole debate was unbalanced. It is perfectly legitimate for members of the union to communicate their concerns to their president. But the insistence on balance in relation to an unbalanced international actor like Israel raises more questions than it answers.

openDemocracy writers analyse and argue over the cultural politics of the Israeli-Palestinian dispute:

Stephen Howe, "Israel, Palestine, and campus civil wars" (14 December 2004)

Stephen Howe, "Boycotting Israel: the uses of history" (24 April 2005)

Jacqueline Rose, "Nation as trauma, Zionism as question: an interview" (17 August 2005)

Linda Grant, "Boycotting Israel: a reply to Jacqueline Rose" (21 August 2005)

Omar Barghouti, "The morality of a cultural boycott of Israel" (20 September 2005)

Samir El-youssef, "Against boycott and its rhetoric: a reply to Omar Barghouti" (17 October 2005)

...and something different:

Bissane El-Cheikh, "Lebanon and Israel: back seat, front line" (1 August 2007)

Israel's policies towards the Palestinians surely cannot be described as balanced by any stretch of the imagination. The Biblical injunction of "an eye for an eye" is grisly enough, but Israel goes even farther by its habitual practice of exacting an eye for an eyelash! As Israel's policy towards the Palestinians becomes more heavy-handed and violent, the very notion of balance needs to be re-examined. Luke Tryl displayed neither wisdom nor courage in dealing with these broader issues and he eventually caved in to the pressure. On 19 October, four days before the debate, he curtly informed Finkelstein that his invitation was rescinded. Paul Usiskin realised his burning ambition to be included in the debate as a member of the team opposing the motion.

On 21 October I wrote to Luke Tryl: "I understand that you have been subjected to a lot of pressure recently. You have my sympathy. But perhaps it was a mistake to give in to the pressure. Some people are never satisfied. In any case, I cannot see how dropping Norman Finkelstein can be squared with the principle of free speech."

Paul Usiskin greatly inflated his own part in this sorry saga in the hopelessly distorted account he gave to the correspondent of the Jerusalem Post. He even claimed the credit for having prevailed on Tryl to drop Finkelstein, although Dershowitz has a stronger claim to this dubious distinction. Usiskin told the Post that the proposers of the one-state solution were disgruntled at his inclusion in the debate and demanded Finkelstein's re-invitation. The truth of the matter is that it was not of the slightest interest to me whether Usiskin took part in the debate or not. My only concern was with the infringement of the principle of free speech at my own university by excluding an academic expert from the debate on solutions to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The fact that Finkelstein and I were on opposite sides of the debate was irrelevant. Finally, Usiskin told the Jerusalem Post that I am a key figure in the campaign for the academic boycott of Israel. In fact, I strongly oppose the boycott because it would infringe the freedom of Israeli academics.

Démarche and diminuendo

In the two days before the debate was due to take place, all other five of the original speakers pulled out. David Trimble, not unreasonably, was fed up with all the controversy. So was I. Luke Tryl invited me to take part in the debate as far back as 11 July. Although I did not like the motion, I made no attempt to modify it out of respect for the student officers of the union. Nor did I try to influence the line-up of the speakers. Tryl left me the choice to speak either for or against the motion and I hesitantly opted to speak for. I have in fact always been a supporter of the two-state solution but I planned to argue that that since Israel is systematically destroying the basis for a genuine two-state solution by its constant expansion of Jewish settlements on the West Bank, the one-state is the only remaining alternative. These nuances were lost in the media reports and spin that came to surround the collapse of the debate.

My colleagues and I did not withdraw from the debate when we realised that we were going to lose, as our detractors told the media. Our démarche was intended as a protest against the shabby treatment of our academic colleague and the violation of the principle of free speech at the Oxford Union. Even at the eleventh hour we were still ready to rejoin the debate but only on condition that Norman G Finkelstein was re-invited. He was not re-invited, so we stayed away. The debaters on the night were the ubiquitous Paul Usiskin and five students. The motion was defeated by 191 votes to 60. Groucho Marx once said to his host: "I had a great evening but this was not it!" I feel somewhat the same way about this particular Oxford Union debate.


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