Ox­ford’s not-so-bright stu­dents

Some think the or­gan­is­ers of Ox­ford Union’s re­cent de­bate on Is­rael were in­cred­i­bly shrewd. Not so

The Jewish Chronicle - - COMMENT&ANALYSIS - GE­OF­FREY AL­DER­MAN

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.

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