Oxford’s not-so-bright students
Some think the organisers of Oxford Union’s recent debate on Israel were incredibly shrewd. Not so
MY DAD knew nothing about higher education but a great deal about human nature. When I became the first of his offspring to go to university, he gave me one piece of very sound advice. “There’s one subject Oxford won’t teach you,” he said, “and that’s common sense.” How right he was. The Oxford Union has made a fool of itself — yet again. First it announced that it had secured the acceptance of invitations from some prominent speakers to debate the motion that “This house believes that one-state is the only solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict”. Then it withdrew the invitation to one of them (Professor Norman Finkelstein) following apparent approaches from a number of outside interests and from another speaker (Professor Alan Dershowitz of Harvard).
Then, in protest against this “disinvitation”, three other speakers (Professor Avi Shlaim of Oxford and Professor Ilan Pappé and Dr Ghada Karmi of Exeter) announced they were pulling out in sympathy with Professor Finkelstein. Gay-rights activist Peter Tatchell, who was due to speak alongside Professor Dershowitz against the motion, then announced that he, too, was withdrawing.
Lord Trimble, another pro-Israel speaker, then discovered that he was suffering from a strange disease called “diary pressure”; he too pulled out. This left the “pro-Israel” team with only Peace Now activist Paul Usiskin to lead it. He, with two others, “won” the debate by 191 votes to 60.
Well, you might say, this was an amazing stroke of good fortune. If the vote had gone the other way, the Arab media and their anti-Israeli friends would have trumpeted this news around the world.
In one sense this might not have mattered very much. After all, the Oxford Union is not a player on the geopolitical stage. On the other hand, it would have been a propaganda coup, much as the outcome of the infamous “King and Country” debate at the selfsame Union was for the appeasers of Nazi Germany in 1933.
On that occasion the Union voted down the proposition stating, in effect, that it would support a war against Nazism.
It is true, of course, that when the war came those who had voted for this motion did their patriotic duty. All the same, there is evidence that the pro-pacifist vote at the Union had some influence on Berlin, where it was certainly exploited by the Nazis for the purposes of justifying their policy of territorial expansion.
But I do not think that we can afford the luxury of self-congratulation at the outcome of the Union debate on October 23.
To begin with, the inclusion of Professor Finkelstein, who was due to speak on the so-called “pro-Israel” side (that is, against the motion), was an act of extreme stupidity on the part of the organisers of the debate. Profes- sor Finkelstein is no friend of Israel or of the Jewish people. The termination of his contract earlier this year by De Paul University in Chicago had nothing to do with his views on these matters, but everything to do with his perceived lack of collegiality and his apparent insistence on personalising academic disputes — as the letter of termination made clear.
It is a fact, however, that the very high-profile part taken by Professor Dershowitz in the controversy about Professor Finkelstein’s tenure has marked out these two gentlemen as sworn enemies. No one with an ounce of common sense would have included them as “team-mates” in any debate on anything.
The “one-state” solution that the wording of the Oxford Union motion referred to is tantamount to the destruction of Israel as a Jewish state. So the inclusion of Professor Pappé and Dr Karmi as proponents of the motion was understandable enough.
But why ask Professor Shlaim to join them? By his own admission (in a letter to The Jerusalem Post, October 29), Professor Shlaim’s preferred alternative is the so-called “two-state solution”. His agreement to speak for the motion was, it seems, merely a device, stratagem to permit him to argue that “Israel is systematically destroying the basis for a genuine two-state solution.”
Some correspondents have urged me to regard the framers of the debate as clever people, who shrewdly set up one group of self-publicists against another. I am afraid I do not accept this analysis. The entire episode smacks only of stupidity and crassness, which I do not expect of students admitted to study at one of the world’s great centres of learning.